In the world there are courageous defenders of justice and Human Rights and we thank: Bill Browder (Billbrowder), Founding Director, Global Magnitsky Campaign for Justice, Witness U.S. Helsinki Commission; Senator Roger Wicker (@SenatorWicker), Chairman U.S. Helsinki Commission; Representative Chris Smith (@RepChrisSmith), Co-Chairman U.S. Helsinki Commission; Senator Marco Rubio (@marcorubio), Commissioner U.S. Helsinki Commission; Representative Randy Hultgren (@RepHultgren), Commissioner U.S. Helsinki Commission; Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (@JacksonLeeTX18), Commissioner U.S. Helsinki Commission; Senator James Lankford (@SenatorLankford), U.S. Senate U.S. Helsinki Commission; Senator Michael S. Lee (@SenMikeLee), U.S. Senate U.S. Helsinki Commission, and the members and staff of the Commission on security and cooperation in Europe. U. S. Helsinki Commission (@HelsinkiComm) for bringing to light the tragedy that our Bitkov Family suffered because of the persecution by Kremlin and the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala -CICIG- (@CICIGgt) collusion.
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
Rayburn House Office Building
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 Bitkov and Irina Bitkova, 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.
Senator Roger Wicker
U.S. Helsinki Commission
Senator Roger Wicker – Chairman U.S. Helsinki Commission
Hearing on “The Long Arm of Injustice: Did a UN Commission Founded to
Fight Corruption Help the Kremlin Destroy A Russian Family?”
Friday, April 27, 2018
Statement of Senator Roger Wicker, Chairman
Thank you, Co-Chairman Smith, for convening this emergency hearing today. As our longest-serving commissioner, your doggedness to defend human dignity over the years has advanced the cause of freedom and saved countless lives around the world.
As members of Congress, we have a particular obligation to ensure the causes and institutions funded by the United States remain consistent with our values and our interests.
Today, the Commission will examine the harrowing experience of a Russian family who fell victim to an all-too-common corporate raider scheme in Russia.
Facing violent extortion, financial ruin, and imprisonment, the Bitkovs sought refuge abroad. Using the services of what they believed to be a legitimate immigration firm, they received new identities from the Government of Guatemala and began a new life in Central America. A few years later, Kremlin agents tracked them down and colluded with the UN’s International Commission against
Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) to sentence them to nearly twenty years in prison.
We know the lengths Russia’s kleptocracy will go to intimidate those who challenge its crimes. We remember the stories of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose successful company was expropriated and who spent 10 years in the Siberian gulag, and Sergei Magnitsky, who exposed corruption at the top of Russia’s government and was tortured and killed for doing so. In the case of the Bitkov family, the Kremlin agents persecuting the Bitkovs are sanctioned by the United States. In addition, the CICIG, a powerful and active participant in this gross miscarriage of justice, is funded in large part by the United States.
We are right to ask: Why would agents from one of the world’s most ruthless kleptocracies join forces with an agency set up to combat corruption and impunity?
Why would a UN institution receiving significant U.S. funding be so blind as to work with Vladimir Putin’s cronies when its mission is to help Guatemala move beyond the corruption and impunity that plague its society? In this whole tragic affair, did the Kremlin exert any undue influence on CICIG?
Yesterday’s decision by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court in favor of the Bitkovs is a welcome step, but this family remains in jail. They should be freed immediately. And yet, unless they receive asylum in Guatemala or another county, the Bitkovs will remain in grave jeopardy of being returned to Russia, where their long nightmare will surely continue.
I would like to note the role of one of our witnesses in bringing this case to our attention and to the attention of the American people. In 2009, Mr. Browder brought a similar case to the Helsinki Commission involving his lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. At the time, Sergei was in pretrial detention in Moscow and being subjected to increasingly torturous conditions. My good friend Senator Ben Cardin
chaired a hearing on Sergei’s case, and we worked to bring attention to his plight.
However, Sergei died suddenly, having been locked in an isolation cell and beaten by prison guards when he needed urgent medical care. We must learn from this tragedy and not allow it to happen to the Bitkovs.
