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Powerful Oligarch Who Fled Moldova Last Year Sought Political Asylum In U.S.


Vlad Plahotniuc is one of Moldova's wealthiest people. (file photo)

Vlad Plahotniuc, a powerful Moldovan oligarch who fled his home country last year amid a government shake-up, sought political asylum in the United States, but his application was rejected, according to a lawsuit filed in U.S. federal court.

In January, four months after making his application, Plahotniuc had his U.S. visa revoked after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that his "corrupt actions undermined the rule of law and severely compromised the independence of democratic institutions in Moldova."

Plahotniuc sued in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, a month after the visa ban was announced, asserting that the ban deprived him "of his due process in the pending asylum proceedings and thereby places his life and liberty in grave danger."

The revelations from the suit were the latest chapter in the winding narrative of Plahotniuc, who is one of the wealthiest men in Moldova.

A longtime behind-the-scenes power broker, Plahotniuc fled Moldova in June 2019 after being pushed out of parliament as part of a government shake-up brokered by Russia, the United States, and other European partners.

He dropped out of public view afterward, reportedly traveling under one or more assumed names and alternate passports. According to the lawsuit, Plahotniuc arrived in the United States the day after he fled Moldova.

Missing Money

Plahotniuc been linked to the disappearance of more than $1 billion -- totaling nearly one-eighth of Moldova's gross domestic product -- from the country's biggest banks between 2012 and 2014. A former prime minister, Vlad Filat, was found guilty of corruption related to the theft, but was released early in December 2019.

The brazenness of the bank theft, and the perception that those behind it have not been held to account, has outraged, and disillusioned, many Moldovans.

The announcement that the United States was imposing a visa ban on Plahotniuc and his family was met with some satisfaction among anti-corruption activists in Moldova who have struggled to root out the country's endemic graft.

But in March, RFE/RL reported that Plahotniuc had in fact been living in the United States at the time the visa ban was announced, and had been seen multiple times in Miami. That raised questions of how and when in fact he entered the country, as well as the circumstances under which the visa ban was imposed.

Moldovan officials, including President Igor Dodon, had previously hinted that Plahotniuc was in the United States.

The lawsuit has been under seal in federal court. A copy was leaked, however, and published online on June 11 by a Moldovan lawmaker from Dodon's Socialist Party.

RFE/RL could not independently confirm the authenticity of the lawsuit. However, the filing system for the U.S. court shows records for a sealed case having the same file number indicated on the leaked document.

The lawmaker, Bogdan Tirdea, refused to comment when contacted by RFE/RL.

'Judicial Review'

The New York lawyer representing Plahotniuc did not immediately respond to phone and email messages from RFE/RL. A representative for Plahotniuc in Chisinau declined to comment.

The lawsuit states that Plahotniuc arrived in the United States on June 15, 2019, the day after he fled Moldova. It said he applied for political asylum three months later, in September.

However, on January 10, U.S. immigration officials notified him that his asylum claim had been rejected. Five days later, the State Department announced its visa ban.

In March, the U.S. Embassy in Chisinau said that Plahotniuc was in the process of being deported from the United States.

"We understand that Vladimir Plahotniuc is present in the United States, but is currently in administrative removal proceedings," the U.S. Embassy in Chisinau said in a statement on March 19.

"Such proceedings, including permissible avenues of judicial review, often can take significant time," it added.

As of June 11, it was unclear where that process stood. A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation, and referred questions about asylum applications to the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service.

In the lawsuit, Plahotniuc claimed he been the target of multiple assassination attempts. He also said that he had a "demonstrated history of anti-corruption efforts" and that he had sought to reduce Russia's influence over the country's political system.

"Russia will not hesitate to assassinate him anywhere in Europe as they seek to achieve geopolitical dominance throughout the former Soviet bloc," the suit states.

Mike Eckel reported from Prague and Liliana Barbarosie from Chisinau
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