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Ukrainian tycoons Ihor Kolomoyskiy (left) and Hennadiy Boholyubov (composite file photo)

Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Bureau has arrested the former deputy chairman of a Ukrainian bank at the heart of an FBI criminal investigation as he attempted to fly abroad in the latest sign Kyiv is taking steps to tackle corruption and lawlessness.

Volodymyr Yatsenko was detained at Boryspil Airport in Kyiv on February 22 after investigators forced the pilot of the private jet he was traveling on to land, the bureau announced in a tweet.

Yatsenko, who was on his way to Vienna after reportedly being tipped off about his arrest, was charged with the embezzlement of funds at PrivatBank, once the nation’s largest lender.

More arrests of management could follow, the Kyiv Post reported.

The FBI is investigating the two owners of PrivatBank -- Ihor Kolomoyskiy and Hennadiy Boholyubov -- in connection with accusations that more than $5 billion was stolen from the lender through fraudulent loans and that the money was then laundered.

In a move that made international headlines, Ukraine was forced to nationalize PrivatBank in 2016 and pump more than $5 billion into the lender in order to stave off its bankruptcy.

The United States accuses Kolomoyskiy and Boholyuobov of using some of the laundered proceeds to buy assets in the United States ranging from metals companies to commercial properties with the help of two American associates based in Miami.

The Justice Department last year filed three civil forfeiture lawsuits in a Florida court against a U.S. real estate holding controlled by the two tycoons and run by the associates.

However, a judge agreed last week with a Justice Department request to temporarily suspend the civil forfeiture proceedings amid concerns it could harm the criminal investigation against the Ukrainian businessmen and their two American partners.

“Allowing [the tycoons] to conduct discovery would expose the identities of witnesses who have provided and will provide information and testimony in both the civil forfeiture actions and the criminal investigation,” the Justice Department said in its February 19 filing.

“If that occurs, the confidential informants may cease providing information, and, to the extent they are not reachable through process in the United States, they may make themselves unavailable for future testimony. Potential sources of information who have not yet been interviewed by the government would likely be deterred from coming forward.”

The tycoons deny the accusations and neither Ukraine nor the United States has filed criminal charges against them.

Kolomoyskiy is one of the most influential tycoons in Ukraine and the U.S. government’s investigation into his activities is being closely followed.

The billionaire owns key media, energy, and metals assets and is believed to have outsized influence over the administration of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Kolomoyskiy’s TV stations backed Zelenskiy’s successful presidential bid.

The United States, one of Ukraine’s biggest backers financially and militarily, has repeatedly expressed concern about oligarchic influence over the nation’s government and economy.

Washington has also complained about the lack of investigations into corrupt tycoons and officials and has tied some aid to improvements in judicial reform.

The arrest of Yatsenko, who was flying on a private plane owned by Kolomoyskiy, is the latest in a series of moves by Kyiv to tackle cases that resonate with the United States.

Zelenskiy last week approved sanctions on Viktor Medvedchuk, a tycoon and lawmaker with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Medvedchuk was sanctioned by the United States in 2014 for undermining democracy in Ukraine.

On February 2, Zelenskiy sanctioned three television stations believed to be owned by Medvedchuk. In late January he announced an investigation into Ukrainian individuals accused of interfering in the 2020 U.S. presidential elections.

The moves come after President Joe Biden was inaugurated on January 20. Biden knows Ukraine well, having served as the point man to Kyiv while serving as vice president from 2009 to 2017.

Political analysts say Zelenskiy is seeking to win over the Biden administration after a difficult relationship with the Trump administration caused by the 2019 impeachment investigation.

The protest near the Chinese Consulate in Almaty

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- About a dozen people, mainly women, have picketed the Chinese Consulate in Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, to continue to push their demands for the release of relatives held in China's northwestern region of Xinjiang.

The demonstrators on February 22 held pictures of their relatives detained in China and large posters with slogans urging the Chinese government to "end genocide" and release all "innocent people from reeducation camps" in Xinjiang.

"I came here to demand the immediate release of my younger brother, Qalypbek Babam.... He was arrested after he publicly performed a verse called Kazakhs' Sorrow in 2019 and has been held incommunicado ever since. Authorities in Xinjiang have not given any information about the charges against my brother, while his trial has yet to be held. I am deeply concerned for his life," one of the protesters, Kumisqan Babam, told RFE/RL.

Another protester, Gulnur Qosdauletqyzy, told RFE/RL that she and some other protesters have been picketing the consulate almost daily for more than two weeks, but no Chinese Consulate officials have come out of the building to meet with them.

Over the weekend, one of the protesters, Baibolat Kunbolatuly, was released from a detention center in Almaty after he served a 10-day prison term he received for "violating the law on mass gatherings" after picketing the consulate earlier.

In recent years, many similar protests have taken place in Kazakhstan, with demonstrators demanding Kazakh authorities officially intervene in the situation faced by ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang.

The U.S. State Department has said as many as 2 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and members of Xinjiang's other indigenous, mostly Muslim, ethnic groups have been taken to detention centers.

China denies that the facilities are internment camps.

People who have fled the province say that thousands of ethnic Kazakhs, Uyghurs, and other Muslims in Xinjiang are undergoing "political indoctrination" at a network of facilities known officially as reeducation camps.

Kazakhs are the second-largest Turkic-speaking indigenous community in Xinjiang after Uyghurs. The region is also home to ethnic Kyrgyz, Tajiks, and Hui, also known as Dungans. Han, China's largest ethnicity, is the second-largest community in Xinjiang.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.


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