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Gusinsky battles extradition to Russia

Mogul's arrest set off worldwide protests

MOSCOW — Russian media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky, arrested in Spain on Tuesday, is fighting to escape extradition to Moscow.

He looks set to remain in a Madrid jail for considerably longer than the 40 days in which Spain must formally react to a official request from Russia’s Prosecutor’s Office.

Gusinsky’s supporters launched protests around the world, claiming the Russian government aims to punish him for his Media-Most group’s outspoken protests.

“I do not think the Kremlin will manage to turn the Spanish justice system into its tool,” Igor Malashenko, his deputy at Media-Most, told a Madrid news conference Wednesday.

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However, the chief prosecutor of Spain’s high court, Eduardo Fungairino, was quoted as saying that he saw nothing that would prevent Gusinsky’s extradition.

“The position of the prosecutors is clear. He was sent to jail because he is wanted for fraud involving a substantial amount (of money),” Fungairino told the daily paper El Pais.

Back in Moscow, liberal politicians appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Reformer Boris Nemtsov said the case against Gusinsky was purely political, fueled by hostility. “An attempt is under way to extend state control over the independent press.”

Together with Yabloko party leader Grigory Yavlinsky, Nemtsov called on Spain’s prime minister to resist Russian pressure.

News reports on Russia’s independent NTV channel, which is part of Media-Most’s holdings, called into question the procedure by which the magnate was detained near Gibraltar in the early hours of Tuesday, Dec. 12 — ironically, Russia’s Constitution Day and a public holiday.

An Interpol spokesman at the organization’s Lyons, France, headquarters stated that proceedings had been made directly from Russia to Spain, rather than through central channels.

Gusinsky’s Moscow lawyer said he had advised his client against leaving London for what should have been a two-day visit to Spain. Support for Gusinsky is considerably stronger in Britain and Israel, two other countries where he has spent time since fleeing Russia in July.

Russia said it issued an international warrant for Gusinsky’s arrest Dec. 4, after he failed to answer a call to appear Nov. 13 for questioning on fraud charges.

Russian prosecutors are following up on charges related to loans taken out by Media-Most from natural resources giant Gazprom. There are also unrelated accusations, under which Gusinsky had been imprisoned in Moscow for three days in June, of embezzlement of state funds connected with a St Petersburg TV company, Russkoe Video. These were dropped before Gusinsky was allowed to leave Russia in July.

However, the fact that Media-Most had completed the first stage in an amicable settlement with its main creditor Gazprom-Media a week before Gusinsky’s arrest seems to contradict accusations that Gusinsky had been stripping assets from the holding’s subsidiary companies. On Dec. 5, Gazprom-Media withdrew court actions against Media-Most after it had received stakes in NTV and 23 other companies in the holding, and was expected to withdraw a second legal suit, due for a Dec. 20 hearing, assuming that similar stakes in Media-Most’s remaining subsidiaries are properly passed over.

The complex deal saw both players agreeing, via appointed intermediary Deutsche Bank, to seek an international investor to purchase a stake in NTV; this would mean Gazprom would not gain a majority stake in NTV — the main demand put forward by Gusinsky and his supporters. The decisive 19% NTV stake has been pledged to Gazprom-Media against a $262 million loan due to Credit Suisse First Boston that becomes due in the summer, though until then Gusinsky retains voting rights on it.