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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sobchak Aide's Case Is Finally Dropped

After enduring five months in prison in 1997 and further investigation lasting 25 months, Larisa Kharchenko - a former aide to late St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak - has been cleared of all charges of corruption by the Prosecutor General's Office.

Kharchenko, a housing expert in Sobchak's administration, was arrested in St. Petersburg in July 1997 when she came in for regular questioning by a team of federal prosecutors investigating corruption in the mayor's office. She was shipped to a Moscow jail the same day without being able to notify her family or collect her medication for high blood pressure.

The investigation into alleged corruption in Sobchak's administration was opened in the last month of Sobchak's term in office, in May 1996, and was closed only after Vladimir Putin, who considers Sobchak his political mentor, was appointed prime minister in August 1999. After the charges against him were dropped, Sobchak returned to Russia from France, but he died Feb. 22 of a heart attack at age 62.

Kharchenko was accused of arranging bribes from local real estate agents to unspecified officials in the mayor's office to illegally privatize prestigious apartments. She and Sobchak have denied the allegations.

While in the Moscow jail, Kharchenko, now 53, suffered from extremely high blood pressure and was denied medical attention. She developed pneumonia and bronchitis when she was forced to sleep on the cell's concrete floor for lack of beds.

Her cell mates wrote a letter to prison officials saying she was dying - an unusual display of solidarity for female prisoners - and Kharchenko went on a hunger strike, which lasted for 12 days, to demand medical treatment. By the time she was released, she had lost 25 kilograms and had suffered a stroke.

While in jail, Kharchenko said through her husband that the reason for the mistreatment was her refusal to provide incriminating evidence against Sobchak. She was never questioned on her own charges, she said after her release in December 1997.

"I came out with only one thought - that 1937 had come again," Kharchenko said then, referring to the height of the Stalinist purges.

After her release, Kharchenko received medical treatment in Russia and the United States, where her daughter lives.

Kharchenko said investigators informed her Feb. 17 that the case against her was closed "in part because they finally found out that there was no criminal activity, in part for lack of evidence.

"It was such a confused, mysterious constellation of charges, most of which were just made up, that there was no other way than to drop those charges," she said Wednesday by telephone from St. Petersburg.

"I did not feel any satisfaction when I heard that. I only felt bitter that they did it all to me. I did not even have the energy to inform the media," Kharchenko said. Her daughter informed the U.S.-based Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, which released the information Tuesday.

The UCSJ, Amnesty International and other human rights organizations had been supporting her case for three years.

Kharchenko was released from jail eight days after UCSJ national director Micah H. Naftalin and John Finerty of the Congressional Helsinki Commission publicly brought her case to the attention of then Prosecutor General Yury Skuratov at a Heritage Foundation luncheon in Washington on Dec. 11, 1997.

After her release, Kharchenko was stuck in legal limbo. For more than two years she lived in fear that she could be jailed again at any time.

"When I reminisce about all that time, it gives me the creeps," she said.

A spokeswoman for the Prosecutor General's Office, Natalya Vishnyakova, said late Wednesday afternoon she remembered hearing that the case against Kharchenko had been dropped but she was too busy to check.

Kharchenko said she is now assessing her opportunities to go back to work.

"I have a lot of expertise in city real estate, still one of the highest in St, Petersburg," she said. "But I would never go back to work in municipal structures because the people who organized this whole dirty political game around me are still there. When I completely recover I will probably try for the independent real estate market."