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Russians close case against media mogul

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MOSCOW — The criminal case against a Russian media mogul critical of Kremlin policies has been closed for lack of evidence that a crime was committed, the spokesman for his holding company said Thursday.

Vladimir Gusinsky was jailed for four days in June on charges of defrauding the government of $10 million in a privatization deal. Authorities had seized documents from his company's offices several times and repeatedly called Gusinsky in for questioning after he was released from jail. They also prohibited him from traveling abroad and took steps to freeze his personal assets.

Dmitry Ostalsky, the spokesman for Gusinsky's Media-Most holding company, said the prosecutor had sent Gusinsky the ruling Wednesday. The terse statement referred to an article of the Russian Criminal Code on "the lack of a fact of a crime."

The case against Gusinsky provoked international outrage and stoked fears that the government of President Vladimir Putin was intent on muzzling the media. Media-Most includes the NTV television station — the only one of Russia's three major networks that is not state-controlled — Echo of Moscow radio and several newspapers that have criticized Kremlin policies.

Others saw the case as a sign of a Kremlin offensive against Russia's top businessmen, who came to be known as "oligarchs" under Boris Yeltsin for their close ties to the government. Putin has said he would even the playing field for businessmen, giving none the favors they previously enjoyed.

Few doubted the Gusinsky case was politically motivated, though some entrepreneurs have said it was impossible to do business in the chaotic first years of Russia's post-Soviet reform without breaking laws.

Russian prosecutors have sought to reverse the 1997 privatization of giant metals concern Norilsk Nickel, saying it was sold at an unfairly low price to a well-connected businessman. Prosecutors also have launched criminal proceedings against Russia's largest car maker, Avtovaz, and oil giant Lukoil, which are accused of tax evasion.

It was unclear what pushed the prosecutor to drop the case against Gusinsky, whose lawyers had claimed for weeks that the state's evidence was laughable.

The case was closed just ahead of a meeting planned Friday between Putin and many of Russia's most powerful businessmen. The meeting was called to discuss rising tensions between the government and the business community.

But Vyacheslav Nikonov, head of the Politika Foundation think tank, doubted that the release was connected to the meeting.

"I think the arrest was a huge mistake by the Kremlin from the beginning, and if that mistake is being corrected, that's a good thing," he said.

He said the release "shows that there is less idiocy going on."

Another analyst, Andrei Ryabov of the Carnegie Endowment, speculated that Gusinsky may have agreed to temper his criticism of the Kremlin.

"Perhaps there were negotiations of some kind," he said.

"The problem with Gusinsky was always purely political, not economic like with the other oligarchs," he said. "Gusinsky recently has become the only real opposition to the new president, through his media."

The prosecutor said in the ruling that the prohibition on Gusinsky's travel abroad, imposed after he was freed from jail, and the freeze on his personal property had been lifted.

The ITAR-Tass news agency quoted Gusinsky's lawyer Pavel Astakhov as saying Gusinsky had flown overnight to Spain, where his family is staying.