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Dutch Investigators in Ukraine for Crash Probe, Russia Shuts Out Moldovan Fruit

Plus, Czech gangsters get life in a kidnap/murder plot and a Montenegrin mayor gets five years for corruption.

by Barbara Frye, Ioana Caloianu, Mane Grigoryan, and Madeleine Stern 21 July 2014

1. Dutch team examining remains of Flight 17 victims


Investigators from the Netherlands have arrived in eastern Ukraine and have begun going through the refrigerated train cars holding the bodies of some of the victims of last week’s crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, Radio Free Europe reports.


The Dutch team is expected to inspect the crash site as well. Meanwhile, cranes have “moved big chunks of the Boeing 777, drawing condemnation from Western leaders that the rebels were tampering with the site,” the Associated Press reports.


The accident scene has been expanded to take in 109 square kilometers (42 square miles), and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has ordered a halt to military operations within a 20-kilometer radius, Interfax-Ukraine reports.


Ukraine’s prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, said 272 bodies had been recovered and taken to the train cars, while facilities have been set up in Kharkiv “for the passengers' bodies and plane debris to be brought for further investigation,” RFE reports.


Rebels had stopped guarding the site by 20 July, according to the AP, and emergency workers were moving pieces of the plane in an apparent search for bodies. Some of the victims’ remains will likely never be recovered, as they were probably incinerated, said Michael Bociurkiw, a spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.


A rebel leader denied that pro-Russia separatists had interfered with the recovery and investigation, but a worker at a morgue in the nearby city of Torez said rebels had come in on 19 July demanding the body of a child that had been taken there.


“They began to question me: ‘Where are the fragments of rocket? Where are the fragments from the plane?’ ” Lyubov Kudryavets said, according to the AP. “But I didn't have any wreckage.”


American officials are blaming separatists for shooting down the plane. Secretary of State John Kerry said over the weekend that a video of a missile launcher leaving what the AP calls the “likely launch site” with one of its missiles gone has been authenticated. The AP adds that one of its journalists had seen “a missile launcher in rebel-held territory close to the crash site just hours before the plane was brought down.”


“It's pretty clear that this is a system that was transferred from Russia into the hands of separatists,” Kerry said.


Russian President Vladimir Putin has not directly addressed charges against the rebels or allegations of Russian complicity in the crash but has instead put blame on the Ukrainian government for ending a cease-fire with the separatists in early July.


2. Russia bans fruit imports from Moldova


Russia’s food safety agency has temporarily banned the import of fruit from Moldova, citing repeated violations of  hygiene regulations, The Moscow Times reports.


Apples, pears, quinces, apricots, peaches, nectarines, plums, blackthorn, and cherries are among the fruits subject to the ban. Russian inspectors warned Moldova’s food safety agency about the presence of apricot moths in some shipments, reports.


The ban could hit Moldovan fruit producers hard. Some 90 percent of the country’s fruit exports are purchased by Russia and other CIS countries, Alexander Slusar, chairman of the Moldovan farmers’ union, told


Russia levied the ban just weeks after Moldova signed an economic association agreement with the European Union, which prompted Kremlin threats of “protective [trade] measures,” The Moscow Times reports. Russia is also considering imposing customs duties on other Moldovan food products, including vegetables and meat, effectively ending the free-trade regime between the two countries, according to the newspaper.


Russia banned imports of Moldovan wine in 2013, citing the same safety concerns that led it to impose the fruit ban.


3. Czech pair gets life for abduction/murder ring


Two Czech gangsters were sentenced to life imprisonment on 18 July for their roles in a scheme to lure wealthy businessmen abroad, abduct them, and kill them, the Czech Press Agency (CTK) reports.


Gang leader Michael Svab admitted to plotting to lure the men out of the country and take money from them, presumably through extortion or blackmail, but he denied their murders. Libor Skopalik, who also received a life sentence, worked as Svab’s right-hand man “and ensured the detention of the businessmen abroad,” according to CTK.


