Italy's interior minister faces political storm over Kazakh expulsion

ROME Mon Jul 15, 2013 4:51pm BST

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ROME (Reuters) - Italy's main opposition parties called on Monday for the resignation of the deputy head of Italy's fragile ruling coalition over the expulsion of the wife and daughter of dissident Kazakh oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov.

Both the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and the smaller Left Ecology Freedom party filed a motion of no confidence in Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, who also serves as deputy premier, rejecting the government's claim that the deportation took place without the knowledge of ministers.

"The interior ministry could not be unaware and if it was, it means that there is a parallel police force in our country which is acting on its own authority," the 5-Star Movement's lower house leader Riccardo Nuti said in a statement.

The incident, in which Ablyazov's wife Anna Shalabayeva and their six year-old daughter Alua were deported after a midnight raid on their house in the suburbs of Rome on May 29, has compounded the headaches of Prime Minister Enrico Letta.

He was already struggling to contain coalition tensions between Alfano's centre-right People of Freedom (PDL) and his own centre-left Democratic Party (PD) and now faces a potentially damaging showdown in parliament, even though Alfano's opponents may not have enough votes to oust him.

Alfano, who cancelled a speaking engagement on Monday, is due to address parliament on the issue on Thursday.

Italian newspapers said at least four senior officials, including Alfano's own chief of staff could be sacked over the incident, but the left-leaning La Repubblica said Alfano, the PDL party secretary and a key lieutenant of centre-right leader Silvio Berlusconi, had to go himself.

"A minister who doesn't know about an operation of this kind and is not in control of the police is both responsible for everything and good for nothing: he should resign," the left-leaning newspaper said in a front-page editorial.

In a statement on Friday, Letta's government criticised the handling of the operation and said ministers had not been informed. It withdrew the deportation order and said Shalabayeva was free to return to Italy and promised a full investigation.

Members of Alfano's People of Freedom party rejected the call to resign, saying La Repubblica was trying to bring down the government only months after deadlocked national elections in February which forced the creation of the uneasy coalition.

The PD, wary about exacerbating problems for Letta, has been more circumspect but Dario Nardelli, a senior deputy, said "it is in Alfano's interest to clear up this situation".

ECONOMIC INTERESTS

Italy has major economic interests in Kazakhstan, including energy group Eni's stake in the giant Kashagan oil field. The case has also highlighted the close relations between Berlusconi's former government, in which Alfano served as justice minister, and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has dominated the huge, oil-rich state for over two decades.

On Monday, Berlusconi, whose own legal problems have already stoked coalition tensions, denied a report in the Unione Sarda newspaper that he had met Nazarbayev in Sardinia to discuss the case on July 6.

Letta has pledged to continue investigations into the deportation of Shalabayeva, who was hustled onto a private plane to Kazakhstan despite having a valid Latvian residence permit enabling her to stay in the European Union.

Ablyazov, a banker and ex-energy minister turned bitter critic of Nazarbayev, fled Kazakhstan after his bank BTA was declared insolvent and nationalised in 2009.

He was not present when Italian police raided the couple's Rome villa at around midnight of May 28-29 and has accused the Kazakh government of arranging for the "kidnap" of his family.

According to a statement from Shalabayeva, published on the Financial Times's website through her lawyer, the raid was conducted with little sign of normal legal process.

The statement, translated from Russian, said some 50 people, not in official uniform, broke in and subjected her and her family to various forms of rough treatment. Her brother-in-law Bolat was beaten and left with a red and swollen eye, cut lip and bleeding nose and she herself feared for her life, it said.

She was put on a private plane for Kazakhstan despite having valid papers and having requested political asylum, it said.

In an interview with La Repubblica on Monday, Shalabayeva's eldest daughter Madina said her mother had been made a "hostage" of the government, which has been severely criticised for its treatment of political opponents by groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

"The possibilities open to my father's enemies are unlimited as this extraordinary expulsion proves once again," she said.

The Italian government has asked Kazakhstan to safeguard Shalabayeva's rights but Kazakh authorities say she will not be able to leave pending an investigation into allegations she illegally obtained passports for relatives of Ablyazov.

(Additional reporting by Paolo Biondi)

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