Russian court jails governor facing murder charges

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A governor of the Khabarovsk region along the border with China, Sergei Furgal is escorted from a court room in Moscow, Russia, Friday, July 10, 2020. A provincial governor in Russia's far east has been arrested on charges of involvement in multiple murders and was flown to Moscow. The court ordered Frugal to be jailed for two months as the investigation continues. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

MOSCOW – A court in Moscow ruled Friday to jail a provincial governor pending a probe on charges of his involvement in multiple murders.

Sergei Furgal, the governor of the Khabarovsk region along the border with China, was arrested in Khabarovsk on Thursday and was flown to Moscow for interrogation that lasted nearly until midnight. On Friday, the Basmanny District Court ruled that he should be held behind bars for two months as the investigation continues.

The Investigative Committee, the nation’s main criminal investigation agency, said Furgal is accused of involvement in the murders of several businessmen in the region and nearby territories in 2004 and 2005.

The 50-year-old governor has denied the charges that date back to the period before he launched his political career when he was a businessman with interests ranging from imports of consumer goods to timber and metals

Before defeating a Kremlin-backed rival to win the governor’s seat in 2018, Furgal served as a federal lawmaker on the ticket of the Liberal-Democratic Party for a decade. In 2015-2016, he headed the public health committee in the lower house of parliament, the State Duma.

The Liberal-Democratic Party, led by flamboyant ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, long has been a fixture in the tightly-controlled Russian political system and voted along with the Kremlin's wishes.

While Furgal has never challenged federal government policy like the rest of his party, his unexpected victory in the gubernatorial election reflected growing public frustration with President Vladimir Putin's policies and marked a painful setback for the main Kremlin party, United Russia.

Russian media reports said that Furgal had promised the Kremlin he would step down if he won the governor's seat but broke his pledge, and his highly-placed foes have taken revenge.

The arrest of Furgal, who has remained widely popular in his region, has stoked broad discontent, with a petition protesting his arrest quickly getting more than 37,000 signatures and residents of Khabarovsk staging pickets in his support.

It also provoked an unusual angry outburst from Zhirinovsky, who accused federal officials of fabricating the case against Frugal to sideline his party and even compared his arrest to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's purges.

“You are sitting in your high offices and acting like in Stalin's times,” Zhirinovsky said in a fiery speech before the lower house.

Zhirinovsky also said Thursday that Furgal was targeted because he resisted pressure from corrupt federal officials who were extorting “caseloads of cash” from him.

Asked about Zhirinovsky's claims, Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that he could face a lawsuit if he fails to back up his allegations.

Peskov also dismissed analogies with Stalinist repressions, saying that “we consider them incorrect.”