Posts Tagged ‘khodorkovsky’
Last week was a good week for some political prisoners in Russia: Mikhail Kodhorkovsky and Pussy Rioters Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina are free. It was a terrible week for Russian democracy, a proof that prison terms are handed out and cancelled not as a result of fair and open trials, as a result of the ruling by independent courts, but as a decision by its president, who rules as he feels fit. The timing of the amnesty smacks of old school: a major international event coming up [the Sochi Olympics], open the jails, suggest that there is humanism, disarm critics. Just like during Soviet times, before major talks. But have no doubt, Putin’s message is that its all happening because “I took the decision”, because ” I want it to happen”, and I could decide otherwise as I please.
Putin seemingly feels invulnerable. He did pull off some big stunts this year : Snowden (not his natural ally), Syria (by default). He is for sure proud of how he used the liberal New York Times to chastise the West. He looks down on Western leaders as weaklings. Mr.Putin mistakenly thinks that a temporary lack of strong leadership in the West is a sign of decline. He has no idea about the resilience of our societies, that our weak moment will pass, like the flu. He sells anti-western sentiments in Russia and the world, not admitting to himself that this rhetoric is way past its “sell by date”, and like relabeled, but bad perishable food perhaps quells hunger, but soon causes severe stomach ache. He surely knows, (it used to be his job to figure it out) that the west is no military threat to Russia. Of course he also knows, that the real threat to his everlasting position as president are the decaying economy, the spread of values of democracy and freedom, transparency and the rule of law, the apparent suffocating of creativity, freedom of speech and organization.
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The administration had been preparing to beef up its list of Russian human rights violators. But at the last minute, they balked. Why?
The Obama administration has decided not to add any new names to a list of Russian human rights violators this year, an abrupt reversal that has left congressional officials and human rights advocates stunned.
For weeks, State Department officials had been signaling that they were preparing to expand a list of Russians subject to visa bans and asset freezes under a law signed by President Obama last year called the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law and Accountability Act, named after the Russian anti-corruption lawyer who died after being tortured in a Russian prison. Magnitsky was later convicted posthumously for tax evasion in a prosecution widely viewed as politically motivated.
In April, 18 Russian officials were sanctioned as a result of the Magnitsky law, which was heavily supported by lawmakers in both parties. The sanctions caused a rift in U.S.-Russian bilateral relations, and the Russian government retaliated by announcing their own visa ban list of alleged U.S. human rights violators and instituting a ban on Americans adopting Russian orphans.
Now, one year after the initial Magnitsky law went into effect, the State Department had been preparing to add between 10 and 20 new Russian names to the list—including Alexander Bastrykin, former First Deputy Prosecutor General of Russia and former Chairman of the Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor General’s Office—according to officials, congressional aides, and experts.
But Thursday, administration and congressional sources said that the Obama team had abandoned plans to expand the list, thereby avoiding a new confrontation with the Russian government during a sensitive time in the U.S.-Russian relationship, as the two countries work together on issues like Syria and Iran.
“We had multiple high-level assurances that there had been new names,” one Congressional aide told The Daily Beast. “Now we hear today that there’s not going to be a new list. There’s no explanation.”
A mandated report on the implementation of the Magnitsky act was due on Dec. 14 but has still not been sent to Congress. The new names were widely expected to be added to the list when the report was delivered.
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Recent attempts by the Kremlin to smear its political antagonists and critics mark a return to a pre-perestroika use of the judicial system. The Khodorkovsky, Magnitsky and Navalny court case decisions resemble the telefonnoye pravo or ‘telephone justice’ of the Soviet Union, an expression that references the custom of political leaders calling judges in order to instruct them on what rulings pleased them.
Though western critics tend to focus on the problems related to freedom of the press in Russia, the implications of rotten courts can be much more deep-rooted and harmful to Russian society as a whole. The legal system’s systemic disregard for the constitution in its entirety is an overreaching issue that deserves more attention.
Sadly, this alarming trend is not a recent development. In 2005 and 2010, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev were found guilty of fraud, money laundering and embezzlement. Before his trial, in 2004, Khodorkovsky was the wealthiest man in Russia and Lebedev was his close associate. A strong advocate for more democracy and freedom of the press, Khodorkovsky could have been a potential political alternative to Putin had he chosen to run for the Russian presidency. After the trial, US State Department commented on the case, saying it “raised a number of concerns over the arbitrary use of the judicial system.” After the 2010 trial, in which Lebedev was convicted and Khodorkovsky’s prison sentence was extended, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commented that the case was symptomatic of the “rule of law being overshadowed by political considerations.”
