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Thursday 23 May 2019

Former Russian minister Mikhail Abyzov (left) is escorted to a court in Moscow on May 23.

Mikhail Abyzov, a former Russian government minister arrested on charges of embezzling $62 million, was facing possible additional drug-related charges on May 23 after authorities announced that they found narcotics in his Moscow apartment.

An investigator in the case against Abyzov, the former Minister for Open Government Affairs, said at a Moscow court hearing on May 23 that tests have confirmed a substance found in Abyzov’s apartment was an illegal narcotic.

The investigator did not elaborate about the type of substance or the amount that police from Russia's Investigative Committee say they found.

Abyzov's attorney Aleksandr Asnis said the investigators did not mention that Abyzov's fingerprints were not found on a plastic bag containing the substance or that Abyzov was not present when his apartment was searched.

"The investigation's statement that drugs were found in Abyzov's apartment is an attempt to damage our client’s reputation," Asnis said. "This finding doesn't prove anything."

Abyzov’s arrest in late March came as a surprise to Russian political observers.

Some view his case as a warning by Russian security and intelligence agencies to reformist politicians who are linked to former President Dmitry Medvedev.

Abyzov, who had been a minister in Medvedev's cabinet from 2012 to 2018, has pleaded not guilty to all the charges against him. His May 23 court hearing was considering his appeal against his pretrial detention on charges of fraud, embezzlement, and creating an organized criminal group.

The court has yet to announce its ruling on Abyzov's appeal.

The Investigative Committee charged earlier that Abyzov set up a criminal group in 2011 that eventually embezzled 4 billion rubles (about $62 million) from the Siberian Energy Company and Regional Electric Grid in Novosibirsk.

It has charged that Abyzov and five accomplices stole the money and transferred the funds abroad.

Belarus-born Abyzov served as a cabinet minister between 2012 and 2018. Medvedev served as Russian president between 2008 and 2012 and returned to become prime minister after Putin resumed the presidency in 2012.

As the Minister for Open Government Affairs, Abyzov was responsible for ensuring that the Russian government is transparent and accountable.

Abyzov has also held several executive positions at Russian energy firms since the mid-1990s, including a role on the board of directors at the electric power holding company RAO UES.

In 2017, anticorruption activist Aleksei Navalny reported that Abyzov owned a mansion in Italy worth about $11.7 million. Navalny also reported that Abyzov had amassed his wealth through his energy sector connections in Novosibirsk.

Abyzov is one of several liberal-leaning former or current Russian government officials who have been targeted by criminal investigations in recent years.

The 2016 arrest of the economy minister, Aleksei Ulyukayev, was also interpreted as a move by hard-line factions in Russian political circles -- specifically, the head of the state-oil company Rosneft Igor Sechin -- against liberal factions.

Ulyukayev was sentenced in 2017 to eight years in prison.

With reporting by RIA Novosti, TASS, and Interfax
Dennis Christensen is escorted into a courtroom to hear his verdict in the town of Oryol on February 6.

A court in Russia on May 23 ruled to uphold a six-year prison sentence for a Danish adherent of the banned Jehovah’s Witnesses, a decision condemned by Amnesty International.

Dennis Christensen was detained in May 2017 in Oryol, some 320 kilometers south of Moscow.

A Russian court in February sentenced him to six years in prison in a case condemned both in Russia and abroad.

Russia banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2017, declaring the group an “extremist organization.”

A court in Oryol on May 23 ruled on his appeal.

"The three-judge panel denied the appeal and upheld the six-year sentence he received in February," Jehovah's Witnesses spokesman Jarrod Lopes said in a statement.

Lopes said 197 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia are facing criminal charges. Twenty-eight 28 men and women among them are being held in pretrial detention and 24 are under house arrest, Lopes said.

Amnesty International slammed the court action in Oryol as “an affront to the rights to freedom of religion and association.”

“The authorities missed an opportunity to overturn the grim injustice done to Dennis Christensen, who was thrown behind bars solely for exercising his right to freedom of religion and peacefully held belief. Dennis Christensen should be immediately and unconditionally released,” said Natalia Prilutskaya, Amnesty International’s Russia researcher.

With reporting by Reuters

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