A Kremlin spokesman has said President Vladimir Putin would like to see prominent American investor Michael Calvey, who is under house arrest on a financial fraud charge he denies, attend Russia's flagship annual economic forum this week.
Speaking in English in an interview aired by state-supported RT television on June 3, spokesman Dmitry Peskov lamented what he called a "very unfortunate" situation, referring to Calvey by his first name and saying that the Kremlin knew him as a "very trustful businessman" who has been "devoted to the Russian market."
But he said that the law must be obeyed and claimed that the Kremlin will not intervene.
"Of course, we would like to see Michael among the participants in the forum," Peskov said of the June 6-8 gathering in St. Petersburg, Putin's hometown.
Putin has used the event for years to seek to make the case for investment in Russia against the backdrop of Moscow's rocky relationships with Western governments, which have deteriorated badly due to factors including Russia's actions in Ukraine and alleged meddling in the U.S. presidential election in 2016.
The arrest of Calvey, who founded the Moscow-based private-equity group Baring Vostok Capital Partners in 1994, stunned many Western investors and drew complaints from high-level Russian business leaders and government officials, who questioned the motivations of the courts and prosecutors.
U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman and other U.S. diplomats in Russia will stay away from the forum to protest Calvey's arrest and ongoing prosecution, the State Department said on May 24.
Peskov said that Putin was personally monitoring developments in the case against Calvey and four associates who were also arrested in the case. But Putin's administration has repeatedly asserted that it does not exert influence on the courts in Russia, despite widespread suspicion that it in fact decides many high-profile cases, and Peskov said that the Kremlin would not intervene.
"We do hope that at the end, these gentlemen will be freed," Peskov said, but he said that the case was being pursued in "strict accordance with the law" and that in Russia "you must follow [the] law." He added that the Kremlin was not "entitled somehow to give any definition" of the nature of the case.
Peskov also said that the prosecution of Calvey and his partners, who were arrested in February, has not prevented other U.S. and French business people from confirming their participation in the forum. One of Calvey's associates, Philippe Delpal, is a Frenchman who is still in pretrial detention, while Calvey was transferred to house arrest in April.
The comments from Putin's spokesman are likely to be interpreted as a signal to Russian prosecutors and courts but it was not immediately clear whether they would lead to any changes in the case against Calvey and his associates, who are accused of defrauding a bank.
"As I said to my colleagues -- no cigar yet. Peskov worded it carefully,’" Alexis Rodzianko, president and CEO of the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia, told RFE/RL.
If Calvey is allowed to attend the St. Petersburg forum, the problem at the heart of the case will not disappear, Rodzianko said.
"But it will bring focus to the use of criminal prosecution in commercial disputes -- a major problem for the investment climate in Russia," he said.
Calvey denies wrongdoing and says the case is a way of pressuring him in a dispute over control of Vostochny Bank. Baring Vostok contends that there are no grounds for a criminal case, arguing that the matter is a commercial dispute that should be resolved through arbitration.
Peskov made clear that the Kremlin was aware of that claim and seemed to leave the door open for the release of Calvey and his associates without trial, saying that "lots of businessmen are protesting this case because they think it's a purely [commercial] dispute that should be [resolved] in arbitration, not in a criminal court or not though a criminal investigation."
"So we have to wait until [the] investigation is over, and if it proven that this is not a [commercial] dispute, then everything that is being done is correct," he said. "We have to be patient. We have to understand that those prosecutors, those investigators should have very serious reasons to put those gentlemen in jail."
Putin "understands" that the case has provoked "a lot questions" among some investors, foreign investors," Peskov said. "But the law is the law. You have to obey it."
Putin has stressed that people accused of economic crimes should not be jailed when it is not merited, and the Baring Vostok case has tested whether lower-level officials are obeying that directive.
Calvey's detention has come up in talks between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Baring Vostok is one of the largest and oldest private-equity firms operating in Russia, having invested more than $2.8 billion since the early 1990s. The company was an early major investor in Yandex, Russia's dominant search engine.
The St. Petersburg forum attracted 17,000 participants last year, including French President Emmanuel Macron, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan.
Calvey is one of two Americans currently facing potential trial in Russia on charges supporters say are groundless. Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, has been behind bars since December 28, when he was arrested on an espionage charge he denies.
Last month, a Moscow court extended Whelan's pretrial detention to August 29. Whelan has called the case politically motivated and revenge for U.S. sanctions against Russia.