Russian media tycoon wins second extradition battle

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The Independent Online

A Greek court freed the former Russian media baron Vladimir Gusinsky yesterday, rejecting an extradition request from Moscow where he is wanted on multimillion-pound fraud and money laundering charges.

After six weeks of legal wrangling, with Athens under severe diplomatic pressure from Russia, the appeals court took just 60 seconds to deny the request, saying there was no evidence a crime had been committed. "The court rules against the extradition request because the crimes are not proven," said Nikos Fagiolas, the presiding judge.

The decision was a blow to President Vladimir Putin, who has been attempting to rein in Russia's super-rich elite, known as the oligarchs, before parliamentary and presidential elections are held.

The Greek government has denied reports that it was pressured by Israel and the United States to refuse the Russian request. The 51-year-old former owner of the NTV television station was initially accused of misrepresenting the assets of his company Media-Most to obtain a £175m loan from the state-owned gas company Gazprom. Allegations of money laundering were added later.

Mr Gusinsky, travelling on Russian and Israeli passports, was arrested on 21 August after arriving in Athens on a flight from Israel, where he now lives. Greek authorities claimed he was held in response to an international arrest warrant. The one-time Kremlin insider insisted he was the victim of a witch-hunt sparked by NTV's critical coverage of Mr Putin and the war in Chechnya.

The oligarchs amassed fortunes from the private sector in Boris Yeltsin's Russia. Mr Gusinsky lost his businesses and fled to Spain in 2000 after Mr Putin became Presidentand prosecutors began criminal proceedings against him. Formerly Russia's biggest independent television station, NTV was taken over by Gazprom in 2001 in a move widely attacked as an erosion of media freedom.

Mr Gusinsky said he was "satisfied" with the decision. He was expected to return to his home in Israel immediately.

This is the second time Mr Gusinsky has blocked a Russian extradition request. In 2001, Spanish authorities rejected a request, saying the allegations against him would not amount to crimes in Spain. He then moved to Israel.

The attempted extradition of Mr Gusinsky, and a flurry of police raids against the business interests of his fellow billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, ended a three-year truce between the Kremlin and the dozen or so oligarchs, who control an estimated 70 per cent of Russia's economic output. The latest clashes between the Kremlin and the oligarchs have resurrected questions over the manner in which Russia's elite acquired their vast holdings through smoke-and-mirrors privatisations in the 1990s during the chaotic Yeltsin years.

Moscow auditors are also investigating £190m in allegedly unpaid taxes by Roman Abramovich, the new owner of Chelsea Football Club. The petrol magnate has invested millions of pounds in buying the Premier League club and recruiting a host of expensive European stars. Mr Abramovich's Sibneft petroleum firm recently merged with the oil company Yukos to form the world's fourth-biggest oil firm.