Russian ex-minister arrested on fraud charges

A former Russian government minister has been arrested on charges of embezzling $62 million, fueling speculation about possible fallout for the prime minister who was his political patron.

Mikhail Abyzov is accused of presiding over a criminal group that allegedly siphoned 4 billion rubles from two energy companies in Siberia and deposited the money in foreign banks.

Abyzov, 46, was a member of the Russian Cabinet as the minister for open government affairs during 2012-2018, overseeing information technologies and efforts to increase the government's transparency.

He has been charged with forming and leading a criminal group, abusing his office and large-scale fraud. Abyzov's lawyer told Russia's Interfax news agency that his client "categorically" denies the charges.

Abyzov was a close associate of former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who was in office during 2008-2012 when term limits forced Vladimir Putin to move into the prime minister's seat.

After Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, Medvedev became prime minister and put Abyzov in the senior Cabinet position.

Abyzov left the Cabinet last year, but continued to advise the government as a member of a working group that was developing proposals for enhancing state oversight of public spending.

Russian news reports said Abyzov recently had lived in Italy and the United States and before his arrest was lured back to Russia by a birthday party invitation from a longtime colleague.

Interfax said Abyzov was arrested immediately after he arrived in Moscow on a business jet Tuesday. A court in Moscow is set to rule Wednesday on whether he should be kept in custody.

The current charges, carrying a maximum 20-year prison sentence upon conviction, relate to Abyzov's business activities from 2011 to 2014. But Russian investigators have signaled an intention to review his tenure as a government minister for possible wrongdoing.

That could have consequences for his political patron, Medvedev. Some pundits have suggested Medvedev may hope to return as president after Putin's current six-year term ends in 2024.

Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the president had been informed about the charges against Abyzov in advance.

Medvedev's spokesman, Oleg Osipov, said the prime minister was aware of Abyzov's arrest.

In a statement carried by Russian news agencies, Osipov noted that the charges related to Abyzov's activities as a businessman. He added that if Abyzov retained control over his commercial assets as a minister it would have violated the law.

Abyzov started in business as a student in the early 1990s, importing food from Bulgaria.

He bought several engineering and construction companies during the 2000s, eventually combining them to form the E4 Group, one of the biggest private construction subcontractors in Russia's energy industry.

Forbes magazine listed Abyzov as having $1 billion worth of assets in 2014, but he dropped off the list the next year.