I will be working closely with the White House, National Security Council, and State Department to ensure the safety of this family, and I am prepared to use all available policy options to help resolve this injustice.
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.
Representative Chris Smith
U.S. Helsinki Commission
“The Long Arm of Injustice: Did A UN Commission Founded
To Fight Corruption Help the Kremlin Destroy a Russian Family?”
Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), Co-Chairman
April 27, 2018
The Russian government regularly pursues its vendettas beyond its borders, harassing and even murdering Russian emigres abroad – people who are on the Putin circle’s target list for various reasons. The poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in England is one of the most recent examples to reach the news.
The Kremlin’s sadistic pursuit of the entire Bitkov family is in its way just as shocking as its cruel murder of Litvinenko and the attempted murders of the Skripals.
The Bitkovs are still alive today, but they have been hounded for over a decade, to the opposite end of the world, and beyond the limits of human endurance – merely for resisting Putin favorites who sought to take over their successful paper manufacturing company.
More shocking, the facts of the case strongly indicate – and we will hear testimony on this today – that the United Nation’s International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, or 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.
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.
In the 1990s Igor and Irina Bitkov built the Northwest Timber Company, acquiring and modernizing old factories to increase paper production. As their company grew, the Bitkovs took loans from several Russian state banks to finance further modernization.
Their business prospered – grew to a value of hundreds of millions of dollars – and the family was approached by a powerful bank executive who sought to buy a majority share in the company at a significantly below-market rate. Other officials asked Irina to become politically involved in the President Vladimir Putin’s party.
When the Bitkovs refused things got very ugly. Their 16-year-old daughter, Anastasia, was kidnapped for several days, drugged, and repeatedly raped. Her parents ransomed her – paying the money to policemen, who said they were go-betweens to the kidnappers. Then the banks suddenly called in the loans, even though the Bitkovs had excellent credit. The family was threatened with imprisonment and death.
Fearing for their lives, the family fled Russia. They found what they thought was legal refuge in Guatemala with the help of a Guatemalan law firm. They acquired Guatemalan passports, bought a house, learned Spanish, and gave birth to their second child, Vladimir.
But the Kremlin caught up to them and VTB Bank, one of Russia’s biggest state controlled banks, often referred to as “Putin’s Piggy Bank,” filed a complaint against them in Guatemala, alleging use of false identification documents.
While we don’t know exactly what transpired internally to CIGIC and the Guatemalan state agencies that work with them, it appears to have been taken up by the Guatemalan state and CICIG. In any case, the Bitkov’s suddenly found themselves catapulted into what has become for them a horror without end.
On January 15, 2015, Igor, Irina, Anastasia and Vladimir were awoken by an armed raid on their home – 70 or so armed policemen woke them up, took them away, and spent 20 hours tearing apart their home and their office.
It got much worse – the Bitkovs were put into cages for nine days. Their daughter – remember she had been kidnaped and repeatedly raped years earlier – was denied medication, now suffered a nervous breakdown. As the ordeal continued, she would later make multiple suicide attempts. Their infant son was torn away from them, not even permitted to stay with friends, and sent to an orphanage, where he sustained facial injuries, a chipped tooth, conjunctivitis, lost the ability to speak. When family friends
recovered him they found that, when given food, little Vladimir immediately began hiding it under his shirt. I will not say more now about the Bitkovs harrowing ordeal – their lawyers will speak to that. Suffice it to say that Igor, Irina, and Anastasia have remained incarcerated since January 2015.
In January of this year, despite an earlier appeals court ruling that the Bitkovs’ alleged offense was only administrative in nature and punishable with a fine, Igor was sentenced to 19 years in prison and Irina and Anastasia were sentenced to 14 years each.
These sentences were far harsher than those given to Guatemalan officials who perpetrated the sale of passports – they are harsher than sentences given to rapists or murderers.
What was CICIG’s role in all of this? What we know for a fact is this: CICIG and a special branch of the attorney general’s office worked together on the investigation and arrest of the Bitkovs – CICIG personnel participated in the raid on the Bitkovs home.
