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RUSSIA

Prosecutors Ask Britain to Turn Over 5 Suspects

Prosecutors have asked Britain to extradite five suspects in a fraud case at state-owned shipping giant Sovkomflot, adding another twist to the already fraught relationship between London and Moscow.

But unlike high-profile figures such as tycoon Boris Berezovsky and Chechen rebel envoy Akhmed Zakayev, the former managers and businessmen might find it hard to win political asylum.

Among them is Yury Nikitin, a shipping magnate accused of setting up a scam with ocean freighters that Sovkomflot says has cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Investigative Committee, a semi-autonomous agency under the auspices of the Prosecutor General's Office, said in a statement Friday that it was seeking to extradite Nikitin and four others over the purported embezzlement of more than $700 million. "The documents were sent to Britain already in 2006," the statement said.

The only other person identified in the investigators' statement is Yury Privalov, a former Sovkomflot manager who was arrested in Switzerland in December 2006, where he is currently imprisoned and fighting extradition to Russia.

"The question of [Privalov's] extradition [from Switzerland] is currently being decided," the statement said.

But Switzerland's highest court ruled in December that Privalov could only be extradited if Moscow guaranteed that the conditions of his detention would comply with those specified in the European Convention on Human Rights.

Privalov claims that he is being prosecuted for political motives similar to the Yukos affair. The Swiss Federal Court in Lausanne, by contrast, said that there were no reasons to believe that in this case Moscow was trying to persecute a political opponent.

Nikitin said he would seek political asylum in Britain. "I want British government protection," he said, British newspaper The Guardian reported Friday.

The report said Nikitin was claiming to be the victim of political infighting in Moscow with factions wanting to deprive him of his "legitimate profits." Nikitin also said he fled following police raids on his St. Petersburg offices and a threat to conscript his son into the army and send him to Chechnya, the report said.

The British government did not comment on the case Friday. A spokeswoman for the Home Office in London merely said she could "neither confirm nor deny the existence of an extradition request ahead of [an] arrest."

Spokespeople for the Investigative Committee and the Prosecution General's Office, where the charges originated since the Investigative Committee was only formed in 2007, also refused to elaborate.

Sovkomflot's deputy head, Vladimir Mednikov, said he would only speak about the civil litigation that his company has been pursuing in Britain since 2005.

Sovkomflot, which operates one of the world's largest merchant fleets, currently with 59 vessels, is seeking compensation from a host of offshore companies and two former managers, including its CEO until 2004, Dmitry Skarga.

Skarga was replaced as Sovkomflot CEO in 2004 by former Transportation Minister Sergei Frank. Skarga then became a senator for Volgograd in the Federation Council but quit his post in 2006. Kommersant reported at the time that he left to face trial in Britain.

Mednikov, the Sovkomflot deputy head, said that to his knowledge Skarga was still living in Britain.

Skarga and 10 other Federation Council members asked the Prosecutor General's Office to investigate the 2005 purchase by Sovkomflot of three ice tankers for $424 million, claiming that Sovkomflot may have overpaid $140 million on the deal, Vedomosti reported in 2006.
Attempts to contact London solicitors that represent Nikitin and Skarga were unsuccessful Friday and over the weekend.

Privalov's lawyer Stefan Wehrenberg reiterated that he would take his client's extradition case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, because he deemed the guarantees demanded by the Lausanne judges insufficient.

Wehrenberg also said his client was no longer among the defendants in the civil case in Britain. "A judge has ruled that he is no longer part of the litigation," he said by telephone from Zurich.

While Privalov's name appears at the top of the list of the list of 29 defendants, including 26 companies, on a litigation fact sheet obtained from Sovkomflot's London office dated Jan. 29, the document states that in substantive issues "a settlement has been reached with Mr. Privalov."

According to the fact sheet, he and Skarga are accused of having accepted bribes from Nikitin to set up a fraudulent scheme involving vessels' sale and lease-back transactions.

According to the Swiss ruling, published on the Federal Court's web site, Russian prosecutors maintain that Nikitin founded a number of firms registered in the British Virgin Islands.

(The Moscow Times 4.ii.08)

 
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