Title

Helsinki Commission to Investigate Kremlin Pressure on UN Anti-Corruption Agency

Plight of Bitkov Family Offers Clues to How Russian Government Undermines International Institutions
Monday, April 23, 2018

WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing:

THE LONG ARM OF INJUSTICE: DID A UN COMMISSION FOUNDED TO FIGHT CORRUPTION HELP THE KREMLIN DESTROY A RUSSIAN FAMILY?

Friday, April 27, 2018
9:15 a.m.
Rayburn House Office Building
Room 2172

Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission

Witnesses scheduled to testify include:

  • Victoria Sandoval, criminal and human rights attorney representing the Bitkov family
  • Rolando Alvarado, attorney representing the Bitkov family; professor of law and founding partner, Corpolegal
  • Bill Browder, founding director of the Global Magnitsky Campaign for Justice

Additional witnesses may be added.

In 2008, Igor and Irina Bitkov, along with their daughter Anastasia, fled Russia in fear for their lives. Having seen their successful company bankrupted in a textbook raider scheme, their daughter kidnapped and raped, and facing death threats, the Bitkovs took refuge and began a new life with new identities in Guatemala.

The family now finds itself separated, imprisoned in squalid Guatemalan jail cells, and facing nearly twenty years in prison for alleged paperwork irregularities normally punishable by a simple fine. There are grave reasons to question the role of the government of Russia and the UN’s International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) in their imprisonment.

“I am deeply concerned about grave injustices suffered by the Bitkov family—brutalized in Russia, now apparently re-victimized in Guatemala, where they languish in jail,” said Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), who will chair the hearing. “Evidence indicating that the government of Russia may have enlisted the UN’s International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala to persecute this family is troubling and must be thoroughly scrutinized.”

The hearing will seek answers to key questions: Did the Kremlin enlist CICIG in its vendetta to destroy the Bitkovs? Is this another example of the frightening reach of Putin’s government and its ability to co-opt institutions designed to further the rule of law, as it has Interpol and Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties? Has the government of Russia corrupted a UN anti-corruption agency? What does this teach about the government of Russia, the UN, and the global fight against the scourge of corruption?

The Helsinki Commission will examine the specifics of the Bitkov case, including Russian influence on CICIG and Guatemala’s Attorney General’s office, and review policy options to protect U.S. taxpayer-supported institutions from abuse and undue pressure from authoritarian governments.

Media contact: 
Name: 
Stacy Hope
Email: 
csce[dot]press[at]mail[dot]house[dot]gov
Phone: 
202.225.1901
Relevant countries: 
Leadership: 
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    The United Kingdom has implemented some of the world’s most innovative anti-corruption policies. In particular, its public beneficial ownership registry is the only active one of its kind and its Joint Money Laundering Intelligence Taskforce models effective collaboration between law enforcement and the private sector. This briefing examined these policies and the United Kingdom’s broader strategy to counter illicit finance. Panelists discussed how the United Kingdom implements its policies, their successes and shortcomings, and what remains to be done. Though U.S. corporate transparency proposals take a non-public approach, panelists also discussed the lessons that the United States can draw from the British experience. John Penrose, M.P., U.K. Prime Minister’s Anti-Corruption Champion, explained the reputational risks associated with money laundering in the U.S. and U.K. financial markets to the rules-based system. Penrose explained the British approach of establishing a beneficial ownership registry, saying, “What we are trying to do in the U.K. is we are trying to set up something which will effectively create a global norm to say let’s all have some kind of a register about who owns and controls these companies.  We’re not asking for the moon.  As I said, we don’t need to know everybody who owns a piece of every company.  We just need to know who the controlling minds and the controlling interests are.” Edward Kitt, Serious and Organized Crime Network Illicit Finance Policy Lead at the British Embassy in Washington, covered the issues the U.K is facing with their beneficial ownership policy. Kitt explained, “One challenge we have is feedback to financial institutions on suspicious activity reports. Often, financial institutions will submit suspicious activity reports and they don’t hear any feedback as to actually what was the utility of that, how useful was that.” Even considering the difficulty the policy has experienced, Kitt maintained, “It’s not just a talking shop; it delivers. And… it’s assisted in identifying and restraining in excess of £9 million.  So, the results are palpable.” Mark Hays, Anti-Money Laundering Campaign Leader at Global Witness and the sole American panelist, reflected on his company’s investigations into corruption: “Simply put, if the U.S. wants to continue to show this leadership we need to match the U.K.’s efforts in establishing some modicum of disclosure for beneficial ownership transparency for companies.” Hays continued, “If we don’t, not only will we be failing to live up to this leadership test, but we will put ourselves at greater risk for becoming a haven for bad actors and their ill-gotten gains.” Nate Sibley, Research Fellow for the Kleptocracy Initiative at the Hudson Institute, spoke to how the UK’s policies could transfer to the U.S. Sibley described a House Financial Services Committee bill, “introduced by Representative Carolyn Maloney called the Corporate Transparency Act,” that ensures companies disclose beneficial owners. He went on to explain that the bill “would create a private beneficial ownership register. So not a public one like they have in the U.K., but one that was accessible only to law enforcement, under very strict and controlled circumstances.” Sibley outlined the ways that the U.S. federal system changes the prospect of the registry logistics, but maintained that it would still work in the U.S.

