Moldovan court opens trial of pro-Russian leader of Gagauzia region

FILE PHOTO: Leader of Moldova's Gagauzia region gives a press conference in Moscow

By Alexander Tanas

CHISINAU (Reuters) - A Moldovan court on Tuesday opened the trial of the Gagauzia region's Kremlin-allied governor who is accused of channelling funds from Russia to a pro-Moscow party.

Evgenia Gutul, who emerged out of obscurity last year to win local elections, has strong pro-Russian views and opposes Moldova's pro-European government that accuses Moscow of political meddling.

According to prosecutors, Gutul was involved in a systematic channelling of unaccounted funds in 2019-2022 to finance the now-banned pro-Moscow "Shor" party set up by Ilan Shor, an exiled pro-Russian businessman convicted of fraud in Moldova.

Arriving in court in the capital Chisinau on Tuesday, Gutul said the case was fabricated. Several dozen people turned out to support her at the court entrance, video shared via her Telegram channel showed.

"Today, the first court hearing was held in a case that was fabricated against me and my colleagues from the Shor party. The trial was postponed to May 27," Gutul said on Telegram.

She told reporters the trial had been postponed because she was not provided with an indictment in Russian. Moldova's official language is Romanian.

If convicted, Gutul could be jailed for two to seven years, prosecutors said, and banned from holding governmental posts. She is also accused of paying people to attend anti-government protests organised by the Shor party in 2022.

Gutul has traveled to Moscow to meet high-ranking officials and in March met Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Moldova, the small former Soviet republic led by pro-European President Maia Sandu, hopes to join the European Union by 2030 and to extricate itself from Moscow's orbit.

Its relations with Russia have unravelled as the government has condemned Russia's full-scale invasion of neighbouring Ukraine, accused Moscow of plotting the government's overthrow and expelled Russian diplomats.

Russian troops occupy Transdniestria, a pro-Russian region that broke away in a brief war in the early 1990s.

Gagauzia is a another small autonomous region whose 140,000 residents, mainly ethnic Turks, have had uneasy relations with central authorities since Moldova threw off Soviet rule in 1991.

(Reporting by Alexander Tanas, writing by Yuliia Dysa; Editing by Ros Russell)