Another Russian court case displaying a flagrant lack of reason or justice is the posthumous conviction of Sergei Magnitsky. Magnitsky was a Russian lawyer hired by the British and US-owned Hermitage capital group to research corruption in the Russian state and local government. He was accused of tax evasion in 2008, after his discovery of a $230 million tax scam implicating Russian police and government officials. Following his arrest and subsequent suspicious death in prison in 2009, the US Senate passed a bill named the Magnitsky Act. The act blocks the Russian officials deemed responsible for his death, though the officials were not convicted in Russia, from entering the US or using the US banking system. The Magnitsky Act is thought to be the reason for the Kremlin’s arbitrary decision to ban Americans from adopting in Russia earlier this summer.
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Critics of the current Russian regime often call its actions “stupid” and detrimental to its own image. According to author and analyst Alexander Podrabinek, however, what looks like government “stupidity” is actually a well-thought out strategy.
It is nice to think of your adversary as an idiot. It makes you feel better about yourself and reassures you by trivializing the threat: what foolishness did he or she think of this time? The same holds true when the adversary is the government. We fume about the Russian government doing this or that. How can it be so stupid? Does it not realize that it is undermining its own position and the image of the country? What we fail to appreciate is that the government understands everything it does; we just don’t understand its real motives. We judge the regime’s objectives, logic, and morals by our standards, when its own standards are completely different. Many of our troubles come from this lack of understanding.
Many of the government’s initiatives damage Russia’s image and result in international scandals. Prison sentences for members of the punk band Pussy Riot mobilized protests by top figures in the European music industry. Laws directed against homosexual propaganda have elicited fierce criticism of the Russian government from all corners of the world. The government’s insistence on protecting the law enforcement mafia in the Magnitsky case drew the world’s attention to a new instrument of government influence that violates human rights.
And we continue to wonder: What does the government think it is doing? How can it fail to foresee the possible consequences of its actions? Unfortunately, we just don’t understand the government. It very likely weighs its actions in advance and expects consequences. As much as we would like to think otherwise, it is anything but stupid. It simply has different objectives. In the Pussy Riot case, the government wanted to demonstrate that Russia is a religious and fundamentalist country, rather than a secular one; that the sentence handed down in the farce trial was a reflection of the people’s will; and that individual freedom pales before the power of the inferior mob.
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Relations between Russia and the U.S. have recently hit a rough patch.
In December, Congress passed the Magnitsky Act, which will create a black list of Russian officials suspected of human rights abuses. Hermitage Capital founder William Brouder had lobbied for years for the legislation, which is named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Hermitage-lawyer who died in a Moscow jail after accusing officials of involvement in an enormous tax fraud.
Before the list could even be finalized, however, the Russian Duma hit back with its own legislation seeking to ban the adoption of Russian children by U.S. families. Russian media had complained about high profile cases of abuse for years, but the timing and severity of the legislation made it clear this was retaliation.
Given that just a few years ago we were talking about a U.S.-Russia “reset” in relations, the whole thing seems like a remarkable step backwards for the two countries. Add to that an ongoing clampdown on dissent in the country — most notably in the case of the anti-Putin feminist group Pussy Riot — and strict new legislation on homosexuality, the situation in Russia looks dark.
For insight on the matter, we talked to Pavel Khodorkovsky, the head of the Institute of Modern Russia and the son of a bitter enemy of President Vladimir Putin. Pavel’s father, Mikhail, was once Russia’s richest man, head of the enormous Yukos oil company with a personal fortune of $15 billion. A public spat with President Vladimir Putin, however, left him as one of Russia’s most famous prison inmates — and one of Putin’s most outspoken critics.
Pavel hasn’t been back to Russia since his father’s arrest, but keeps in close correspondence with Mikhail, monitoring events in Russia. He explained how the adoption ban seemed to be a bargaining chip for Russia, and one that Russian orphans would lose out from. He admitted that his family’s hope for the Russian opposition had initially been high, but that the Kremlin’s clampdown means “criteria by which we judge the progress will have to change.” Finally, he explained why the Magnitsky Act was so important, not just in the Hermitage Capital case, but also for other jailed dissidents, such as his father.