  • Shady Shipping

    Trade-based money laundering (TBML) is the process of disguising the proceeds of crime and moving value through trade transactions in an attempt to legitimize their illicit origins. This highly sophisticated form of money laundering has become a favorite method for transnational criminals, dictators, and terrorists to move ill-gotten gains to new jurisdictions. This event examined what TBML is, how it works, and why it has become such a ubiquitous method of laundering money. Panelists also discussed the broader interplay of illicit commerce, global corruption, and TBML. Finally, panelists recommended practical steps the United States and non-governmental organizations can take to counter TBML. David Luna, President and CEO of Luna Global Networks, shared his insights on the dark side of globalization and how it fits into the TBML paradigm. Luna outlined the need to increase understanding of the networks between illicit commerce and money laundering across legal and illegal means through convergence crimes. He spoke to the methodologies of “cleaning dirty money” utilized by kleptocrats, criminal organizations, and terrorist groups, while expressing the importance of tracing money and the value of goods to expose illicit crimes. Luna cited a 2015 World Economic Forum report to support his points, which estimated the value of transnational criminal activities between 8-15 percent of Gross Domestic Product, even by conservative standards, totaling around 80 trillion in the US market. John Cassara, retired Special Agent of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, spoke about the confusion surrounding TBML, both in understanding and enforcement. He explained that TBML is the largest method of money laundering because of excess ways to commit it: customs fraud, tax evasion, export incentive fraud, evading capitol controls, barter trade, and underground financial systems. Cassara explained how money is transferred under the noses of customs enforcement by undervaluing or overvaluing an invoice of an otherwise legal trade. Cassara asked, “If our highly trained police force can’t catch this, what about the rest of the world?” Lakshmi Kumar, Policy Director at Global Financial Integrity, described the difficulty with tracking TBML, both domestically and internationally. She outlined how domestic policy and law complicates internal tracking, while the lack of consistent transnational collaboration and information sharing complicates international tracking. Kumar spoke to the components of the trade chain and how hard it is to watch all the mechanisms with due diligence. Explaining the role of banks, Kumar noted that 80 percent of all international trade occurs through open account trading, in which banks aren’t involved or able to offer oversight. This allows for trade profits to be separated into various accounts, tricking the customs and enforcement agencies to enforce a lower level of taxation on the profits and the freights and allowing for TBML. In summary, even with world class law enforcement, the U.S. legal and financial frameworks needs to catch up in order to adequately combat TBML.

  • Helsinki Commission to Hold Briefing on UK Anti-Corruption Policies

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: CURBING CORRUPTION THROUGH CORPORATE TRANSPARENCY AND COLLABORATION The British Model Wednesday, May 29, 2019 9:00 a.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2128 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission The United Kingdom has implemented some of the world’s most innovative anti-corruption policies. In particular, its public beneficial ownership registry is the only active one of its kind and its Joint Money Laundering Intelligence Taskforce models effective collaboration between law enforcement and the private sector. This briefing will examine these policies and the United Kingdom’s broader strategy to counter illicit finance. Panelists will discuss how the United Kingdom implements its policies, their successes and shortcomings, and what remains to be done. Though U.S. corporate transparency proposals take a non-public approach, panelists will also discuss the lessons that the United States can draw from the British experience. Opening remarks will be provided by John Penrose, M.P., the U.K. Prime Minister’s Anti-Corruption Champion. The following panelists also are scheduled to participate: Mark Hays, Anti-Money Laundering Campaign Leader, Global Witness Edward Kitt, Serious and Organized Crime Network Illicit Finance Policy Lead, British Embassy Washington Nate Sibley, Research Fellow, Kleptocracy Initiative, Hudson Institute

  • Helsinki Commission and House Financial Services Committee Announce Joint Briefing on Trade-Based Money Laundering

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, in partnership with the House Financial Services Committee, today announced the following joint briefing: SHADY SHIPPING Understanding Trade-Based Money Laundering Friday, May 24, 2019 9:30 a.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2360 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Trade-based money laundering (TBML) is the process of disguising the proceeds of crime and moving value through the use of trade transactions in an attempt to legitimize their illicit origins. This highly sophisticated form of money laundering has become a favorite method for transnational criminals, dictators, and terrorists to move ill-gotten gains to new jurisdictions. This event will examine what TBML is, how it works, and why it has become such a ubiquitous method of laundering money. Panelists will also discuss the broader interplay of illicit commerce, global corruption, and TBML. Finally, panelists will recommend practical steps the United States and non-governmental organizations can take to counter TBML. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: John Cassara, Special Agent, U.S. Department of the Treasury, retired Lakshmi Kumar, Policy Director, Global Financial Integrity David Luna, President and CEO, Luna Global Networks

