Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 76

Vladimir Gusinsky finally won one yesterday, when a Spanish judicial panel voted 2 to 1 to reject a request from the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office that he be extradited to face charges of large-scale fraud. The Russian case against Gusinsky was that his Media-Most holding had borrowed hundreds of million of dollars from the Gazprom natural gas monopoly with no intention of repaying the loans. Gusinsky’s lawyers apparently convinced the Spanish judges that their client had not done so: The judges noted in their verdict that in Spain, Gusinsky’s failure to repay his debts would not constitute a crime under Spanish law and would be subject to civil litigation only. While the judges did not find that the charges against Gusinsky had been trumped up for political reasons, as the tycoon’s lawyers had argued, their decision referred to “questionable circumstances and peculiarities” in the efforts to prosecute the media magnate. According to a Russian newspaper, the judges took into consideration “the underlying political basis of the case” against Gusinsky. This, the paper wrote, became “completely obvious” following the April 14 takeover of the facilities of Media-Most’s NTV television channel by Gazprom-appointed managers (Kommersant, April 19). While the decision to reject the Russian extradition request can be appealed before another panel of judges within three days and Gusinsky has been ordered to remain in his villa in southern Spain pending a possible appeal, most observers said they found it unlikely that the decision would be reversed (Moscow Times, April 19; Associated Press, Russian agencies, April 18).

Gusinsky was arrested and briefly jailed in Spain last December on a Russian warrant. He was subsequently released on US$5.5 million bail and has been under house arrest since that time, awaiting a decision on the Russian extradition request. Before leaving Russia last year, Gusinsky and Media-Most were the targets of dozens of raids and interrogations led by the Prosecutor General’s Office, which were carried out on the basis of several different criminal cases, including a three-year-old embezzlement case involving a St. Petersburg firm. Gusinsky was arrested and briefly jailed last summer, after which he went abroad.

In the wake of this week’s closure of the Segodnya daily newspaper and firing of the staff of the weekly magazine Itogi–decisions taken by Dmitry Biryukov, the head of the Seven Days publishing house and an erstwhile Gusinsky ally who recently switched his allegiance to Gazprom–the United States government has expressed fears over the fate of press freedom in Russia. U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that Media-Most’s outlets had been “clear targets of a series of extraordinary pressures from law enforcement and other elements of the Russian government,” actions which, he said, “lead reasonable observers in Russia and elsewhere to the conclusion that the campaign against Media-Most is politically motivated, given the media company’s often outspoken criticism of Russian government policies.” Boucher said the United was “extremely troubled” by the takeover at NTV (Reuters, April 18; see also the Monitor, April 16, 18).