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Cyprus Frees Navalny Ally Sought By Russia

Nikita Kulachenkov was detained at Nicosia's international airport on January 24. (file photo)

Cyprus has released an ally of Russian opposition leader and anticorruption crusader Aleksei Navalny who was detained last month at the request of Russia, which had sought to extradite him despite his status as a political refugee.

Navalny wrote in a February 10 blog post that Nikita Kulachenkov was released from a Cypriot detention facility earlier in the day after the Mediterranean island's justice minister, Ionas Nicolaou, wrote a letter to prosecutors requesting that he be freed.

A Cypriot court then ordered the release of Kulachenkov at the request of prosecutors, according to Navalny, who posted a photograph on his blog appearing to show the activist after he was freed.

Georgy Alburov
Georgy Alburov

Kulachenkov, who has worked with Navalny in his groundbreaking investigations of Russian graft, was detained at Nicosia's international airport on January 24, his lawyer, Nicoletta Charalambidou, told RFE/RL.

The move appeared to be the latest effort by Russian authorities to pressure Navalny and his organization, the Anticorruption Fund, which has done painstaking research into alleged corruption involving top government officials such as Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika, and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

Kulachenkov is wanted in Russia on charges of stealing artwork together with fellow opposition activist Georgy Alburov, Navalny's chief investigator of Russian officials' expensive and often secretive real-estate holdings.

Alburov and Kulachenkov were charged in 2014 with stealing a picture painted on plywood and affixed to a fence in Vladimir, a city northeast of Moscow.

Kremlin critics say the allegations are part of a broader campaign to pressure Navalny, a driving force behind street protests in 2011-12 who is currently serving out two suspended sentences on theft convictions he calls politically motivated.

A court in Vladimir last year convicted Alburov and sentenced him to 240 hours of community service. Kulachenkov fled the country, and his whereabouts were not widely known until his supporters this week disclosed his detention in Cyprus, a member of the European Union.

A source close to Kulachenkov provided RFE/RL with a copy of a letter from Lithuania's Interior Ministry in December confirming that her client had been granted refugee status based on "reasons related to the political opinion of Mr. Nikita Kulachenkov."

Charalambidou said that she had received assurances from the Cypriot Justice Ministry that Kulachenkov would be released, given that European law bars the extradition of a political refugee to the country from which he or she initially fled. Both Cyprus and Lithuania are EU members.

Aleksei Navalny
Aleksei Navalny

She added that his supporters became more concerned as his detention dragged on.

The Cypriot government has cultivated close ties in Moscow. The island nation was a longtime haven for offshore investment by Russians taking advantage of its lax tax laws and business regulations.

The collapse of the country's banking system in 2013 wiped out investments for many Russians businessmen, straining bilateral ties. Since then, relations have warmed and Cyprus has granted Russian Navy ships access to its ports.

Navalny's anticorruption investigators regularly comb through property records in Cyprus and other popular destinations for Russian wealth -- such as Greece, Spain, France, and London -- for evidence of corrupt officials trying to hide their wealth.

Navalny's close associate, Leonid Volkov, told RFE/RL that he did not believe that Kulachenkov traveled to Cyprus in connection with a corruption investigation.

Volkov said prior to Kulachenkov's release that, as far as he knew, the activist was in Cyprus for "private reasons."

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.