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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Geneva Court Sets Mikhailov Free

Sergei Mikhailov, cleared of charges in Switzerland that he heads a powerful Russian mafia gang, returned home to Moscow over the weekend and praised the court verdict as a victory for all Russian businessmen.

"This trial is a bright testimony to the fact that Russians are not necessarily criminals," Mikhailov told reporters who met him at the airport Saturday evening. "They can be businessmen who contribute to the development of the economy in Russia."

Mikhailov, who spent more than two years in jail awaiting trial, had been the target of a multinational law enforcement effort aimed at curtailing the spread of Russian criminal groups throughout the world. He comes home a free man whose business practices have been given a clean bill of health.

The court decision was a major defeat for Swiss prosecutors, who received help from Interpol, the United States and other countries in building their case. They had charged that Mikhailov was the chief of the ruthless Solntsevo gang, said to be the largest of Russia's criminal groups. He had faced a maximum 7 1/2 years in jail if found guilty.

Mikhailov, 40, countered that he was an ordinary businessman who had moved to a village near Geneva, where he lived while conducting legitimate business in Europe.

Swiss authorities had no comment on Friday's verdict, but they kept Mikhailov in jail overnight and put him on a plane to Moscow on Saturday, saying he did not have proper documents to remain in Switzerland.

Mikhailov's lawyer Pascal Maurer said it was a "disguised extradition and against the law" because Russia had not asked for his return.

Geneva police spokesman Pascal Di Camillo said Mikhailov had agreed to go and was sent back to Moscow aboard an Aeroflot jetliner and that he had a safe-conduct pass from Russian authorities.

But Maurer said his client faces threats in his country and didn't want to return but to go instead to Hungary.

Legal analysts said the main weakness in the case was that prosecutors attempted to prove he was a mafia chieftain rather than presenting evidence proving he committed specific criminal acts.

"The trial showed that having a million-dollar bank account and being seen in the company of questionable characters doesn't make you a crook, let alone a mafia don," said Nikolai Nikolayev, crime reporter for NTV television. "The evidence fell to pieces."

The court cleared Mikhailov of the criminal-organization charge and of charges that he forged documents. He was found guilty of a lesser charge of violating strict Swiss property laws restricting foreign ownership by buying a villa near Geneva.

The judge and jury took into consideration that he had spent two years in custody and so imposed no sentence, but he was sent back to jail to spend the night.

The case initially included more serious charges of money laundering, but they were dropped because of the problems of gathering evidence in Russia.

Mikhailov consistently protested his innocence although conceded that he was "very, very rich."

"It's the most important day of my life," Mikhailov told the judge and jury Friday after the verdict. "You proved that democracy and justice are alive in this country. My heart is full of gratitude, and I'd like to send each of you a letter and to write on each line that I love you, I love you, I love you."

On his arrival in Moscow, a triumphant Mikhailov flashed the "V'' for victory sign to waiting television cameras.

Mikhailov was arrested in October 1996 at the Geneva airport as he was returning from what he said was a business trip. He was carrying three passports at the time, including a Costa Rican diplomatic passport, authorities said.

The Swiss government kept him locked up as they worked to build a case against him.

One prosecution witness was shot dead in Amsterdam, Netherlands, last year. A top Russian police investigator who received death threats while working on the case was granted asylum by Switzerland so he would testify in the case.

The trial lasted two weeks under unprecedented security, with some of the 90 witnesses under police protection. Those most at risk were allowed to testify by video from an adjacent room to protect their identities.

Mikhailov was brought to the court each day in a bulletproof vest and armored vehicle.

"The trial proved to us that today's Russia is more closed and frightening than ever before," said an editorial in Saturday's edition of the Geneva newspaper Le Temps. "We cannot help but think of all those scared people who hoped, for a fleeting moment, that the terror and chaos they had been living with would come to a close in Geneva."