Then CICIG and VTB Bank initiated and aggressively pursued the legal case against them, consistently arguing at every level of the judicial process against the Bitkovs, including against their appeal to be tried as migrants guilty of an administrative offense rather than a criminal one. CICIG – via its representative Claudia Gonzalez Orellana – defended the role of the VTB Bank in the prosecution of the Bitkovs. Oddly, CICIG never prosecuted the law firm which provided the Bitkovs with the passports that destroyed their lives.
As we will hear from Bill Browder: “Inexplicably… In January 2015, a criminal case against the Bitovs was opened at the direction of CICIG. Immediately after, 70 armed police officers raided the Bitkov’s home, arrested Irina, Igor, and Anastasia and detained them in cages behind the parking garage in the main court building of Guatemala City.”
CICIG was invited to participate in this event and brief us today, but declined.
They have sent a note, requesting that it be made part of the record, as has VTB Bank.
Without objection, that will be done.
During questions, I will quote from CICIG’s note – asking our witnesses about CICIG’s account.
Just yesterday afternoon, the Constitutional Court of Guatemala – the country’s highest court – upheld an earlier decision by a lower court that had granted the Bitkovs’ appeal to be considered migrants, and therefore, under international law, not able to be tried as criminals. It is not yet clear what this ruling will mean – it seems mean that the family could be released from prison – but also that they could be deported back to Russia. Time will tell.
I want to make an appeal to the Guatemalan government, to CICIG, to our government, and to the UN – this is a time to focus on restoring to this family as much as possible of what has been unjustly taken from them. Their safety must come first – we must assume that they remain targets for the Kremlin. They must not be returned to Russia. They have to be protected, and safe haven must be found for them. 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.
It would be the worst irony if CICIG, which was created to battle for accountability for corruption, were now to seek only to avoid scrutiny and accountability. CICIG cannot credibly do battle against a culture of impunity if it demands impunity for itself.
This is the time for CICIG – and its commissioner Iván Velásquez – to throw open its doors, provide transparency, and give an honest accounting to the world of exactly what was CICIG’s role in the cruelty that was wreaked on the Bitkovs. Unfortunately, up to now it has done nothing of the sort. I urge CICIG to change course now.
Senator Marco Rubio
U.S. Helsinki Commission
THE LONG ARM OF INJUSTICE: DID A UN COMMISSION FOUNDED TO FIGHT
CORRUPTION HELP THE KREMLIN DESTROY A RUSSIAN FAMILY?
Statement for the Record
Commissioner Marco Rubio
April 27, 2018
Thank you Co-chair Smith for convening this important and timely hearing of the Helsinki Commission titled “The Long Arm of Injustice: Did a UN Commission Founded to Fight Corruption Help the Kremlin Destroy a Russian Family.”
As I am unable to attend today’s hearing, I would like to submit a statement for the record on the mistreatment of the Bitkov family by the Russian government and the apparent miscarriage of justice that has so far unfolded in Guatemala.
In 2008, the Bitkovs had their business stolen by a Kremlin-associated bank—which is currently under U.S. sanctions—and were forced from their home in Russia after threats from the Putin regime and its cronies, just like so many other entrepreneurs over the past two decades.
Having lost their business and their homeland, the Bitkovs fled to several countries before finally landing in Guatemala in hopes of a safe and secure future. But, in Putin’s Russia, merely stealing the Bitkovs livelihood wasn’t enough. The Kremlin and those associated with it have perpetrated an international campaign of aggression against the Bitkovs, pressuring the Guatemalan government—including troublingly, the Guatemalan judiciary—to prosecute the entire Bitkov family on potentially trump-up charges.
Unfortunately for the rule of law in Guatemala, Moscow seemed to have found a willing partner in the International Commission on Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which was set-up through the auspices of the United Nations to prosecute official corruption and political intimidation, not participate in it. I am concerned that CICIG, a commission funded by the United States, had potentially been manipulated by radical elements and Russia’s campaign against the Bitkovs in Guatemala. And that this, in turn, may have led to the Bitkovs’ suspiciously long prison sentences for crimes that normally would be afforded administrative fines, if any penalty at all.
