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Kazakhstan outlaws exiled banker's political movement

FILE PHOTO - Dissident Kazakh oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov is seen in Almaty in this November 27, 2006 file photo. REUTERS/Vladimir Tretyakov

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ALMATY (Reuters) - Kazakhstan has effectively outlawed a political movement created online by an exiled opponent of Nursultan Nazarbayev, after it called for street protests against the country's long-term president.

Mukhtar Ablyazov, a former chairman of Kazakhstan's biggest bank who now lives in France, has attacked Nazarbayev via Facebook and other social networks, and used the same platforms to recruit supporters inside the oil-rich Central Asian nation.

A Kazakh court ruled on Tuesday that his political movement, Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK), is extremist, meaning its supporters are considered criminals, the prosecutor general's office said in a statement.

The movement says it has a membership of around 80,000, predominantly inside Kazakhstan.

Nazarbayev, who has run the former Soviet republic since 1989 and routinely wins elections with more than 90 percent of the vote, appointed Ablyazov energy minister in the 1990s, but their relations soured in the 2000s.

Kazakhstan authorities say the exiled businessman instigated and bankrolled a series of protests across the country in 2016 that forced Nazarbayev to delay an unpopular land ownership reform.

They also accuse Ablyazov, who a French court ruled against extraditing in 2016, of embezzling billions of dollars from BTA, the bank he used to run. Kazakhstan has indicated it may also press charges of murder against him.

Ablyazov, who has denied any wrongdoing, did not reply to a request for comment on Tuesday.

DVK responded to the court ruling by urging its supporters to protect their anonymity online.

(Reporting by Mariya Gordeyeva; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; editing by John Stonestreet)

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