Russian prosecutors launch criminal case against Kasyanov

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Moscow, Jan 22 (UNI) Russian prosecutors today launched a criminal case against former prime minister and opposition leader Mikhail Kasyanov after more than 15,000 signatures gathered in his support for the presidency in Republic of Mari-EL were found to have been forged.

''The Russian Prosecution Investigative Committee's office for Yoshkar-Ola has launched a criminal case under Article 142 part 2 of the Russian Penal Code (falsification of electoral documents),'' spokesperson for the Russian Prosecutor General's Office Tatyana Chernysheva told mediapersons.

Mr Kasyanov is the only liberal opposition candidate after the Union of Right Forces (SPS) nominee Boris Nemtsov stepped down in December to make way for the former prime minister.

He submitted 2.67 million signatures, just above the two million required for independent candidates, in support of his application for the March 2 presidential elections.

Mr Kasyanov's support team has described the prosecutors' statements as political pressure.

''We know about the Mari-El story, which has lasted for a week already. We consider it political pressure,'' Mr Kasyanov's spokesperson Yelena Dikun said.

Vyacheslav Nikonov, president of the Politika Foundation think-tank, expressed doubts about Mr Kasyanov's registration and said the candidate initially had little chance.

''Mr Kasyanov certainly has money, but he lacks organisational skills,'' Mr Nikonov told RIA Novosti.

Under the election law, an independent candidate cannot be registered if more than five per cent of the total (two million) signatures collected are declared fraudulent.

Three other candidates who have also registered for the poll are Kremlin-backed Dmitry Medvedev, Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the Nationalist Liberal Democratic Party.

Former world chess champion and a leading liberal leader Garry Kasparov, had planned to run but said he could not, after his supporters were not allowed to rent halls for nomination meetings.

The final candidates list is to be announced on Sunday.

Western observers have urged the Kremlin to stand back from the presidential poll, accusing it of interfering in parliamentary elections last year, even though President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party was likely to have won anyway.

Mr Kasyanov was fired as Prime Minister in 2004. His political journey has turned him from a Putin loyalist to a fierce Kremlin critic.

UNI XC PD AS1834

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