A Russian court has ordered a former Russian cabinet minister seen as an ally of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev held in pretrial detention until May 25 on embezzlement charges after his arrest on March 26.
Mikhail Abyzov pleaded not guilty during his first appearance in court on March 27 and told officials he’s willing to cooperate with the investigation.
Abyzov's lawyers asked the judge at Moscow's Basmanny District Court to release their client on 1 billion rubles ($15.5 million) bail, while prosecutors asked for pretrial detention after his arrest a day earlier.
"The court ruled to impose a measure of restraint on Abyzov in the form of custody until May 25, 2019," Judge Natalia Dudar said, reading the ruling.
The Russian Investigative Committee also said three other suspects had been detained and charged in the criminal investigation surrounding Abyzov.
It identified them as as Aleksandr Pelipasov, chairman of the First Construction Fund; Nikolai Stepanov, president of the Novosibirsk Regional Sambo Federation and ex-director-general of the Ru-kom group; and Galina Fraidenberg, director for economy and finances at the Remis company.
It added that a fourth suspect, Sergei Ilyichev, was abroad when the arrests were made and has been placed on the wanted list.
It said they have been charged with "creating, managing, and participating in a criminal community with the use of their official position."
Abyzov's arrest surprised close watchers of Russian politics, who saw it as another warning sign by Russian security and intelligence agencies against liberal-leaning political figures, many of whom are linked to Medvedev.
The Investigative Committee said earlier that Abyzov was allegedly involved in a criminal group that embezzled 4 billion rubles (about $62 million), from the Siberian Energy Company and Regional Electric Grid in Novosibirsk. Investigators alleged that Abyzov and five accomplices stole the money and transferred the funds abroad.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that President Vladimir Putin had been informed in advance about the suspicions against Abyzov.
Abyzov served as a cabinet minister in 2012-2018, and is considered a close associate of Medvedev, who was president between 2008 and 2012.
After Putin resumed the presidency in 2012, Medvedev returned to become prime minister. Abyzov retained his position in Medvedev's government until last year.
Investigators alleged that Abyzov founded the criminal enterprise in April 2011 -- a year before he was appointed as Minister for Open Government Affairs, whose duties included trying to make the Russian government transparent and accountable.
Abyzov also held several executive positions at major 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, anti-corruption activist Aleksei Navalny reported that Abyzov owns a mansion in Italy worth about $11.7 million. Navalny reported that Abyzov amassed his wealth through his energy-sector connections in Novosibirsk.
Abyzov is one of several liberal-leaning former or current government officials who have been targeted in criminal investigations in recent years.
The 2016 arrest of economics 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 to eight years in a prison camp in 2017.