- The Washington Times - Friday, May 16, 2003

ALMATY, Kazakhstan (Agence France-Presse) — A former energy minister and opposition leader who has been pardoned and released from prison in a case widely considered to be politically motivated promised this week to stay out of politics in the future.

Mukhtar Ablyazov, 39, told reporters here in the country’s Soviet-era capital, now the No. 2 city, that he had become critical of the opposition Democratic Choice Party, which he helped found, because its “activity is reduced to pure criticism and appeals to the West.”

Mr. Ablyazov was released from prison on Tuesday after serving a little over one year of his six-year sentence for abuse of power and illegal business activity — a case that raised concern internationally about President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s authoritarian rule.

The conviction was strongly criticized at the time by U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, who said that it appeared “to be part of the campaign to selectively target political opponents” of Mr. Nazarbayev.

Mr. Ablyazov insisted that he had not struck a deal to abstain from politics as the price of his freedom.

“No pressure, psychological or any other, was applied … . I intend to return to business, so I will concentrate on that,” he said.

The former minister for energy, trade and industry was convicted last July by this ex-Soviet country’s top court and ordered to pay $3.6 million to the national electricity company KEGOC, which he once headed.

He was accused of illegally wiping off the debts of the Kostanaiasbest company, causing losses to KEGOC.

During his trial, Mr. Ablyazov insisted that the case was concocted to silence him after he helped found Democratic Choice in late 2001.

Last month, Mr. Ablyazov’s attorney submitted a formal appeal to Mr. Nazarbayev for clemency, telling journalists the appeal contained no admission of guilt.

Democratic Choice, meanwhile, has charged that the squeeze on opposition political groups continues, announcing on Tuesday that a party activist and his mother had been held by police in the northern city of Petropavlovsk for distributing leaflets.

The party has continued to call for the release of Galymnzhan Zhakiyanov, another of its founders.

Mr. Ablyazov’s pardon comes after U.S. federal prosecutors indicted two bankers on charges of passing bribes to senior Kazakh officials amid persistent allegations of Mr. Nazarbayev’s involvement in bribe-taking.

Mr. Nazarbayev has ruled this oil- and gas-rich Central Asian republic since before the breakup of the Soviet Union, of which it was a constituent republic.

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