  • Chairman Hastings on Upcoming Meeting Between President Trump and Prime Minister Orban

    WASHINGTON—Ahead of Monday’s meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) issued the following statement: “Thirty years after Central European nations threw off the mantle of communism and oppression, I recall the unwavering support of the United States for the democratic aspirations of their citizens, and the warm welcome Hungary received when it joined the ranks of self-governing, free nations. I echo Secretary’s Pompeo’s message, delivered in Central Europe in February: Upholding democracy in each and every country is vital to human freedom. “President Trump must urge Prime Minister Orban to end Hungary’s anti-Ukraine policy at NATO, resolve concerns about the relocation of the Russian International Investment Bank to Budapest, ensure that Hungary’s ‘golden visas’ are not used to evade U.S. sanctions, and address document security problems to ensure the integrity of the visa waiver program. In addition, the president must prioritize meaningful democratic change in Hungary and encourage the Hungarian Government to repeal the 2017 and 2018 laws curtailing freedom of speech, assembly, and association.” U.S. authorities have identified at least 85 criminals who fraudulently obtained Hungarian passports to enter or attempt to enter the United States. At an April 2019 Helsinki Commission briefing, Dalibor Rohac of the American Enterprise Institute noted that the chairman of the International Investment Bank has long-standing ties to Russian intelligence agencies, raising concerns that the relocation of the bank from Moscow to Budapest could provide a platform for intelligence-gathering operations against U.S. allies. In April, U.S. Special Representative to Ukraine Kurt Volker visited Budapest and urged Hungary to end its anti-Ukraine policy in NATO. In February, during a visit to Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “Every nation that raises its voice for liberty and democracy matters, whether that’s a country that’s as big as the United States and with as large an economy as we have in America, or a smaller country. They’re each valuable. Each time one falls, each time a country – no matter how small – each time it moves away from democracy and moves towards a different system of governance, the capacity for the world to continue to deliver freedom for human beings is diminished. And so I would urge every country, no matter its size . . . to stay focused, maintain its commitment.”

  • Hastings, Wicker, and Moore Mark the Anniversary of Joseph Stone’s Death In Ukraine

    WASHINGTON—On the two-year anniversary of the death of Joseph Stone, a U.S. paramedic serving with the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine, Helsinki Commission Chairman Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) recalled Stone’s tragic death in the Russia-driven conflict and underlined that agreements to end the use of mines in the conflict must be respected.  Stone was killed on April 23, 2017, when his vehicle struck a landmine in Russian-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine. “We honor the ultimate price paid by Joseph Stone, an American who served the innocent civilians suffering from the senseless conflict Moscow has perpetuated in Ukraine,” said Chairman Hastings. “Men, women, and children near the contact line remain steps from oblivion wrought by the indiscriminate cruelty of landmines. This human cost of the Kremlin’s ambition is unacceptable.” Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) called on the Russian Government to end the cycle of violence that resulted in Stone’s death.   “Instead of continuing to fuel this war, Vladimir Putin and his proxies should live up to their promises under the Minsk Agreements and the Helsinki Accords and get out of Ukraine—including Crimea,” said Sen. Wicker. “The second anniversary of Joseph Stone’s death is a tragic reminder that Russia has not met its commitments on clearing areas of explosive remnants of war and preventing new mines from being laid in eastern Ukraine.” Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04) praised Stone’s courage and criticized the pressure put on international monitors. “Joseph Stone, who was born in my district in Milwaukee, gave his life to help the world know the truth about the war in eastern Ukraine. OSCE monitors voluntarily put themselves at risk to document the day-to-day tragedies of a conflict that has killed thousands and affected millions more,” said Rep. Moore. “They do this important work despite facing severe threats of violence; these threats, including the laying of landmines such as the one that killed Joseph and continue to kill and maim innocents—must end.”  Eastern Ukraine is among the most heavily-mined regions in the world. According to Alexander Hug, former Principal Deputy Chief Monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, mines and unexploded ordnance are the No. 2 cause of casualties in the war in Ukraine. Anti-vehicle mines are responsible for more deaths in the Donbas than anywhere else in the world.​ In the last year alone, at least 70 people—including 18 children—have been killed or injured by mines or unexploded ordinance in eastern Ukraine. The SMM was established in 2014 to monitor implementation of the Minsk agreements, which were designed to bring peace to eastern Ukraine. It is an unarmed, civilian mission that serves as the international community’s eyes and ears in the conflict zone. It is the only independent monitoring mission in the war zone. The SMM operates under a mandate adopted by consensus among the 57 OSCE participating States, including the United States, Russia, and Ukraine. It currently fields roughly 800 monitors, nearly 600 of whom are in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The United States supports the SMM by providing 57 monitors (the largest contingent) and has contributed over $100 million to the mission since its inception.

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