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Corruption Watch: February 21, 2002

21 February 2002, Volume 2, Number 7
Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko has been charged with ordering and paying for the murders of senior state officials in 1996 and 1998, AP reported on 7 February. Prosecutors did not offer a motive. The cases involve the slaying of the former governor of the National Bank of Ukraine, Vadym Hetman, in 1998 and of former parliament Deputy Yevhen Shcherban in 1996. Deputy Prosecutor-General Mykola Obikhod announced on 7 February that the prosecution has collected 162 volumes of evidence to substantiate charges against Lazarenko. The same day, Lazarenko was stripped of his seat in parliament by a vote of 337-0, thus annulling the parliamentary immunity that sheltered him from prosecution. Lazarenko is presently being held in a federal detention facility in San Francisco, California awaiting trial on money-laundering charges. That case is due to begin in November 2002 (see "Crime, Corruption and Terrorism Watch" Vol. 1, Nos. 6, 7, 8, and 9).

Obikhod said Lazarenko paid $850,000 to have Hetman killed and more than $2 million for the murder of Shcherban. His office has asked "competent U.S. authorities" to extradite Lazarenko. The United States and Ukraine have not signed an extradition treaty.

The hit man, Yevheniy Kushnir, had $2.85 million deposited into his private account as payment for the killings, according to Obikhod. Kushnir subsequently died of either wounds or heart failure (the prosecution has given conflicting versions of his death) in 1998 in the isolation cell of a Donetsk prison.

Yulia Tymoshenko, a former deputy prime minister and once a close associate of Lazarenko's, called the charges politically motivated, adding that "the prosecution knows very well who in fact had Hetman and Shcherban killed."

Soon after the charges were announced, on 12 February, the "Anti-Mafia" group in parliament sent a letter to the Prosecutor-General, Mykhaylo Potebenko, asking him to investigate possible complicity in the killings by Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. In their letter, deputies claim the former head of parliament's committee on corruption, Hryhoriy Omelchenko, had on many occasions given Kuchma numerous documents showing that Lazarenko was engaged in illegal activities prior to Kuchma appointing him prime minister. The president never responded to the parliamentary requests, appointed Lazarenko to head the government, and awarded him high government honors. The Ukrainian intelligence service (SBU) at the time gave Lazarenko a clean bill of health. The SBU at the time was headed by the same man who is atop the organization today, Volodymyr Radchenko.

The Anti-Mafia group claims that President Kuchma not only knew of Lazarenko's dealings, but shared in the illegal profits of his criminal activities -- providing a motive for having both Hetman and Shcherban murdered.

Last year, the parliament tried but failed to have Potebenko removed as Prosecutor-General over the role he played in the wake of the disappearance of Heorhiy Gongadze, the independent journalist presumed killed in the fall of 2000. At that time, the Prosecutor-General's Office refused to acknowledge that Gongadze had been killed and would not allow DNA testing of remains believed to be his. In recordings of conversations in the president's office leaked to the media, Potebenko and President Kuchma are heard discussing ways to remove judges who refuse to follow orders from the president.

The Prosecutor-General's Office recently refused to accept the findings of BEK TEK, an American company led by a former FBI specialist that authenticated the recordings, saying the conclusions "do not measure up to Ukrainian legal standards." BEK TEK asserted that the recordings were in fact genuine and unedited (see "RFE/RL Crime, Corruption, and Terrorism Watch," Vol. 2, No. 6, 14 February 2002).

Potebenko is currently running on the ticket of the Communist Party of Ukraine for a parliamentary seat in 31 March elections, while continuing to fulfill his duties as prosecutor-general. President Kuchma on 11 February ordered the mayor of Kyiv, Oleksandr Omelchenko, to leave his post while running for parliament, charging a conflict of interests. He has since rescinded that decree. Omelchenko has also insisted he should remain in place during the campaigning, citing the precedence of Potebenko remaining in office. Omelchenko is running on the ticket of a party opposing President Kuchma.

A source in the Ukrainian parliament who requested anonymity commented called the Lazarenko case the first high-profile murders which the Prosecutor-General's Office claims to have solved. "I do not see the beginnings of a trend here, and would not be surprised if they also charge Lazarenko with the murder of Trotsky," the source said.

The bumper crop of opium poppy harvested this year in Afghanistan (see "Crime, Corruption, and Terrorism Watch," Vol. 1, No. 6, 6 December 2001) is reportedly being ignored by the U.S. military fighting the war again terrorism in Afghanistan and by the disarray in United Nations antidrug efforts due to poor management and misallocation of funds by a regional UN office in the region.

According to the "Financial Times" of 17 February, the UN's international narcotics control board has approached the UN Security Council several times regarding the issue. "It's not so much a contentious issue, but it's just not high on the radar screen," one diplomat explained. European governments believe one of the reasons the U.S. is "out to lunch on the issue," as one diplomat put it, is that Afghan heroin is not a significant player on the U.S. drug market, accounting for less than 5 percent of consumption. Colombia, he said, is the focus of the U.S. antidrug campaign. This is in sharp contrast to Europe, where Afghan heroin is viewed as a main source of the region's trade in illicit hard drugs.

