Russian Tainted-Oil Suspect Seeks Asylum in Lithuania

VILNIUS, July 19 (Reuters) - Roman Ruzhechko, a suspect in a Russian probe into a major oil pipeline contamination earlier this year, has asked for political asylum in Lithuania, a Vilnius district court spokesman told Reuters on Friday.

Russian prosecutors have charged Ruzhechko, an executive at a small oil transport firm, and several other people in a criminal conspiracy to pollute the network, which is owned and operated by the country's oil pipeline monopoly Transneft. A lawyer for Ruzhechko has said there was nothing in the prosecutors' files that proved his client's guilt.

Meanwhile on Friday, in Warsaw, an official at Poland's biggest refiner PKN Orlen said the quality of Russian crude oil is deteriorating in general.

"The suspension of oil supplies via the Druzhba pipeline was quite a challenge, but ... we were able to maintain a high level of throughput," said PKN Orlen board member Wieslaw Protasewicz, who described Russian oil quality as "deteriorating, but still worth being processed."

Since the start of 2018, PKN has contracted spot purchases from Angola, Nigeria, the United States and the United Arab Emirates.

The contamination of oil transported via Druzhba pipeline was discovered in April and led to a major disruption of supplies from Russia, the world's second largest oil exporter. Buyers are now seeking compensation worth tens of millions of dollars. The contamination involved high levels of organic chloride found in oil sent via the Druzhba ("Friendship") pipeline and to the Baltic port of Ust-Luga.

Druzhba can transport 1 Mmbpd or the equivalent of one percent of global oil demand and serves refiners in Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Ukraine and Belarus.

Russian President Vladimir Putin told the boss of Transneft, Nikolai Tokarev, that the contamination was a serious blow to Russia's image as a reliable energy supplier.

Lithuania’s prosecutor general office said Ruzhechko was detained in Lithuania on an Interpol warrant for 48 hours.

At a hearing on Thursday, the Vilnius district court authorised a three-month detention of Ruzhechko at the request of prosecutors, the court spokesman said.

A country has 40 days to present a request to extradite a person, Lithuania's prosecutors spokesman said.

Ruzhechko is general director of a company called Samartransneft-Terminal, which used to own another oil transport firm, Nefteperevalka. Russian prosecutors have detained two executives from Nefteperevalka, two other suspects and have issued arrest warrants for Ruzhechko and the former owner of Nefteperevalka, Roman Trushev.

Prosecutors alleged Trushev and Ruzhechko directed the conspiracy but did not say on what basis they made that conclusion.

Documents seen by Reuters this week certified that Transneft gave a clean bill of health to oil deliveries from Nefteperevalka.

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