Staunton, May 1 – The Helsinki Commission of the US Congress convened an emergency meeting to hear testimony from leading experts on how the Kremlin has corrupted a United Nations agency and put pressure on the Republic of Guatemala to imprison a Russian industrialist and his family who ran afoul of Putin allies.
These actions, members of the commission and those testifying said, represent a deeply disturbing example of the Kremlin’s “long arm of injustice,” one that has not only landed Igor Bitkov, his wife and child in prison but that threatens the international system by fundamentally corrupting an international organization charged with fighting such actions.
The hearing and the presentations of both the members of the commission and those testifying before it are available at csce.gov/international-impact/events/long-arm-injustice
And they are also a sign of something else: Putin and his minions are convinced that they can get away with such actions because many in the West do not appear to be paying attention to them and because few in the West are prepared to impose the kind of punishments on him and his regime that might get him to change course.
The Helsinki Commission is to be commended for this effort, and one very much hopes that by shining the bright light of official attention on this ongoing Putin crime that the Bitkovs will finally be freed and that the international community will work to ensure that Moscow is not able to pervert justice internationally or in any particular country in the future.
The Bitkov case has a long and complicated history. (For background, see windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2015/08/the-bitkov-case-dangerous-sign-of-times.html, windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2015/09/the-bitkov-case-continuing-putin-crime.html, windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2015/10/putin-and-bitkovs-justice-denied-as.html and windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2018/01/russian-injustice-for-bitkovs-continues.html.)
At present, Bitkov is serving a 20-year sentence in Guatemala for supposedly hiding his identity but in fact for crossing a Putin ally who sought to steal the company he built. His wife and daughter have also been sentenced for 19 years and 14 years respectively. Under Guatemalan law, if appeals fail, he won’t be given parole until he has served his entire sentence.
As far as Putin is concerned, Bitkov has compounded his “crime” against the oligarchs by writing articles exposing the criminal nature of the Putin regime. (See windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2015/08/putin-economy-based-on-theft-cant.html and windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2015/10/putins-destruction-of-entrepreneurs.html.)
But Bitkov and his family have committed no crime except in the Orwellian imagination of the Kremlin. They must be freed and freed now – and new safeguards must be put in place at the United Nations so that Putin can’t extend his long repressive arm into other countries to strike out at his personal enemies under the guise of legality.
A group of prominent experts on combatting corruption and representatives of major international bodies involved in that issue, including Sarah Chayes, Louise Shelley, Francisco Villagran de Leon, Claudia Escobar, Jodi Vittori, Michael Loughnane, Thomas Creal, and Thomas Pogge as well as organizations like Impunity Watch, Freedom House, Transparency International, Global Financial Integrity, Oxfam America, Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), CEJIL (Center for Justice and International Law), Due Process of Law Foundation (DPLF), Latin America Working Group (LAWG), Guatemala Human Rights Commission, CARECEN DC and Pax Advisory, challenge the conclusions offered at the Helsinki Commission hearing discussed above.
Excerpts from their letter to the commission follow:
As organizations and experts working on anti-corruption and rule of law issues we write to express our deep concern that unfounded allegations of Russian interference in the work of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) are threatening to undermine the legitimacy and credibility of one of the most successful mechanisms for combating corruption and organized crime in the Western Hemisphere.
CICIG’s efforts in Guatemala have been critical to the successful dismantling of criminal networks, reducing criminality, tackling corruption, and bolstering the investigative capacity of local institutions; it is in the U.S. interest to continue the bipartisan political and financial support to CICIG that Congress has provided for the last decade. The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) was created in 2007 at the request of the Guatemalan government and with the support of the United Nations to investigate and dismantle parallel security groups that continued to operate in the country after the end of the 36-year internal armed conflict.
In contrast to other international mechanisms, CICIG is an independent investigative body that operates under Guatemalan law and relies on the local justice system. This novel setup means Guatemala is not simply outsourcing its justice system but relies on the expertise of CICIG to work hand-in-hand with the country’s prosecutors and police, helping to build their capacities in the process. Thus, it aims to bolster, rather than supplant, the capacity and legitimacy of national institutions.
The Bitkov family was arrested as part of that investigation, and accused of serious criminal offenses, including purchase of fake identities and documents from Guatemalan immigration officials.
There is no evidence that the Bitkov family was charged as a result of interference on the part of the Russian government in this case. The case ought to be evaluated on its merits. While the Guatemalan criminal justice system certainly needs to be improved, and the Bitkov’s attorneys can dispute the details of their case, unfounded allegations about Russian interference only empower those in Guatemala that are seeking to derail the advancements achieved over the last ten years in tackling the corruption, insecurity and crime that drive many Guatemalans to migrate.