The transcript of our conversation with Pavel, lightly edited for clarity, is below.
The first thing to talk about is the U.S. adoption ban in Russia. Were you surprised at how quickly that went through and with so little opposition?
I think the legislators in Russia have quickly realized that they’re really not going to achieve anything with the original piece of legislation [a Russian black list for U.S. officials] because not many state officials travel to Russia. I don’t think that McCain is going skiing in the Ural Mountains anytime soon. It’s just a futile effort at retaliation. And I think there was this idea — I actually don’t believe that it was coming from the Kremlin — to create an additional lever. Basically create a negotiating avenue, something that people would care about in the U.S., and that became the adoption ban.
You know the statistics — 60,000 kids were adopted over the course of the last 10 years. Nineteen cases, yes, tragedies. But compare that to 1,500 kids who are dying in orphanages every year in Russia, and those are just the official statistics, taken straight out of the website of the general prosecution office. It certainly looks like they have a much better chance of getting proper medical care, and frankly surviving, here in the U.S.
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A FORMER KGB colonel like Vladimir Putin was never expected to be a champion of human rights, but the Russian President has failed to live up to even those reduced expectations. The five-year prison sentence imposed on his most prominent opponent and anti-corruption campaigner, Alexei Navalny, is an indication of the extent to which his clampdown is escalating and of the need for the West to reassess its response ahead of the G20 summit in St Petersburg in September.
Even members of the Kremlin’s so-called human rights council have described the trumped-up embezzlement charges brought against Mr Navalny as “punishment for his political activities”. The relentless campaign aimed at silencing opposition is the harshest crackdown on dissent since the collapse of communism. Days before the conviction of Mr Navalny (who has been released on bail pending appeal), Mr Putin’s determination to wreak vengeance through a servile court system was also evident when Sergei Magnitsky, an eminent human rights lawyer, was posthumously convicted of tax fraud to besmirch his name. Magnitsky had exposed a $US230 million embezzlement scheme benefiting regime officials. He died in jail after being beaten and suffering untreated pancreatitis. Punk band Pussy Riot was imprisoned for staging an anti-Putin stunt, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once one of Russia’s richest oligarchs and who fell out with Mr Putin, has spent 10 years in jail on charges his critics agree were a travesty of justice.
The Kremlin is using the corrupt court system to provide a veneer of due process and legality for brutal repression as dozens of other activists await sentencing. Mr Putin’s disregard for human rights extends to the supply of weapons to the Syrian regime, which have been used to slaughter tens of thousands of its own people. The fugitive American security contractor Edward Snowden says Russia and Latin American countries that have offered him asylum have his “gratitude and respect for being the first to stand against human rights violations carried out by the powerful rather than the powerless”. Mr Putin’s Russia is no such thing.
Current abuses recall the dark days of Soviet repression and the West must leave the Russian leader in no doubt about its abhorrence. After decades of communist repression, Russians deserve better than blatant corruption, intolerance and authoritarianism.
Last week was a busy one for Russian authorities, who arrested the only nationally known opposition mayor for bribery, sought six years in prison for crusading blogger Alexei Navalny and asked a court to declare a long-dead lawyer guilty of tax evasion.
The trial of a dozen demonstrators accused of rioting and attacking police at Bolotnaya Square in Moscow on the eve of President Vladimir Putin’s inauguration ground on. Maria Alyokhina, a punk rocker sent to a labor camp for two years for a singing protest in Moscow’s main cathedral, lost an appeal. An appeal filed on behalf of the oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has been in prison for nearly 10 years, was rejected.
Leonid Razvozzhayev, an opposition organizer who was kidnapped and returned to Moscow after he sought asylum in Ukraine, was given permission to get married in jail — perhaps because he is not expected to get out soon. He faces 10 years in prison if convicted of planning riots.
And Putin signed not one, but two laws aimed at gays.
By week’s end, it was clear to anyone who held out hope to the contrary that the future here looks more and more repressive. The authorities appeared intent on using all their resources — police, courts, legislature and media — to pursue that end and silence dissent for years to come.
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