As tension mounts in Russia, US farmer remains imprisoned in Ukraine | New Policies

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By ERIC TUCKER, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — When Kurt Groszhans left North Dakota for Ukraine in 2017, he was eager to connect with his family’s ancestral homeland and cultivate the rich, black soil the country is known for.

But his farming business with a law professor who is now a senior Ukrainian government official quickly collapsed in acrimony and accusations, culminating in his arrest last November on charges of conspiring to murder his former business partner. His family and supporters say the charges are false and designed to silence Groszhan’s allegations of corruption in Ukraine, a country torn between Russian and Western interests and struggling to shed its reputation for corruption and cronyism.

The case unfolds as Ukraine prepares for a possible Russian invasion and the United States has ordered the families of American personnel at the American Embassy to evacuate. The upheaval has Groszhan’s family fearing the North Dakota farmer may be left behind, with the US government preoccupied with broader concerns over possible military action and geopolitical chaos.

“We are terrified for my brother’s well-being right now, especially anything you hear in the news with Russian troops on the border,” his sister, Kristi Magnusson, said in an interview with The Associated. Press. Fearing an invasion could force the evacuation of American diplomatic personnel, she called on the Biden administration and the State Department to “use their influence” to bring him home.

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“If the embassy isn’t there to check on him and make sure he’s okay, we don’t know what’s going to happen,” she added.

Asked for comment, the State Department said the administration takes its responsibility to help detained Americans seriously and is closely monitoring the case, but declined to comment further.

Republican Senator Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, who recently visited Groszhans at the detention center where he is awaiting trial, said the episode had “created friction between at least me and them, if not our two governments, which should be mitigated” both when US and Ukrainian interests should be aligned to counter the threat from Moscow.

“That bit of friction is unnecessary,” he added. “And I think we could all relieve ourselves of that just by freeing Kurt.”

Groszhans, a 50-year-old farmer from Ashley, North Dakota, traveled in 2017 to Ukraine, where his ancestors are from. The chance to work the country’s coveted black soil was a “dream come true”, and he invested a large sum to start a farming operation, his sister said. In a country with a prized agricultural sector, Groszhans was proud of her work, she said, sending her family photos of her crops.

Once there, he got in touch with a professor of law, Roman Leshchenko, who offered himself as a native speaker familiar with local agricultural activity and regulatory requirements. Grozhans appointed him director of his company.

Things quickly fell apart.

Groszhans alleged in a lawsuit and in an internet post that Leshchenko began embezzling money from him, defrauding him of more than $250,000 in total, and transferring funds to a family business. Groszhans has spoken out about his allegations, describing himself in a Medium post in August as a “humble” but deluded investor.

“Probably, I am not the first nor the last American investor who got the person hired as a manager wrong. But the personality of this manager makes my case unique,” ​​he writes.

Leshchenko declined to comment to the AP, but denied allegations of embezzlement in interviews with Ukrainian media and insisted the men agreed Leshchenko’s company would run the farming business.

He made his own accusations against Groszhans, alleging that the American farmer had planted genetically modified soybeans which are banned from cultivation and sale in Ukraine and it was this discovery that caused Leshchenko to resign from the company and was the source of their dispute.

“The circumstances of this criminal procedure must be verified within the framework of the preliminary investigation carried out by the national police and only on the basis of the results of which, after the relevant facts and their evidence have been clarified and established, the prosecution may make appropriate procedural decisions,” Tetyana Kozachenko, attorney for Leshchenko, told The Associated Press.

Ukrainian media that began investigating the dispute reported that Leshchenko used part of the funds for a contribution of around $60,000 to the 2019 campaign of current Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who later appointed Leshchenko Minister of the government’s agrarian and food policy.

The AP was unable to independently confirm the contribution. Zelenskyy’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Amid the controversy over the contribution, Leshchenko was interviewed by the Kyiv Post last year. The article said the $60,000 donation came from Leshchenko’s dying father. Leshchenko said he and his father see Zelensky “as the only person who wants to change Ukraine, to bring about structural reforms”.

Magnusson says Leshchenko eventually returned the money to his brother, but also threatened to have him arrested if he didn’t stop speaking publicly about his fraud charges.

In November, Groszhans was arrested along with his assistant on charges of conspiracy to assassinate Leshchenko, allegations which Groszhans supporters say are entirely fabricated but may stem from Groszhans hiring a private investigator to investigate Leshchenko. in the context of his litigation.

The arrest, according to his family and supporters, was a pretext to silence his allegations, especially in a country that has sought to bolster US diplomatic and military support by ensuring it was making serious efforts to fight back. against corruption.

“My brother has never in his 50 years of life … had any run-in with the law,” Magnusson said. “And we don’t think any of that can be true, because why would you want to murder someone if you’re trying to collect money that’s legally owed to you?”

His supporters are calling on the Biden administration to officially designate him as a wrongful detainee, a classification that would see his case reassigned to the Office of the President’s Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs at the State Department.

But his family fears the window for attention on Groszhan’s case is limited, given the potential for a Russian incursion and the diminishing diplomatic presence of the United States.

“It makes us more and more worried for him and his safety to know that these people could leave and that Kurt is forgotten, and he’s being left behind,” Magnusson said.

Follow Eric Tucker on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/etuckerAP

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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