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Russian oligarch hit with charges for sanction violations

Attorney General Merrick Garland called sanctions just one weapon in the Justice Department's tool belt as Russia faces global pushback for waging war in Ukraine.

WASHINGTON (CN) — For the first time since Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February, the Justice Department unsealed charges Wednesday against a Russian oligarch accused of violating U.S. sanctions. 

Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the indictment of Konstantin Malofeyev, 47, of Russia, in a news conference at the Department of Justice where he also touted a recent coup on the cyber front. Garland said a court had authorized the FBI's cyber division weeks earlier to dismantle a two-tiered global botnet of thousands of infected network hardware devices known as “Sandworm” that has been linked to the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.

"The Russian government has recently used similar infrastructure to attack Ukrainian targets," Garland told reporters. "Fortunately, we were able to disrupt this botnet before it could be used."

The news comes the same day that the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union enacted new sanctions on Russia, including a ban on all new investments in the country. The U.S. and its allies are also sanctioning Russian President Vladimir Putin’s two daughters, and the EU has proposed a ban on Russian coal.

Sanctions are piling up against Putin's regime as evidence of brutal killings in Bucha, a town outside Kyiv, have surfaced in recent days and set off global backlash.

Ukrainian officials said on Sunday that at least 410 bodies were discovered in the town — some of which were found lying on roads. Photos show some bodies with their hands tied behind their back and gunshot wounds to the head.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told the United Nations Security Council that Russian forces are intentionally killing civilians. The claim came just two days after Zelenskyy accused Putin of orchestrating a genocide.

Prosecutors in Ukraine as of Wednesday are investigating more than 4,600 war crimes, including allegations of torture and sexual violence, according to the website for the Ukraine Prosecutor General.

The indictment unsealed on Wednesday in the Southern District of New York meanwhile alleges that Malofeyev violated sanctions by hiring Jack Hanick, an American citizen and ex-Fox News producer, to work for his right-wing television channel, Tsargrad TV. 

Though Hanick is not named in the indictment, prosecutors say he conspiring with Malofeyev and others to illegally transfer a $10 million dollar investment in a U.S. bank to Malofeyev’s business associate in Greece.

The Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control designated Malofeyev as a Specially Designated National in 2014 after then-President Obama imposed sanctions on Russia in connection with the country’s undermining of democratic processes in Ukraine.

These Ukraine-related sanctions prohibit U.S. citizens from assisting or providing support to entities that threaten Ukraine’s peace, security, stability, sovereignty, or territorial integrity.

“OFAC’s designation of Malofeyev explained that he was one of the main sources of financing for Russians promoting separatism in Crimea, and has materially assisted, sponsored, and provided financial, material, or technological support for, or goods and services to or in support of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, a separatist organization in the Ukrainian region of Donetsk,” according to a Justice Department press release.

Malofeyev remains at large, and authorities believe he is in Russia. The department has issued a seizure warrant for his U.S. investment.

Last month, the department launched KleptoCapture, a task force dedicated to finding and seizing assets of oligarchs trying to evade sanctions.

Since then, the department has seized Russian Oligarch Viktor Vekselberg’s superyacht, as well as the Russia-affiliated Hydra darknet market, which is known to be the world’s largest illegal marketplace on the darkweb.

Officials have also obtained seizure warrants for assets of various sanctioned Russian nationals.

“Our message to those who continue to enable the Russian regime through their criminal code is this: it does not matter how far you sail your yacht, it does not matter how well you conceal your assets, it does not matter how cleverly you write your malware, or hide your online activity,” Garland said on Wednesday.

“The Justice Department will use every available tool to find you, disrupt your plots and hold you accountable.”

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