CHISINAU Moldova has launched a criminal investigation into allegations a bank in the country was involved in a money-laundering scheme related to the Russian tax fraud case exposed by anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.
Magnitsky, who had accused Russian police and tax officials of stealing $230 million from the state by setting up bogus tax refunds, died in a Moscow jail in 2009 after complaining he was denied treatment as his health declined. The Kremlin's own human rights council aired suspicions he was beaten to death.
The case has harmed Russia's image abroad and badly strained relations with the United States. Washington last year adopted the Magnitsky Act which imposed asset freezes and barred from entry to the United States anyone suspected of a role in his death.
Moldova's National Anti-Corruption Center is looking into allegations that some of the Russian fraud money was wired through a Moldovan bank, Igor Volnitchii, an adviser to Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat, said on Monday.
A spokesman for the National Anti-Corruption Center said the criminal case had been launched last December. He declined to provide any further details.
Moldova, an impoverished former Soviet republic, maintains close economic ties with Russia which is one of the main markets for Moldovan exports and where thousands of Moldovan migrant laborers work.
However, it has distanced itself from Moscow politically since 2009 when an alliance of pro-Western parties came to power in Moldova.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has rejected suggestions Magnitsky was tortured in prison, saying he died of a heart attack. But the lawyer's former employer, investment fund Hermitage Capital, says he was killed.
Russia has jailed a former sawmill worker over the tax fraud exposed by Magnitsky but none of the officials accused of setting up the scheme or being responsible for his death in jail has been sentenced so far.
Moscow responded to the U.S. Magnitsky Act by introducing similar measures and banning the adoption of Russian children by Americans.
Last month, a Russian court re-opened a tax evasion case against Magnitsky and his former client William Browder, the owner of Hermitage Capital.
(Reporting by Alexander Tanas; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Pravin Char)