Ukrainian billionaire Zhevago to be released on bail pending French extradition hearing

By Juliette Jabkhiro

CHAMBERY, France (Reuters) -A French court decided on Thursday to release Ukrainian billionaire Kostyantyn Zhevago on bail ahead of an extradition hearing on Jan. 19 on whether he should be sent to Ukraine to face embezzlement charges.

Zhevago, a 48-year-old billionaire who controls London-listed iron pellet producer Ferrexpo, was arrested in France in late December at Ukraine's request and had been detained since.

Ukraine's state bureau of investigation DBR has said the billionaire was wanted on suspicion of embezzlement and money-laundering linked to the disappearance of $113 million from the now bankrupt lender Finance & Credit Bank.

The businessman, one of Ukraine's richest men, told the court he did nothing wrong and should not be extradited.

"This is the first time I've been in jail. I didn't do these things I'm accused of in this case, I don't deserve this," he said, speaking via an interpreter.

"I ask for your permission to leave prison until the next hearing, and I will do everything you asked," he had said.

The court in Chambery in eastern France said it had agreed to release him on bail of 1 million euros ($1.05 million), confirming a report by one of Zhevago's lawyers Francois Zimeray .

Zhevago, who cannot leave France, has to hand authorities his two passports, report to local police three times a week and respond to legal summons, the court added.

The court had initially been due to hold the extradition hearing on Thursday, but Zhevago's lawyers and the public prosecutor said they needed more time to prepare, which the judges accepted, setting the new date to Jan. 19.

Ukraine issued an arrest warrant for Zhevago in 2019, with an international warrant following in 2021.

Zhevago served in the Ukrainian parliament from 1998 to 2019.

His arrest in France came amid Ukraine's broader efforts to clean up its oligarch-dominated economy. Since Ukraine's independence in 1991, a small group of elites have dominated its political system and economy. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has pledged to reduce the role of oligarchs in the economy.

Monthly publication Forbes Ukraine estimated Zhevago's wealth at $2.4 billion in 2021. The publication estimated Zhevago's wealth at $1.4 billion at the end of 2022.

"He must be able to continue to manage his business, his businesses, and in prison it's very difficult," one of Zhevago's lawyers, Etienne Arnaud, told the court, arguing for him to be set free.

($1 = 0.9500 euros)

(Additional reporting by Olena Harmash in Kyiv; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Alex Richardson, William Maclean and Josie Kao)