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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Far East Customs Chief Gets 5 Years

ReutersErnest Bakhshetsyan, left, being handcuffed by an officer in a Vladivostok court at the end of his trial on Monday.��
The former head of the Far East Customs Directorate was sentenced Monday to five years in prison for helping companies smuggle Chinese goods into Russia, following a high-profile investigation into the lucrative contraband trade.

Ernest Bakhshetsyan was accused of setting arbitrary rates to import containers of Chinese goods and ordering his deputies to allow three companies to import containers without any inspection.

The companies, which were not identified, imported 515 such containers, failing to pay 450 million rubles ($14.5 million) in customs duties, the Primorye region prosecutor's office said on its web site.

While declaring buckets, planks and shower curtains, the companies in fact imported leather clothing, shoes, pearl jewelry and other luxury goods, prosecutors said during the investigation.

Vladivostok's Frunzensky District Court convicted Bakhshetsyan of abuse of office, although he was acquitted on charges of smuggling and hindering legal business activity.

Four of his subordinates were given suspended sentences, including his first deputy, Alexander Vorobyov, who was given a four-year suspended sentence and forbidden from working in a state organization for one year.

Vadim Vasich, who was accused of acting as a middleman for the firms, was convicted of smuggling but received only a seven-year suspended sentence. He was also ordered to pay a fine of 100,000 rubles ($3,200).

Bakhshetsyan's lawyer, Natalya Belovtseva, said he would appeal the verdict. Prosecutors said they planned to appeal Bakhshetsyan's sentence, requesting 10 years, Interfax reported.

Bakhshetsyan was arrested in 2006 and spent 20 months in pretrial detention, which will be subtracted from the sentence.

"The sentence is quite mild in my opinion and shows that there isn't a determined fight against smuggling. It shows that the defendant has some political connections," said Rostislav Turovsky, a regional analyst at the Center for Political Technologies.

The case reflects an "internal fight for control over the flows [through customs]," Turovsky said. "It's no great secret that representatives of the various security agencies are linked to the customs."

Smuggling from China has been a major front on Russia's fight against graft since 2000, when furniture store Tri Kita was accused of running contraband through FSB storage facilities. The case led to a major turf war among security agencies and ultimately forced the head of the FSB's economic crimes department to resign.

In a sign that the struggle is far from over, the Interior Ministry said Monday that police last week arrested a gang of seven smugglers who illegally imported from China about 1 billion rubles worth of consumer goods headed for Moscow's sprawling Cherkizovsky Market.

The goods were driven over the border in the Primorye and Khabarovsk regions, where the gang declared them using the wrong codes to pay lower duties, the ministry said in a statement. The goods were then transported to Moscow by air and by train.

The crackdown comes after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin castigated senior ministers for failing to make arrests after the confiscation of 6,000 containers of Chinese goods at Cherkizovsky in September.

That speech had swift results. The Investigative Committee opened a criminal case last week, and three customs officers have been arrested for illegally clearing the goods. Prosecutor General Yury Chaika said 22 containers with Chinese-made children's clothes would be destroyed because of "health risks."