updated 5/28/2008 1:45:00 PM ET 2008-05-28T17:45:00

A U.S. lawyer who is an expert on organized crime in the former Soviet Union faces drug-smuggling charges more than two months after his arrest by Belarusian security agents, an official said Wednesday.

The case of Emanuel Zeltser — a Russian-born lawyer whose clients include a Georgian billionaire and a Kremlin-connected official — has prompted protests from the United States, which says his health is failing.

The 54-year-old was detained March 12 as he arrived in Belarus for meetings with unnamed clients. He was initially charged with using false documents, for which he could get three years in prison if convicted.

Valery Nadtochaev, a spokesman for the Belarusian KGB, said investigators also determined that the medications confiscated from Zeltser could not be used for treating his diabetes — as he and his lawyer have maintained.

'Fading away'
Zeltser's defense lawyer Dmitry Goryachko said the new charges could "finish off the man who already has difficulty walking and can hardly talk."

"Zeltser is fading away before our eyes," he said.

Zeltser heads the non-governmental American Russian Law Institute in New York and is an expert on organized crime and money laundering, particularly in the former Soviet Union.

His clients have included Pavel Borodin, a former Kremlin aide who was accused of money laundering by a Swiss court, and Badri Patarkatsishvili, the late billionaire who was a bitter opponent of Georgia's current administration.

Belarusian authorities claim that fake documents Zeltser was carrying were tied to Patarkatsishvili's business interests. But a Georgian court confirmed that the documents were authentic.

Humanitarian plea
The United States has urged that Zeltser be released on humanitarian grounds.

Ties between Belarus and the United States are at their lowest point in years. The United States is one of the fiercest critics of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko and relations deteriorated sharply following a U.S. decision to impose sanctions on a state-controlled oil and chemical company.

The U.S. ambassador left in March after Belarus pulled its ambassador from Washington.

Most employees of the U.S. Embassy have been expelled in recent months.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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