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Crab buyer acquitted in Russia, rearrested

Hal Bernton Seattle Times

SEATTLE – For a precious few minutes, Bellevue, Wash., businessman Arkadi Gontmakher thought he was a free man after a Russian jury in Kamchatka acquitted him of charges of buying crab from a criminal poaching ring.

Gontmakher had been imprisoned for more than three years awaiting trial.

The Dec. 16 verdict appeared to clear the way for his return to Washington state. But before he could set foot outside the courtroom, Russian police arrested him on a new set of charges that involved purchases of crab from other illegal Russian fishermen.

“I was happy to hear he was acquitted. It was the biggest moment of my life,” said his wife, Lena Gontmakher, who was back in Bellevue as she learned of the verdict in a phone call. “Then, they called me back and said he had been rearrested. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was in absolute shock.”

So Gontmakher, 53, has been required to remain in the Kamchatka, a Russian Far East region that is a hub for that nation’s crabbing industry. Suffering from a heart condition, he is in a hospital there, according to Lena Gontmakher.

The Ukrainian-born Gontmakher is a U.S. citizen and his plight drew high-level attention from the U.S. Embassy.

Gontmakher is the founder of Bellevue-based Global Fishing, which in 2007 was the largest importer of Russian king crab sold in the United States.

In September of that year, Gontmakher was arrested while on a business trip to Moscow.

“He was sleeping, and they broke into his hotel room and took him to prison,” his wife said.

He was charged with money laundering and involvement in a conspiracy to poach millions of pounds of king crab from the waters of Kamchatka, where fleets had been overfishing.

Last week, the jury acquitted Gontmakher in a 12-0 decision, according to Gontmakher’s attorneys. But after his rearrest, he was escorted from the courtroom by Russian police. Gontmakher’s business operations also have come under scrutiny here in the United States.

In August 2008, while Gontmakher was detained in Russia, FBI and federal fishery agents searched his Bellevue office. Sealed documents detailing that investigative effort were filed in the federal court, an NOAA fisheries spokesman at that time told the Seattle Times. Lena Gontmakher said Global Fishing is no longer operating.

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