One of the victims was a kidnapped businessman who allegedly died in a desert in Dubai in late 2012 after being suffocated by a plastic film and struck over the head, according to CTK. The second victim was shot dead in March 2013 after being transported to Italy from France for a phony real estate deal, Prazsky Denik reported in June.


Yet another man escaped a similar fate in 2011 by paying for his freedom in Spain, CTK writes.


Petr Klement, a third member of the gang, was convicted of carrying out the actual killings and received 30 years behind bars. But Klement and Svab said a fourth gang member, Daniel Dimitrov, committed the murders. Dimitrov, a cooperating witness, was sentenced to 20 years in prison, CTK reports.


Three other gang members received sentences of nine and 10 years.


The Prague court ordered the men to pay 240,000 crowns ($11,813) in compensation to each of five relatives of the murder victims and another $1.9 million to the man who ransomed himself.


Svab told the court he had planned to blackmail more rich businessmen and would use the money to buy cocaine and sell it in Australia, according to CTK.


4. Convictions cap long-running corruption case in Montenegro


The former mayor of the Montenegrin resort town of Budva has been sentenced to five years in prison, capping a 3½-year corruption prosecution.


Rajko Kuljaca
Rajko Kuljaca was arrested in late 2010 on charges of abuse of office in connection with the construction of a luxury resort complex near Budva. The project sat on land that had been designated a nature preserve and was rezoned without public debate after being sold. Work then began on the resort without the required permits.


Kuljaca and other defendants were found guilty in 2012, and he was sentenced to five years in prison. That conviction was overturned and last week’s verdict came after a retrial, according to Radio Free Europe’s Montenegrin service.


Plans for the luxury resort were hatched in 2007 by a partnership between Russian billionaire Sergey Polonski and Moninvest, a company then co-owned by Svetozar Marovic, vice president of the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists of Montenegro. Marovic’s brother, Dragan, a former owner of the firm, would later become a deputy mayor of Budva, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project reported in 2012.


Moninvest withdrew from the underfunded venture in 2008 and the Russian company left in control went bankrupt in 2009, according to the OCCRP.


Dragan Marovic was sentenced to four years in prison.


“Nine others, mostly indicted for helping Kuljaca and Marovic, received a total of 21 years in jail. One, Djordje Pinjatic, was an MP for Montenegro’s ruling Democratic Party of Socialists,” Balkan Insight reports.


5. Hit by declines in Ukraine, Russia, Poland seeks new export markets


Poland is on the hunt for new trade partners after seeing a 25 percent drop in exports to Russia and Ukraine, Polskie Radio reports.


Sales to the two countries have been hurt by instability in Ukraine and a Russian block on importing EU pork products, Polskie Radio says.


A market stall in Sanok, southeastern Poland, looks tempting, but Czechs are wary of Polish produce. Photo by Silar/Wikimedia Commons.


“It's an ideal time to gain new markets and widen the customer base,” Deputy Economy Minister Ilona Antoniszyn-Klik told the Puls Biznesu newspaper, according to Polskie Radio. To that end, Warsaw is launching a “Made in Poland” campaign in Azerbaijan, India, Indonesia, Mongolia, Malaysia, Turkmenistan, Vietnam, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, and Macedonia.


The campaign will include trips to the targeted countries to “court” potential contractors and journalists, according to Antoniszyn-Klik.


At the same time, Poland is trying to boost its exports to the neighboring Czech Republic and Slovakia, Polskie Radio reported last week. Although 16 percent of Czech food imports are Polish, 32 percent of Czechs had a negative view of Polish food, which they see as unhealthy and low quality, according to Polskie Radio.


The perception might be due to a number of Czech-Polish food scandals. In 2012, Czech authorities discovered that Polish producers had been using industrial salt, usually meant to clear roads, in foodstuffs. 


But despite past threats from Prague of a ban on Polish food imports, the Czech Republic imported 512.2 million euros’ ($693 million) worth in the first five months of 2014.

Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editor. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Mane Grigoryan and Madeleine Stern are TOL editorial interns. 
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