Russia on Tuesday charged four of its soldiers with theft for stealing credit cards from the corpse of a victim of the plane crash that killed Polish president Lech Kaczynski, investigators said.
The four, conscripts based at the military airport in western Russian where Kaczynski’s plane crashed on April 10, used the cards to withdraw some 1,800 dollars from the bank account of the official.
The scandal has cast a shadow on the reconciliation seen between Poland and Russia after the crash, amid questions over why Moscow had taken over a day to confirm the arrest of the four which were first announced by Warsaw.
“Today, four soldiers have been charged with theft,” the Investigative Committee of the Russian Prosecutor’s Office said in a statement, adding that the conscripts had been inside the police cordon following the crash.
“All four suspects have confessed and are actively cooperating with investigators,” it said.
Polish prosecutors have said the four used the cards to withdraw a total of 6,000 zlotys (1,500 euros) from the bank account of Andrzej Przewoznik, who headed Poland’s national war memorial committee.
He was part of the Polish delegation heading to Katyn near the western Russian city of Smolensk for a ceremony marking the 1940 massacre of thousands of Polish army officers at the orders of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.
Kaczynski’s Russian-made Tupolov Tu-154 plane crashed while attempting to land in thick fog at the Severny military aerodrome near Smolensk, killing all 96 people on board.
The four soldiers charged were named Tuesday as Sergei Syrov, Igor Pustovar, Artur Pankratov and Yury Sankov.
In an embarrassing admission for the Russian armed forces, investigators said that three of the four recruits had previous convictions for robbery, forgery of money and theft.
They are now being held under observation by the commanders of their unit, the statement said without naming the unit.
The amount stolen was 60,345 rubles (1,890.84 dollars), investigators said, a sum slightly higher than that named by the Polish side.
The men have been charged with premeditated theft by a group, an offence that carries a maximum jail sentence of five years.
Polish officials had on Sunday announced that members of the Russian security forces had been arrested for posthumously defrauding Przewoznik. But the Russian interior ministry officials on Monday denied this was the case.
Only late on Monday did an unnamed security official tell the RIA Novosti news agency that the arrests had been made.
“Why did Russia not tell the truth from the start?” asked columnist Waclaw Radziwinowicz in the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza.
“Russia does not understand that such an attitude destroys the good that has been created between our countries in the most recent time.”
Meanwhile, Polish government spokesman Pawel Gras was also forced to apologise for erroneously identifying the arrested men as members of the OMON riot police.
The Russian investigators however said Tuesday that their probe had begun before Polish officials asked Russia to check on the use of the missing credit cards.
“By that time, the FSB security services in Smolensk region and the investigative organs not only had the above information but were carrying out active investigative and operative measures,” it said.
The commanders of the military unit that operates the aerodrome contacted security services after they found “foreign credit cards” in the soldiers’ possession, investigators said.
Russian defence ministry spokesman Alexei Kuznetsov said Tuesday it would compensate the stolen money and issue an apology “as soon as a court has established the guilt and responsibility of the suspected conscripts”, RIA Novosti reported.