Ukrainian minister's son gets conditional release in graft case

KIEV (Reuters) - A Ukrainian judge released the son of Ukraine’s interior ministry from custody on Wednesday on the condition he appear in court as required in connection with an embezzlement case.

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On Tuesday, Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) detained three people in connection with the suspected embezzlement of $521,000 through a contract to supply backpacks to the interior ministry.

Ukrainian media reported former deputy interior minister Serhiy Chebotar and Interior Minister Arsen Avakov’s son, Oleksandr, were among those taken into custody.

According to news agency Interfax Ukraine, a Kiev district court ruled Oleksandr Avakov could be released provided “he appear as demanded by investigators and report on his movements.”

The so-called “backpacks case” has been openly discussed in Ukraine since 2015, and the detentions were welcomed by anti-corruption activists as a sign that NABU is fulfilling its mandate to investigate high-profile graft cases linked to officials.

Nevertheless, the detention of a senior cabinet minister’s family member has also been interpreted as a sign of a possible power struggle within the political elite.

In a statement, the interior ministry said the case was politically motivated, while Avakov said his son would fight all allegations in court.

“Neither my son nor the firms he has founded have or had a single kopeck (cent) from the Ukrainian budget,” he said on Facebook.

The individuals are suspected of allowing the interior ministry to be overcharged for a contract to purchase backpacks in 2015, according to the NABU investigation.

“The goods were not delivered on time and did not meet the requirements set by the Ukrainian interior ministry, as a result of which the state was hit with a loss of over 14 million hryvnias ($521,000),” NABU said.

NABU was established as part of Ukraine’s Western-backed reform drive under which Kiev promised to root out graft and modernize the economy in exchange for billions of dollars in international funding.

But Ukraine’s backers have seen a failure to bring corrupt lawmakers and senior officials to justice as an indication the authorities may lack the commitment to eliminate the power of vested interests.

Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Robin Pomeroy