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Former Canadian mining CEO freed in Bulgaria; court rejects extradition request

TORONTO – A Canadian former mining executive detained in Bulgaria for more than 10 weeks said he’s relieved to be free after a judge refused Kyrgyzstan’s request to extradite him.

The court ruled Wednesday that Kyrgyzstan had not provided enough legal justification for Bulgaria to hand over Leonard Homeniuk, former CEO of Centerra Gold (TSX:CG).

Homeniuk said Wednesday’s decision to set him free confirmed his belief that justice would prevail after he was taken into custody on July 27 under an international arrest warrant issued by Kyrgyzstan.

“My wife and I have been living under this black cloud over our head as to what could happen,” he said.

“It (being freed) happened, it just took longer than I thought it should,” he added.

The Interpol red notice, indicating an individual is wanted for extradition, says Homeniuk is wanted on corruption charges.

Homeniuk has described the allegations as baseless, saying they are politically motivated.

His former company, Centerra, runs the massive Kumtor gold mine in Kyrgyzstan and has been embroiled in contentious negotiations with the government over a revenue-splitting deal.

Homeniuk has said the charges are an attempt to pressure the company into signing a deal that favours the Kyrgyz government, adding Wednesday that he was pleasantly surprised to hear that Bulgarian prosecutors broadly agree with his assertion that the charges had no legal basis.

The 68-year-old Homeniuk, who stepped down as chief executive of Toronto-based Centerra in 2008, spent more than six weeks under house arrest before being granted bail Sept. 16. His extradition hearing was delayed a number of times to give Kyrgyzstan more time to submit documents supporting the corruption charges.

“They didn’t supply them because they didn’t have them,” he said.

“They made the whole thing up in the first place.”

Kyrgyzstan will have seven days to appeal the verdict, Homeniuk said, and the Bulgarian authorities told him it may take a few days after that for his bail conditions to be dropped and his passport to be returned. He expects to be a free man by Oct. 19.

Centerra was spun off from Saskatchewan-based uranium miner Cameco Corp. in 2004 to run the Kumtor project, with Homeniuk at the helm. Since then, the central Asian republic has undergone multiple bloody regime changes, and Homeniuk has said the latest government is simply trying to negotiate a better deal than the one signed by its predecessors.

Now, Homeniuk said, he hopes to clear his name completely and get the Interpol notice cancelled. He said his lawyers have yet to hear back from the organization about an appeal they made to have the order rescinded.

The whole experience shows how the Interpol warrant system needs reform, Homeniuk said.

As a former CEO he had the resources and the connections to fight the charges, he said, yet the same situation could be devastating for someone else unjustly accused by a foreign government.

“We’re going to spend some time in the future to see if we can remove this fog from the Interpol red notices as they’re clearly abused,” he said.

Homeniuk’s wife and one of his stepdaughters were in the courtroom as the decision was read and he said they celebrated afterwards with a quiet family dinner.

“We couldn’t be more pleased. . . freedom has become a very important word for us.”

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