WASHINGTON—Congress should investigate and hold accountable the United Nations’ International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) for its role in the prosecution of a Russian family in Guatemala fleeing Putin’s Russia, said Congressman Chris Smith (NJ-04), co-chair of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, at a Friday hearing titled “The Long Arm of Injustice.” The hearing examined CICIG’s role in the prosecution of the Bitkov family in Guatemala.
“Congress has a special responsibility in this matter because the United States is one of the largest contributors to CICIG’s budget. There has been little congressional oversight of CICIG – it’s clearly time for that to change,” Rep. Smith stated at the hearing.
The case of the Bitkovs was examined at the hearing, which featured testimony from the lawyers representing the family as well as from Bill Browder, a human rights advocate and founding director of the Global Magnitsky Campaign for Justice, who has investigated the case and CICIG’s role in it.
The Bitkovs fled Russia in 2008 following a series of events that began in 2005 with Igor Bitkov refusing to let a senior official at one of Russia’s state banks, Sberbank, buy over half of his North-West Timber Company. His daughter Anastasia was kidnapped and repeatedly raped in 2006, and the family paid $200,000 to ransom her. In 2008, the banks demanded full repayment of their loan to Bitkov’s company despite the company’s good credit. The company was forced into bankruptcy, its assets sold at fire sale prices, and the Bitkovs fled Russia fearing for their lives after hearing of threats made against them.
This case was a textbook scheme of Russian officials persecuting those who refuse to do business with them, Browder said.
“First, in Russia people who run successful businesses are routinely victimized through a process called ‘Raiderstvo’. I was a victim of Raiderstvo and so were the Bitkovs. It is a standard practice in Russia where organized criminals work together with corrupt government officials to extract property and money from their victims,” stated Browder in his written testimony before the commission.
Browder was expelled from Russia in 2005 after fighting corporate corruption there. After Russian authorities seized his companies, Browder’s lawyer Sergei Magnitsky investigated the matter; he was arrested and was tortured to death in Russia in 2009. Since then, Browder pushed for the passage and enactment of Magnitsky laws.
After fleeing Russia, the Bitkovs entered Guatemala through a legal firm, Cutino Associates International, that offered them travel documents, and took on new identities there. However, they were eventually indicted and prosecuted for passport fraud, and although the country’s appeals court sided with them, a lower court ruled against them and sentenced them to long prison terms.
CICIG was involved in the ultimate prosecution that resulted in their current sentences for passport fraud: 19 years in prison for Igor, and 14 years each for his wife Irina and their daughter Anastasia.
The prosecution was “notoriously disproportionate and even more aggressive and shocking than high-impact crimes such as drug trafficking, murder or even terrorism,” stated Rolando Alvarado, a lawyer representing the Bitkovs, at the hearing. “They channelled their criminal prosecution before special courts that know of crimes of greater risk.”
The very prosecution violated the law of the country, said another lawyer who represents the Bitkovs.
“In Guatemala, the Palermo Convention is in force, as well as the Guatemalan Migration Law. Both laws establish that migrants cannot be criminalized for the possession or use of travel documents or ID documents. Even so, the State of Guatemala has decided to prosecute, illegally, these cases and has issued suspended sentences in other similar cases,” stated Victoria Sandoval, who also represents the Bitkov family.
The role of CICIG was examined at the hearing, along with its relationship with Russian officials who were pursuing the prosecution of the Bitkov family in Guatemala.
“The Russian government routinely abuses international institutions in order to persecute its enemies who are outside of Russia. In my opinion, the Russian government succeeded in compromising CICIG and the Guatemalan Prosecutor for their own purposes in the Bitkov case. CICIG and the prosecutor’s office have jointly taken up the Russian government’s vendetta against the Bitkovs with no good explanation,” Browder stated. “CICIG did not distance itself from this Russian persecution. They’ve touted it on their website and they’ve actively tried to overturn the Bitkovs’ vindication by the Appeals Court.”
Rep. Smith further noted that “the facts of the case strongly indicate” that CICIG “became deeply involved in the Kremlin’s persecution of the Bitkov family. Indeed that CICIG acted as the Kremlin’s operational agent in brutalizing and tormenting the Bitkov family.”
“And then there must be accountability for the grotesque wrong that has been done to them. There must be further inquiry, and we must get to the bottom of this,” Smith said.
Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) said in a statement for the record, “The case of the Bitkovs illustrates the Kremlin’s pattern of abuse involving the world’s courts and legal institutions. Russia should be called out for the mafia state it is and the illegitimate and politically influenced decisions that come out of Russian courts not given the time of day. We must find a way to protect our institutions from malign outsider influence and avoid becoming unwitting participants in Kremlin vendettas.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), Commissioner at the Helsinki Commission, said in a statement for the record, “This miscarriage of justice cannot be tolerated and today’s hearing is a strong first step in bringing this matter to light. It is important for both Kremlin and Guatemalan officials to understand that the world sees what is happening and will not accept Russian malign influence in the Western Hemisphere or the destruction of Guatemalan judiciary.”
Sen. James Lankford (OK) said in a statement for the record, “We should be diligent in exercising oversight over any foreign entity which receives U.S. taxpayer funding to ensure our nation’s own resources are used to advance national interests. I applaud the Commission for looking into the issue of the Bitkov family as well as exercising oversight over the U.S.-funded CICIG.”
Sen. Mike Lee (UT) said in a statement for the record, “CICIG should be operating to root out real corruption, rather than building up or tearing down political winners and losers. It pains me to see sovereignty continually thrown by the wayside as has been the case in Guatemala. It is unfair to average citizens. It has been unfair to the Bitkovs. It is unfair to all who seek a free and prosperous Guatemala.”