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Ex-Ukrainian PM Reportedly Freed From U.S. Prison

  • Richard Solash

Pavlo Lazarenko in a 1997 photograph

Pavlo Lazarenko in a 1997 photograph

Ukrainian former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko has reportedly been freed from U.S. federal prison in California after serving more than eight years behind bars.

A prison employee was quoted as saying Lazarenko left the the Terminal Island correctional facility in Los Angeles early Thursday.

No comment from Lazarenko was immediately available.

Prime minister from 1996 to 1997 under President Leonid Kuchma, Lazarenko amassed a personal fortune while advising on the privatization of the country's lucrative natural gas sector. After falling out of favor with the president and amid a probe of his business dealings, Lazarenko fled to the United States in 1999.

He was found guilty of money laundering through U.S. banks, wire fraud, and extortion in 2004. In the same year, he was ranked by the watchdog group Transparency International as the eighth most-corrupt official in the world.

Several of the charges were later dropped on appeal.

A central charge that was not dropped, however, was that Lazarenko had extorted Ukrainian businessman Peter Kiritchenko of $30 million before the two laundered the proceeds in several international accounts, including the United States.

According to the indictment, Lazarenko concealed some of the money through a shell company and used the funds to purchase a mansion in a swanky San Francisco Bay-area neighborhood.

'He Would Have Been Acquitted'

Horowitz claimed that he could have cleared Lazarenko's name had he been able to gather evidence in Ukraine.

"I was on my way to go to Ukraine to meet [witnesses] and get the evidence when we got credible information that there was going to be an attempt on my life. The trip was canceled," Horowitz said. "Had I been able to go there and bring back the evidence, some of which I have in my hand now, he would have been acquitted of those charges."

He said that the former prime minister spent much of his time behind bars working on a plan to help his country.

"He has been working on an economic plan during his time in U.S. custody that, if implemented in Ukraine, would modernize the economy, would normalize the economic relationships between Ukraine and Europe and the United States, and end Ukraine's dependency on primary materials, whether it's gas or mining operations -- things where there's very little profit," he said.

If released, Lazarenko's future remains uncertain. He is wanted in Ukraine on charges including money laundering and embezzlement and for alleged involvement in several high-profile murders, including the 1996 killing of politician Yevhen Shcherban.

Lazarenko was himself the apparent target of a bomb explosion in the same year.

Dangerous To Return

Horowitz said he is arguing that it is not safe for his client, who does not hold any permanent U.S. papers, to return to his home country.

"There were numerous assassination attempts before he left Ukraine, which is why he originally left, and we believe that if he went back, he would likely either be killed or potentially tortured," Horowitz said. "There are a million ways [Lazarenko] could stay here if the United States government feels it's the right thing to do."

Washington and Kyiv do not have an extradition treaty.

Lazarenko is also a former ally of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is currently jailed in Ukraine on charges that the West has described as politically motivated.

"If you look at Hillary Clinton's statements about Tymoshenko," Horowitz said, "the U.S. is not going to feed anybody from the country to Ukraine without looking very carefully at why they want them."

The Ukrainian Embassy in Washington declined to comment on Lazarenko's possible release.

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