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The conditions that belugas and orcas were being kept in have been described as a "whale prison" by Russian media. (file photo)

Russian news agencies say authorities have filed criminal charges against the owners of four companies in the Pacific region of Primorye for holding dozens of captive whales in shoddy and cramped conditions.

The case had sparked outrage in Russia and criticism from President Vladimir Putin when images of the captive whales, which included orcas and belugas, were published last year.

Russian media have called the conditions a "whale prison."

The RIA-Novosti and TASS news agencies said February 28 that the Federal Security Service had accused the owners of violating federal fishing laws, and ordered the animals released.

People take part in a protest in Moscow last week demanding the release of beluga and orca whales in Russia’s Far East.
People take part in a protest in Moscow last week demanding the release of beluga and orca whales in Russia’s Far East.

"An examination showed that the animals were kept in unsatisfactory conditions, and must be released into their natural habitat," TASS quoted the service as saying.

The whales were destined for sale in aquariums abroad.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said last week that Putin had personally gotten involved in the issue. Peskov also noted that Russia allows catching whales for scientific purposes.

The issue had drawn international attention as well, with a online petition to release the whales, circulating on social media.

Actor Leonardo DiCaprio was among celebrities who had shared the petition, which has gathered more than 900,000 signatures.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (file photo)

KYIV -- Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has proposed fresh legislation to fight corruption, a day after the country's Constitutional Court threw out a previous anti-graft law -- a move that raised concerns the country is backtracking in the battle against corruption.

Poroshenko's proposal comes as he trails in opinion polls on Ukraine's March 31 presidential election.

Poroshenko is running for a second term, but his record on fighting corruption is a topic of debate -- with opposition lawmakers calling for his impeachment over graft allegations involving a close ally.

Ukraine in 2015 passed a law criminalizing illicit enrichment in 2015 as a condition of receiving bailout loans from the International Monetary Fund and for the European Union to grant visa-free travel to Ukrainian citizens.

But the Constitutional Court on February 27 overturned the law on grounds that it contravened the presumption of innocence.

"This morning I have signed, and now I am commissioning to register, a presidential bill which takes into account the remarks but preserves the key position -- the inevitability of criminal punishment for illicit enrichment," Poroshenko said on February 28.

The Constitutional Court's decision was denounced by a Ukrainian law enforcement agency as a "step back" in the fight against corruption.

The National Anticorruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) said in a statement that the Constitutional Court’s ruling was "politically motivated and contradicts Ukraine's obligations on the ratified UN Convention against Corruption [and] its agreements with the International Monetary Fund and the European Union."

The agency said that about 65 corruption cases it is currently investigating and involving some $20 million will now be closed.

The court's ruling came two days after an investigative group in Ukraine made public the results of its investigation alleging that individuals close to President Petro Poroshenko's associates illegally enriched themselves by smuggling spare parts of military equipment from Russia.

One of the major presidential candidates, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, announced on February 26 that her Batkivshchyna party and other political parties had started a process for Poroshenko's impeachment.

Poroshenko said on February 27 that he will instruct his government to draft new legislation to punish corrupt officials and that the text will be submitted to parliament as soon as possible.

Western officials say corruption hurts Ukraine's chances of throwing off the influence of Russia, which seized the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and backs separatists whose war with Kyiv has killed about 13,000 people in eastern Ukraine.

With reporting by AP and Reuters

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