Ukraine court frees interior minister's son in graft case
Kiev (AFP) - A Kiev court on Wednesday released from detention the son of the powerful interior minister in an embezzlement case seen as a test of Ukraine's commitment to tackling corruption in the highest echelons of power.
Tuesday's arrest of Interior Minister Arsen Avakov's son Oleksandr sparked rumours of furious infighting among both the ruling elite and the Western-backed coalition now cautiously steering reforms through parliament.
The charges could see the 29-year-old and his two co-defendants jailed for up to 12 years if convicted of "embezzling, waisting or obtaining assets through abuse of power".
Ukraine's nascent National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) detained Oleksandr in Kiev and searched his home in the eastern city of Kharkiv on Tuesday in one of its highest-profile raids to date.
But Kiev's refused to remand Oleksandr in prison and instead ordered him to wear an electronic monitor and report to a judge if he wants to leave the Ukrainian capital.
"I believe this case is completely politically motivated and has nothing to do with the rule of law," Oleksandr told the court after being let out of a glass cage in which he was placed at the start of proceedings.
Oleksandr's comments came before Judge Vitaliy Ukrayinytsk issued his decision to a packed courtroom that included members of Avakov's People's Front party.
- 'Fight for power' -
The high-stakes case revolves around a 2015 government contract for the purchase of military backpacks that was awarded to a company controlled by Oleksandr's friend and co-defendant Volodymyr Lytvyn.
NABU believes Lytvyn's company sold the backpacks at inflated prices that cost the state 14 million hryvnias ($520,000 at current exchange rates).
The bureau's prosecutors accuse Oleksandr of being the middleman who illegally steered the deal toward his friend.
The sums involved are minor compared with other instances of state corruption that have littered Ukraine's post-Soviet history.
But they have created a backlash from Avakov's political party and put renewed pressure on NABU.
The People's Front and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's own bloc hold a slender majority in parliament that allows them to push ahead with institutional changes prescribed by the International Monetary Fund.
But Kiev media outlets report frequent squabbles between Avakov and Poroshenko that threaten to splinter the ruling coalition and lead to early elections.
Avakov's party accused NABU of "turning the so-called fight against corruption into a fight for power" that unfairly targets its members and the police force.
Media reports said People's Front leaders believe that Oleksandr's arrest was ordered by Poroshenko after he became upset with Avakov for failing to disperse a wave of anti-government protests that began in Kiev last month.
Avakov is the last remaining member of the government that rose to power after a 2014 pro-EU revolution which ousted Kiev's Russian-backed regime.
His authority is further boosted by his control of a police and interior ministry force that together with the National Guard and border patrol exceed the size of the Ukrainian army.
Avakov tried to calm some of the tensions on Wednesday by calling reports of a feud with Poroshenko "fantasy".
"There is no need for twisting facts and speculation," he said in a Twitter post.