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Russia arrests U.S. citizen on drug dealing charges

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MOSCOW (Reuters) -A U.S. musician and former paratrooper has been arrested in Moscow on drug dealing charges and his court appearance, locked in a metal cage, has been shown on state television.

Russia’s court system named the detained American as Michael Travis Leake, 51, who was formerly a songwriter and musician in the Russian “Lovi Noch” (“Catch the night”) rock band.

Rossiya 24 state television showed him standing in a court cage while REN TV showed a picture of him being detained on June 6 in Moscow, lying on the floor in his underpants and a T-shirt with his hands restrained behind his back.

“On June 10, 2023, Moscow’s Khamovniki District Court took a measure of restraint against a U.S. citizen,” according to a statement on the Telegram messaging app by Moscow’s courts of general jurisdiction.

“The former paratrooper and a musician, who is accused of running a drug dealing business involving young people, will remain in custody until Aug. 6, 2023.”

It was not clear if Leake had a lawyer. Reuters was unable to reach Leake for comment as he was in Russian custody. Messages to the band he was involved in went unanswered.

REN TV said a suspicious substance was found at Leake’s apartment.

A State Department spokesperson said, “We are aware of reports of the recent arrest of a U.S. citizen in Moscow,” adding that when a U.S. citizen is detained overseas, the Department “pursues consular access as soon as possible and works to provide all appropriate consular assistance”.

The spokesperson did not say if U.S. officials had yet had consular access to Leake.

Russia’s Interfax news agency reported that if found guilty, Leake could face up to 12 years in prison.

A source who asked not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the situation told Reuters that the rock group he was part of had not played a concert since 2019.

When Leake initially came to Moscow, he worked as an English teacher and helped translate songs for Russian bands.

Since the war in Ukraine began in February last year the United States has repeatedly told its citizens to leave Russia due to the risk of arbitrary arrest or harassment by Russian law enforcement agencies.

Last December, U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner was released in a prisoner swap, having been sentenced to nine years in a penal colony for possessing vape cartridges containing cannabis oil – which is banned in Russia – after a judicial process labelled a sham by Washington.

Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, is serving a 16-year sentence in a Russian penal colony after being convicted of espionage charges that Washington also says are a sham.

Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, a U.S. citizen, was arrested in March on espionage charges that he, the Journal and Washington deny.

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge in Moscow and Lidia Kelly in MelbourneEditing by Edmund Klamann and Frances Kerry)

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