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Former Russian health insurance official's custody extended

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MOSCOW, January 10 (RIA Novosti) - A Moscow district court has ruled to extend the custody of a former health insurance official charged with corruption until April 10, a RIA Novosti correspondent reported Wednesday from the courtroom.

The Basmanny court's ruling upheld a motion from prosecutors regarding Andrei Taranov, a former director of Russia's Mandatory Medical Insurance Fund, who has been accused of three instances of bribery to the sum of 187,500 rubles (over $7,000).

The decision echoes the Prosecutor General's Office concerns that Taranov could escape justice, put pressure on witnesses, or use his law enforcement connections to influence the investigation, if released from custody.

Taranov's lawyer, while saying the defense would have agreed to any bail payment, denied that there was any possibility of interfering with the probe, given that investigators have already carried out 79 searches and questioned 45 witnesses. Taranov said he was keen to assist the investigation.

In November, the Basmanny court sanctioned the arrests of Taranov and another six top managers of the health insurance fund, on suspicion of corruption and bribery.

Police conducted searches and seized documents in a raid on the insurance fund's central office in Moscow and eight of its regional offices, as well as on the headquarters of partner firms and companies involved in a state-run program to provide free or subsidized medication to low-income population groups.

The Prosecutor General's Office said evidence suggested that the Federal Mandatory Medical Insurance Fund officials received bribes from the heads of regional branches of the fund, and representatives of pharmaceutical and other commercial companies involved in distributing medication and medical equipment.

Russian President Vladimir Putin asked Health Minister Mikhail Zurabov to assist in the fraud investigation and to monitor the use of budget funds.

Some 600 bribery and embezzlement cases have been launched in Russia since July, when the president, who has set the fight against corruption as a national priority, ordered the prosecutor general, Yury Chaika, to draw up an anti-corruption strategy.

First Deputy Prosecutor General Alexander Buksman said in a newspaper interview in November that annual corruption in Russia had reached $240 billion, a sum almost equal to the federal budget.

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