Fifty plainclothes Italian special agents raided a villa on the outskirts of Rome on May 29 and absconded with Alma Shalabayeva and her 6-year old daughter, Alua. Two days later, after uncharacteristically swift legal proceedings, mother and daughter were whisked away to Kazakhstan, a resource-rich former Soviet state in Central Asia.
While Shalabayeva and her daughter are Kazakh citizens, both had European Union residence permits, issued by Latvia, allowing them to stay anywhere in the E.U. Italy has an estimated 440,000 illegal immigrants, many of whom are presumably more dangerous than Shalabayeva and whose cases typically take some time to resolve. So why would the Italian government single out a 47-year-old mother and her child, neither of whom had a criminal record, and so rapidly put them on a private jet to the one country where they should never have been sent?
The answer lies in the fact that Shalabayeva is the wife of Mukhtar Ablyazov, a former minister in the regime of Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has ruled Kazakhstan since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. After falling out with Nazarbayev, Ablyazov started an opposition political movement in 2001. He was jailed in 2002, after the regime accused him of financial crimes and abusing his office. Amnesty International declared that year that Ablyazov, who had reportedly been beaten and denied access to legal counsel, was “apparently targeted because of [his] peaceful opposition activities.” After his release, Ablyazov headed a bank and spent millions of dollars funding opposition groups. In 2009, the Kazakh regime nationalized the bank and accused Ablyazov of embezzling billions. Ablyazov fled — one of dozens of former Kazakh officials who have left the country after running afoul of Nazarbayev — and was grantedasylum in Britain in 2011.
While the Kazakh government pursued Ablyazov in the British courts, fighting over who was at fault for the bank’s losses after nationalization, London’s Metropolitan Police informed Ablyazov that he was the target of an assassination plot. Fearing for his life, Ablyazov went into hiding last year. He denies all the charges against him and continues to push for change in Kazakhstan.
Whatever Ablayzov’s legal predicament, the treatment meted out to his wife and daughter represents an extraordinary breach of international standards regarding refugees and others seeking political asylum. Under E.U. law, member states are forbidden to deport or extradite people to countries where they may be tortured or persecuted, a likely prospect in this case. The E.U. parliament passed a resolution this spring criticizing the abysmal human rights record of Kazakhstan, where independent media are shut down, opposition figures are harassed and assassinated and striking workers have been killed on picket lines.
The Kazakh government alleges that Shalabayeva and her daughter were in possession of unlawfully obtained passports, something Shalabayeva denies. It announced June 7 that Shalabayeva had been convicted and sentenced — a claim it retracted hours later. The Kazakh regime’s legal “case” against Shalabayeva is a farce, intended to harass one of its most vocal critics.
Equally disturbing are the speed with which Shalabayeva and her daughter were sent to Kazakhstan and the opaque proceedings against them, which suggest that Italian authorities colluded with the Kazakh regime. The Italian government has extensive energy interests in Kazakhstan, primarily through the conglomerate Eni, in which it has a 30 percent stake. Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano is a political heir to Silvio Berlusconi, who as prime minister enjoyed a warm relationship with Nazarbayev, stating in 2010 that the Kazakh dictator was “absolutely, justifiably loved by his nation.” This month, Alfano survived a no-confidence vote in the Italian Senate last week over the deportation, which Prime Minister Enrico Letta said had brought “embarrassment and disrepute” to their country.
Romes’s actions violate numerous Italian, European and international laws. In particular, the treatment of Shalabayeva runs contrary to the “non-refoulement” principle of the U.N. Convention Against Torture, which prohibits signatories from sending a person to a state “where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.” The executive committee of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has said that this rule applies to anyone at risk of being persecuted in their home country, not just individuals formally recognized as refugees. Given human rights groups’ routine criticism of Kazakhstan for its use of torture, there is good reason to believe that Shalabayeva and her daughter are at risk of serious harm.
Beyond the plight of a Kazakh oligarch and his family, the Italian government’s behavior sets a chilling precedent. What prevents any dissident in Europe from being snatched at the request of a dictator thousands of miles away? Now, apparently, dissidents’ relatives are vulnerable to being framed on trumped-up charges. The Iranian assassination of Kurdish dissidents at Berlin’s Mykonos restaurant in 1992 and the poisoning of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006 underscore that authoritarian regimes have never considered international borders an obstacle to silencing opponents. What’s new is that a Western democracy would collude in such shameful behavior.
James Kirchick is a Berlin-based fellow with the Foreign Policy Initiative.