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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kazakh Opposition Leader Arrested

ROME -- Kazakhstan's leading opposition figure and former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin has been arrested in Italy on an international warrant, Italian police said Friday.

A spokesman said Kazhegeldin was detained at Rome's Fiumicino Airport Wednesday morning and was being held awaiting an extradition request. He declined to say where the former prime minister was being held.

Kazhegeldin says he is willing to answer the charges against him but fears for his life if he returns home, according to a spokesman.

"It is important to stress that there is believed to be grave danger to his life if he is forced to return to Kazakhstan under these circumstances," his spokesman's statement said.

In Kazakhstan, opposition parties attacked the detention, saying President Nursultan Nazarbayev was using the international police to silence his main critic and political opponent.

Kazakhstan's KNB intelligence service said it had no details and the country's Prosecutor General's Office declined comment.

Opposition parties said the charges against Kazhegeldin were an attempt to deflect criticism from reports of a U.S. corruption probe that implicates Nazarbayev.

In its July 10 issue, Newsweek reported the U.S. Justice Department was looking into whether U.S. businessman and official counselor to Nazarbayev, James Giffen, may have violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act as well as racketeering statutes. Newsweek reported that the FBI is looking into alleged payments of up to $65 million in bribes to top Kazakh officials, including Nazarbayev.

Kazakh officials have said the businessman broke no Kazakh laws.

"The powers-that-be want to draw away attention from the so-called Kazakhgate and focus it somewhere else," said Bigeldy Gabdullin, deputy head of Kazhegeldin's Republican People's National Party.

"They wish to distract everyone from the scandal that is unfolding on the international arena," he told a news briefing.

Kazhegeldin was prime minister from 1994-97 but ran afoul of Kazakh authorities in late 1998 when he tried to run against Nazarbayev in a January 1999 presidential election.

Kazhegeldin was barred from the poll on a legal technicality. Nazarbayev won the vote easily, but the decision to exclude Kazhegeldin badly tarnished the country's democratic image, an image that has grown steadily worse since.

The government later opened criminal proceedings against Kazhegeldin, saying it was part of an anti-corruption drive aimed at bringing to justice those who used their official positions to line their own pockets.

Kazhegeldin is now wanted in Kazakhstan on charges of tax evasion and money laundering, as well as questions related to property ownership in Belgium and Switzerland.

He went into self-imposed exile in 1998 and was briefly detained by Russian authorities in Moscow last fall.

A statement from Kazhegeldin's spokesman in the United States said lawyers had been told there was an Interpol instruction to arrest him.

Gabdullin said a charge of "international terrorism" had been added to the list of accusations. Kazhegeldin has denied the charges against him and said they were politically based.