But growing insecurity in Afghanistan has slowed development agencies' ability to begin crop-substitution programs among farmers who are about to sow next season's poppy harvest, officials said. Cindy Hamilton-Fazey, professor of international drug policy at Liverpool University, was quoted by the "Financial Times" as saying: "With a weak government in Kabul and a U.S. government that is more interested in oil and counterterrorism in the region than drugs, it is inevitable that poppy cultivation is rapidly reasserting itself and that the tribal warlords will try and maximize their revenue from it."

The Bulgarian Interior Ministry will cooperate with Belgian authorities in investigating an illegal arms ring involving Bulgarians. A statement to that effect by Bulgarian authorities was made public on 9 February by the Bulgarian news agency BTA, following a report in the Belgian newspaper "Le Soir" about the arrest of four Bulgarians as part of a police investigation into an arms ring with Bulgarian members.

On 8 February, "La Soir" and "La Derniere Heure" reported that Belgian police had raided 18 homes in several Belgian cities as part of a large-scale investigation into a ring smuggling arms from Bulgaria and laundering money. Authorities believe the mostly Bulgarian network is run by a former senior KGB officer, Tajik-born Viktor Bout, who has specialized in arms trading to embargoed countries. Bout is well known to Belgian police based on arms deals to Afghanistan and Central Africa in which the Belgian airport of Ostende was often used before he left Belgium in 1997 (see "RFE/RL Crime, Corruption, and Terrorism Watch," Vol. 1, No. 3, 16 November 2001).

Brussels-based Bulgarian journalist Anna Georgieva told BTA that in a "justice" column of its 9 February issue, "Le Soir" has a story headlined "Arms Trafficking Through Ostende" by Eddy Surmont.

"Four Bulgarians staying in Belgium are suspected of belonging to an organization run from Ostende by former KGB officer Viktor Anatoliyevich Bout, 35," the paper reported. "They were arrested Friday by the investigating magistrate Freyne following 18 apartment raids in the region of Brussels, Verviers, and Flanders. The investigation concerns arms trafficking and money laundering. There is information that the ring has laundered some 50 million euros from illegal arms deals."

Soon after the arrests of the Bulgarians in Belgium, a Kenyan national of Indian extraction, Sanjivan Ruprah, was arrested and charged in Brussels with criminal association and traveling on a false British passport. "The Guardian" of London on 16 February wrote that Ruprah was named by the UN two years ago as one of four men who sold arms to the now-defunct Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone in clear breach of international sanctions, fueling a bloody decade-long civil war against the government that claimed at least 50,000 lives.

Ruprah worked closely with former KGB officer Bout and a suspected Ukrainian arms smuggler, Leonid Minin, who is presently under arrest in Italy and whose trial is to begin shortly. There is growing evidence that Ruprah and Bout were both involved in selling arms to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

"Le Soir" on 15 February wrote that Ruprah was lately in frequent contact with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, offering his services as an informer. He and associates are said to have a good knowledge of Afghanistan and to be willing to talk about arms smuggling to the Taliban.

An investigation by the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists recently claimed that Victor Bout sold arms worth millions to the Taliban in the late 1990s. The consortium said a company owned by Bout and operating from Ostend, Belgium was suspected of delivering at least 40 tonnes of Soviet weapons to the Taliban in 1996, earning about 35 million British pounds.

Police found invoices for payments by Angolan UNITA in raids on private homes. Maps found of Bagram airport in Afghanistan suggest that Bout might have done business with the Taliban.

Bout's whereabouts remain unknown, along with those of four Belgian partners and associates in his Ostende-based companies, Transaviation Network Group and Aircess.

Russian police have asked the Czech Republic to extradite two men they believe are connected to the 1998 murder of Galina Starovoitova, a liberal member of the Russian parliament, the Russian daily "Vremya Novostey" wrote on 15 February. Both are now in prison in the Czech Republic, the daily said, referring to sources from the Russian intelligence services.

The Czech Republic has agreed to extradite two men, Yurii Biryutchenko and Viktor Kudryakhov, who are reputed members of a St. Petersburg gang. Russian police will come to the Czech capital, Prague, to escort the two men to Russia, the paper added.

But St. Petersburg police chief Aleksandr Smirnov has denied reports that the two men whose extradition is being sought from the Czech Republic murdered Starovoitova. "They are suspected of involvement in other crimes," Smirnov said, according to the RIA-Novosti Russian news agency. He stressed that the Russian and Czech police closely cooperated in the case, the agency added.

Smirnov said the suspects in Starovoitova's murder have been identified and are the object of an international search.

Many Russian journalists and politicians have suggested the inability of Russian law enforcement to find Starovoitova's murderers is further proof that she was killed for political reasons and that a criminal-political nexus exists in Russia which does not want her murder solved.

Unmarked plastic explosives which cannot be detected by current bomb-sniffing devices have been stockpiled in the Czech Republic, and there are indications that Czech military personnel might be selling the materials to unauthorized buyers, according to "Jane's Intelligence Digest" on 15 February.

