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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Gusinsky Put in Jail Pending Hearings

APGreek police officers leaving a courthouse in Athens on Monday with Vladimir Gusinsky, who is ducking down in the back seat.
A Greek prosecutor on Monday ordered Vladimir Gusinsky transferred from a detention facility at the Athens airport to a local jail, pending hearings on whether to extradite him to Moscow.

Prosecutor Giorgos Vlassis said it was beyond his jurisdiction to decide whether the 51-year-old former media baron -- who fled Russia fearing prosecution on fraud charges in 2000 -- should be handed over to Russian law enforcement and referred his case to Greece's top court, the council of appeals.

"It is now up to the council to decide on his extradition or not," a Greek Justice Ministry spokeswoman said Monday, Reuters reported.

She was unable to say how long it would take to reach a decision, but court sources told Reuters that it was a matter of weeks rather than days.

Gusinsky's lawyer Alexander Berezin told Rossia television that he will appeal the prosecutor's decision to the council of appeals court within 24 hours.

Should Russian prosecutors file a formal extradition request, Greek authorities would be required by law to decide within 30 days whether to extradite Gusinsky, Berezin said.

Gusinsky, who lives in self-imposed exile in Israel and holds both Russian and Israeli passports, was detained Thursday at the Athens airport upon his arrival on a flight from Tel Aviv.

It remained unclear Monday what charges Gusinsky is wanted on and whether the Prosecutor General's Office has asked for his extradition. Russian officials said over the weekend that they would decide Monday whether to file the request.

But the prosecutor's office on Monday evening continued to refuse to comment on his detention. Officials at the Russian Embassy in Athens would only say that they are aware of the arrest.

The silence suggests that Gusinsky's arrest caught prosecutors off-guard and they are trying to find a way to capitalize on the unexpected opportunity, a source close to Gusinsky said.

"It seems this all began as an accident, but now we have no idea how it is going to unfold," the source said.

According to the source, Gusinsky was stopped after he presented his passport at the Athens airport and border officials found an international warrant for his arrest in their computer database. The officials then phoned Interpol's headquarters, which informed them that there was no warrant.

Greek authorities, however, then contacted the Russian branch of Interpol and were told that Russian prosecutors are still investigating Gusinsky, the source said.

The source said he doubted that the arrest represents an attempt by Russian law enforcement to widen a crackdown on oligarchs that is currently focusing on senior management at the Yukos oil giant.

He said he doubted that Gusinsky -- who now controls a weekly political newsmagazine, Yezhenedelny Zhurnal, and the small Ekho-TV television company -- had any plans to set up any projects with Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Gusinsky lost control of his powerful Media-MOST empire, whose outlets included NTV television and Ekho Moskvy radio, after prosecutors mounted a legal offensive against him and his senior managers in 2000. He was charged that year with embezzlement of state property at a St. Petersburg television company and misuse of a loan of 5 billion rubles (then worth $250 million) from state-controlled gas giant Gazprom.

Gusinsky maintained his innocence and accused prosecutors of trying to silence his media outlets, which were critical of the Kremlin and the military campaign in Chechnya. He was briefly jailed in June 2000 and fled to Spain afterward.

The Prosecutor General's Office tried to have Gusinsky extradited from Spain on embezzlement charges, but a Madrid court rejected the request on April 18, 2001. Two days later, the prosecutor's office charged Gusinsky with laundering 2.8 billion rubles ($97 million) and asked Interpol to issue an international arrest warrant. Interpol refused, saying the case had "a predominantly political character."

Russia and Greece have a bilateral agreement on extradition, and Athens has extradited a number of Russians at Moscow's request in recent years.

Gazprom took over most of Gusinsky's media empire in summer 2002 and said it had withdrawn all financial claims against Gusinsky. Yet, a Moscow court convicted Media-MOST chief financial officer Anton Titov of defrauding Gazprom in December 2003. The court verdict said some of Gazprom's money ended up in Gusinsky's personal accounts.

Political analysts were scratching their heads Monday about the timing of Gusinsky's arrest. They said that while it probably has nothing to do with December's parliamentary elections, the fact that Gusinsky apparently remains on Russia's wanted list despite having made peace with his creditors -- and all but withdrawing from Russian media -- indicates that what is going on is purely political.

"This could be a case of phantom pains" for law enforcement, given that they have been unable to put Gusinsky on trial, said Nikolai Petrov of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

He said prosecutors no doubt see Gusinsky as a good target since he no longer has any political or financial punch and is still detested by some Russians as an oligarch who illegally amassed a fortune in the 1990s.

Alexei Makarkin of the Center for Political Technologies said some hard-line voters would welcome the extradition and conviction of "at least one oligarch," but he expressed doubt that Gusinsky's arrest was linked to elections.

He said that Gusinsky, who has traveled to the United States and around Europe, may have put down his guard. "They [prosecutors] didn't defuse the minefield of extradition requests, and Gusinsky finally stepped on one," Makarkin said.

He said prosecutors are probably keeping silent on the arrest not an attempt not to raise the stakes and end up embarrassed as they did after their high-profile campaign to extradite Gusinsky from Spain failed.