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Ex-Centerra CEO put under house arrest again

Former Centerra Gold CEO Len Homeniuk is seen in this file photo.

NORM BETTS/BLOOMBERG NEWS

Former Centerra Gold Inc. chief executive officer Len Homeniuk hasn't been extradited from Bulgaria to Kyrgyzstan, but he can't go home to California either. Instead, he's back under house arrest for at least another month in Sofia after Kyrgyzstan failed to produce enough evidence to secure his extradition at a hearing Thursday.

"I guess I'm pleased in the sense that the court hearing wasn't a carte blanche for them to send me to Kyrgyzstan," Mr. Homeniuk said. "The Bulgarians are at least going through the process. I'm encouraged by that."

Bulgarian authorities adjourned an extradition hearing on Thursday and gave Kyrgyzstan until Sept. 10 to produce additional evidence. Another hearing is slated for Sept. 16.

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Mr. Homeniuk, who is a dual Canadian-American citizen, was first detained in Bulgaria late July at the request of Kyrgyzstani officials while on a holiday cruise along the Danube river with his family. The detainment was related to a long-running conflict between Toronto-based Centerra and the Kyrgyzstani government over the company's Kumtor mine in the country and alleged transactions made in 2003 when Centerra was restructuring as an independent company from Saskatoon-based uranium giant Cameco Corp. and Mr. Homeniuk was CEO.

Kyrgyzstan placed Mr. Homeniuk on Interpol's wanted list for "involvement in corruption" last year, which Mr. Homeniuk learned of in December, when he was stopped by authorities in Russia, informed of the issue, and then let go. He appealed the Interpol notice, which was accepted and meant to be reviewed in September.

"The [Bulgarian] court said the Kyrgyz didn't provide enough information to proceed with a substantive hearing this time," said Marina Stephens, Mr. Homeniuk's wife, a lawyer by training. "Usually extradition requests are hundreds of pages of full disclosure and legal background. This was all together 50 pages, basically the same documents they had already been sending."

Mr. Homeniuk is now back in an apartment in Sofia while he waits. "The Bulgarian police check on me randomly twice a day to make sure I'm there [in the apartment]," he said. "I don't have much freedom. The only exercise I can get is walking from the living room to the kitchen."

At Thursday's extradition hearing, accusations of conspiracy were raised, according to Mr. Homeniuk. "They are saying that there was a conspiracy between me and the Kyrgyz prime minister and others at the time and collusion to put together a deal that favoured Cameco," Mr. Homeniuk said. "It is completely untrue and false. Everything we did had been vetted by an army of lawyers in the U.S. and Canada and the Kyrgyz had their own independent counsel."

"The interesting thing is they've dismissed all the charges against the Kyrgyz individuals involved. I'm the only one left," he added.

The Kumtor mine, Centerra's sole property in the country, has long been at the centre of controversy in Kyrgyzstan, sparking citizen protests and government scandals over its environmental impact and calls for its nationalization. The country itself has experienced multiple government coups and leadership changes over the past decade, with the most recent in April, 2014, also involving corruption charges.

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Mr. Homeniuk's situation highlights the risks of doing business in developing economies whose laws and operating environment are uncertain and unstable. "This is completely a politically motivated type of charge mainly to do with the dealings of Centerra and their negotiations in the Kyrgyz Republic," said Mr. Homeniuk, who left the company as CEO in 2008. Centerra is currently in discussions with the Kyrgyzstani government over the ownership of the mine.

Both Canadian and American consular officials were present at the hearing, and according to Marina Stephens, Mr. Homeniuk's wife and a lawyer by training, the officials have been working closely to support Mr. Homeniuk.

"The support escalated hugely in the last two weeks and I'm so appreciative of what they are doing, not just for Len but also for me," said Ms. Stephens, who came down with pneumonia shortly after her husband was arrested. "But I'm concerned about health issues for Len. He's coughing now and I'm worried he'll have the same thing. The Canadian consul was very upset about the fact that we can't get him proper medical attention."

Even with no delays, it will be at least another month before a decision is made. "The court isn't limited to a time frame so they could drag this out for as long as they want, but my expectation is that there will be a ruling and hopefully it will be a rational one that says no extradition is possible," Mrs. Stephens said.

Back home, Mr. Homeniuk's two daughters have been campaigning on social media and running a website that provides an updated timeline of events to bring attention to his case.

"We are looking forward to the end of this," Mr. Homeniuk said. "The Kyrgyz human rights record is extraordinarily poor, and I don't think there's any way I'll get a fair trial there," he said.

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