Czech intelligence services have warned that the country's army is unable to keep an accurate record of its Semtex stockpiles, leaving open the risk that such highly dangerous materials could fall into the hands of international terrorists or organized crime gangs.

A number of high-profile incidents have occurred involving the illegal removal or sale of material from military stockpiles by Czech army officers and soldiers during the 1990s. Czech intelligence and military sources also say the Czech army inventory contains approximately 60 tonnes of so-called "unscented," or unmarked, Semtex that cannot be detected by either airport explosives-detection devices or trained security dogs, making it an ideal weapon for terrorists.

Two drug traffickers were killed during an armed clash that also led to the death of an Iranian police officer and the wounding of another near Iran's eastern border with Afghanistan in Khorasan province, IRNA news agency reported on 15 February. The clash broke out near the village of Pating, 70 kilometers from the border outpost. The smugglers had infiltrated from Afghanistan and had in their possession an automatic rifle as well as four hand grenades.

Iran accounts for 80 percent of opium seizures in the world, according to the International Narcotics Control Board.

Romanian customs officers at the Nadlac checkpoint on the country's western border on 9 February discovered roughly 63 kilograms of heroin in a car belonging to two Turkish citizens, Romanian news agency Mediafax reported on 10 February. The drugs' value was estimated at 9 million euros. The two Turkish men, a father and son, were trying to leave Romania around noon in a Porsche car registered in Turkey.

Ferdi Berirmen, 58, and Sureyya Berirmen, 27, were coming from Turkey and told the custom officers they were heading to Austria to ski. Custom officers noticed there was something wrong with the car's back seat and proceeded to search the car and the two men. The heroin was discovered in the back seat. The drugs were in 126 packets, each weighing 500 grams. The men were placed under preventive detention for 30 days and admitted having taken the goods from Bucharest, which they were then supposed to transport to Germany, according to the General Inspectorate of Custom Police (IGPF).

Russian President Vladimir Putin rebuked the country's top law-enforcement officers for not doing enough to fight crime, Russian TV reported on 11 February. He reportedly told a board meeting at the Prosecutor-General's Office that "the proportion of grave and very grave crimes is on the increase."

"The situation with crime in the country remains tense," Putin said. He continued: "Some three million crimes were registered in 2001. The proportion of grave and very grave crimes is on the increase. Murders, kidnappings, bandit attacks and robberies are now becoming almost a permanent feature in our lives. Organized crime is still controlling most of the country's economy. This is being felt by almost all walks of life and in all of Russia's Regions.

"I would like to draw your attention to the following -- that almost every second grave crime or very serious crime has not been solved. Hundreds of thousands of criminals are still at large. Among them there are more than 7,000 murderers who became fugitives from justice last year.

"All of this means not just the reproduction of crime but also the creation of an atmosphere in society which allows criminals to get the upper hand over law-abiding people.

"The fact that law-enforcement bodies are failing each year to determine the whereabouts of more than 30,000 missing people -- just think about this figure -- show that the situation here is in a sad state....

"Relatives of those killed are asking me to cancel the moratorium on the death penalty. People are being provoked to make these kinds of appeals not just by the brutality of the criminals but often by the feebleness of the law-enforcement agencies at times. We should be open about that.

"What is the point of toughening punishment if we can't ensure the inevitability of punishment? What is the point of toughening punishment at all, if hundreds of thousands of criminals are on the loose? No punishment can reach them."

Putin also said that the Prosecutor-General's Office should play more of a "coordinating and preemptive role in protecting citizen's rights -- especially in the regions," Russian news agencies reported. In a nod toward human rights activists, Putin said that last year the office illegally sanctioned the arrest of 1,500 people and issued warrants for 25,000 searches. Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov said in his address to the meeting that some 122,000 cases were discovered in which police concealed citizens' reports on crimes, thus stalling investigations. He said such action is patterned after the Soviet era, when the objective of law enforcement was not in protecting citizens, but in lowering crime statistics ("RFE/RL Security Watch," VOL. 3, NO. 16, 15 February 2002).

The threat of narcotics smuggling continues from the territory of Afghanistan because neither heroin reserves nor the mini-factories for its production were destroyed during the antiterrorist effort, Avaz Yuldashev, a Tajik expert and head of the public relations center of the National Drug Control Agency, told ITAR-TASS on 12 February.

He said the flow of drugs from that country is growing. "In January 2001, our national agency confiscated 40 kilograms of heroin, while the figure for January 2002 was 140 kilograms. We are very much worried by the fact that some 10 tons of heroin are concentrated in Afghanistan along the whole of the Tajik-Afghan border," he added. "According to current information, 417 heroin-producing facilities were functioning on the territory of Afghanistan until recently. We did not get any information, however, that the U.S. bombings destroyed any of them, or any of the heroin storage facilities either."

General Ramazan Dzhafarov, one of the commanders of the Russian Frontier guard group in Tajikistan, stated at a recent conference that: "It is too early to say that drug trafficking has been eradicated in Afghanistan. Serious efforts of the world community, including the allies by the antiterrorist coalition, will be needed for destroying the roots of that business, which has been flourishing almost legally for dozens of years."