U.S. bans Bulgarian judge who let suspected spy leave for Russia

SOFIA (Reuters) - The United States imposed a travel ban on Wednesday against a Bulgarian judge accused of having wrongly allowed a former lawmaker suspected of spying for Russia to leave the country.

Judge Andon Mitalov, of Bulgaria's Specialised Criminal Court, permitted former member of parliament Nikolai Malinov to travel to Moscow last year while Malinov was on bail awaiting trial for espionage on behalf of Moscow.

Bulgaria's chief prosecutor accused the judge of violating procedure by allowing the suspect to travel without first consulting prosecutors.

In a statement released by the U.S. embassy, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the judge as corrupt and said this was the reason his travel to the United States had been blocked. His wife and daughter were also barred.

"In his official capacity, Mitalov was involved in corrupt acts that undermined the rule of law and severely compromised the independence of democratic institutions in Bulgaria," Pompeo said. The statement did not mention the spying case.

Mitalov could not immediately be reached for comment. The U.S. embassy has described the case as the first time Washington has used powers to bar corrupt officials against a Bulgarian.

The spying suspect, Malinov, 50, was head of a pro-Russia group called the National Russophile Movement. He had been charged with spying for the Kremlin in a scheme prosecutors said aimed to draw Bulgaria away from its Western allies.

Bulgaria, Moscow’s most loyal satellite in Soviet times, is now a member of NATO and the European Union, but has retained close cultural, historic and business ties to Russia, which remains its biggest energy supplier.

The EU has criticised Bulgaria for making slow progress towards stamping out graft, jailing corrupt officials and businessmen and overhauling an inefficient, creaking judiciary.

"The United States continues to stand with the people of Bulgaria in their fight against corruption," Pompeo said. "The State Department will use these authorities to promote accountability for corrupt actors in this region and globally."

(Reporting by Angel Krasimirov)