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Russia Expels U.K. Guardian Reporter Who Wrote About Corruption

Kremlin and Saint Basil'sFeb. 8 (Bloomberg) -- A British journalist who reported that leaked U.S. diplomatic cables described Russia as a "virtual mafia state" has been expelled from the country, according to a statement from the Guardian newspaper.

Luke Harding, the Guardian's Moscow correspondent since 2007, was refused entry to Moscow last weekend and placed on a return flight to London, the newspaper said in an e-mailed statement late yesterday.

The expulsion marks the first time a Western reporter accredited in Russia has been thrown out of the country since Angus Roxburgh, then a Sunday Times correspondent, was ejected from the Soviet Union in 1989, according to Paris-based Reporters Without Borders.

"This is a serious and shocking step, unprecedented since the Cold War," Elsa Vidal, head of the European and Central Asia desk at the media freedom watchdog, said by phone from Paris. "It's an attempt to force correspondents working for foreign media in Moscow to engage in self-censorship."

Harding, who wrote about corruption in Russia and in December 2007 reported that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was worth $40 billion, is the co-author of "WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy."

"This is clearly a very troubling development with serious implications for press freedom," Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian's editor-in-chief, said in the statement. "It is worrying that the Russian government should now kick out reporters of whom they disapprove."

Putin Denial

Putin denied the Guardian report on his personal wealth in a televised news conference in February 2008, calling it "nonsense." People who write such things "dig it out of their noses and smear it on their papers," said Putin, who was president at the time.

Putin, 58, handed over the presidency to his protege, Dmitry Medvedev, in 2008, because of a constitutional ban on serving more than two consecutive terms. He hasn't ruled out a return to the Kremlin in 2012.

Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Putin, said he couldn't comment on Harding's case when reached by phone. Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Boldyrev also said he couldn't comment.

RIA Novosti cited an unidentified security official as saying the Guardian reporter was refused entry to Russia because he had been placed on a banned list, without giving further details. The Federal Security Service, the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB, asked for an e-mailed request for comment and then didn't respond.

Hague Seeks Explanation

U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague has asked Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov to provide an explanation for Harding's expulsion, the U.K. Embassy in Moscow said. The U.K. is still waiting for a reply, said an embassy official who can't be identified under government policy.

Russia denied a visa to William Browder, a U.S.-born British citizen, in November 2005. Browder, who runs Hermitage Capital Management Inc., was told at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport he wasn't allowed to enter the country, where he had lived for the previous decade. Russia retains the right to deny visas on national security grounds.

Thomas de Waal, a British journalist who has written extensively on Chechnya, was denied a visa to visit Russia in 2006.

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