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Moldovan court strikes down law barring pro-Russian party from polls

FILE PHOTO: Moldova's court hearing to verify constitutionality of Shor party

By Alexander Tanas

CHISINAU (Reuters) - Moldova's Constitutional Court on Tuesday struck down legislation aimed at barring from elections a banned party linked to a fugitive business magnate who supports opponents of the pro-European government.

The court ruled unconstitutional an amendment to the former Soviet state's electoral law barring individuals linked to parties deemed illegal or unconstitutional from running for office for three years.

The measure, passed last year, was part of a concerted drive by authorities against pro-Russian businessman Ilan Shor.

Shor was sentenced to 15 years in prison in absentia last year for fraud in connection with the "theft of the century", the disappearance of $1 billion from Moldova's banking system in 2014-2015.

A party bearing his name was ruled unconstitutional and the amendment was invoked to keep its members out of local elections last year, including one of Shor's deputies running for mayor in Balti, Moldova's second largest city.

Shor has organised noisy street protests against President Maia Sandu from exile in Israel and denounced the president's campaign to secure European Union membership for the country lying between Ukraine and Romania. Sandu accuses him of trying to undermine Moldova's institutions with Russian help.

Parliamentary speaker Igor Grosu said the government would abide by the ruling, but make every effort to prevent anyone linked to criminal organisations from running for office.

"We will make adjustments in accordance with the court's ruling, but will not allow criminal groups to seize control of the electoral process and undermine democracy in Moldova," Grosu said in comments broadcast on television.

Moldova has long unsuccessfully sought Shor's extradition.

Sandu identifies Russia as the single biggest threat to the sovereignty of Moldova and has called for a referendum later this year to secure a public mandate for her drive to join the EU. The Constitutional Court last week cleared the way for the vote to be held at the same time as a presidential election.

Moldova faces twin threats to its stability from the separatist enclave of Transdniestria in the east and the region of Gagauzia in the south, whose leader has close links to Shor.

Both regions have in recent weeks sought support from Russia.

(Reporting by Alexander Tanas; Writing by Ron Popeski; Editing by Sandra Maler)