Moreover, the conditions that the Bitkovs have endured during their incarceration have been deplorable, as they have suffered malnourishment, disease, and the separation of the family, including the placement of Igor and Irina’s youngest child in an orphanage against their expressed wishes.
What all of this adds up to is Putin and his cronies apparently settling scores in the Western Hemisphere and undermining Guatemala’s anti-corruption watchdog.
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.
I was pleased to learn that on Thursday, April 26th, the Bitkov family was granted a protection order by the Guatemalan Constitutional Court.
I am confident that the Guatemalan government under the leadership of President Morales will ensure this family’s safety as they close this horrific chapter in their lives and begin a new journey away from the Kremlin’s international campaign of aggression against them.
Representative Randy Hultgren
U.S. Helsinki Commission
Representative Sheila Jackson Lee
U.S. Helsinki Commission
Senator James Lankford
U.S. Helsinki Commission
Mr. President and members of the Commission, thank you for accepting my statement for the record that I unfortunately could not attend today’s important hearing. I appreciate that and hard work of your staff to bring these stories and facts to light.
I want to focus on something that has long been overlooked and without the proper oversight of the US Congress: the International Commission against Impunity in (CICIG) the extension of the authorities and the prerogative beyond its mandate in Guatemala, and its level of effectiveness in building the capacity of the Guatemalan judicial system itself.
The mandate of the CICIG clearly establishes that the entity was created to support the Government of Guatemala through the investigation and dissolution of the illegal security forces and clandestine security apparatus operating in the country. In accordance with the mandate, CICIG also has the task of strengthening Guatemala’s own justice system so that an international organization is no longer necessary in the future. It seems that, after more than a decade of operation in the country, there is an unknown amount of progress in the creation of capacity for the Guatemalan judicial system itself; so, the CICIG is failing in its mission.
I want to make it clear that I support the intention and core mandate of the CICIG to walk with the prosecutors of Guatemala to face the devastating effects that the armed narco-traffickers and gangs have had and continue to have on the society and the economy of Guatemala.
The influence of illicit narcotics is the main catalyst for crime and rampant corruption in the region, and the US. and the international community must be a partner with the government of Guatemala in the elimination of its malign influence. However, we must be diligent in exercising supervision through any foreign entity that receives funds from US taxpayers to ensure that the resources of our country are used to promote national interests.
I applaud the Commission for looking into the issue of the Bitkov family, as well as exercising oversight of the CICIG funded by the United States.
Senator Michael S. Lee
U.S. Helsinki Commission
Statement by the US Commission Helsinki:
I am delighted that my colleagues are holding this important audience today, and I am grateful for the opportunity to share some thoughts and a statement on this very important topic. It is truly regrettable that it takes terrible events for us in the United States to stop and examine how our taxpayer dollars are being spent in support of the supranational government abroad in ways that wreak havoc and Upend principles of sovereignty for others. My deepest sympathies are with the Bitkov family today, and with all those whose lives have been irremediably altered by serious violations of law and order.
The UN International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) is a difficult beast to handle. All organizations, even those created with the best of intentions, must have adequate mechanisms of supervision and accountability incorporated. While initially created in the wake of exit corruption and defend the rule of law, CICIG both, in principle, and the application has become an arbitrary, partial and unfair extrajudicial route in Guatemala. Since its creation in 2007, the US has spent more than $ million dollars on the 44.5 CICIG. While our Ambassador Nikki Haley UN has asked the entity to remain intact, she has also asked the organization to be less open and political, saying that it should not be in the newspaper every day. Unfortunately, the continuing conflicts of personalities between politicians and CICIG leaders in Guatemala has kept many in deep conflict over various corruption charges and leadership challenges. No organization should be in debt to a man on the road to the CICIG is intertwined with the commissioner Iván Velásquez. An entity that is truly impartial must continue its mission regardless of who is in charge. This is partly why – and others who are economically supporting CICIG – should increase vigilance over this body, which guarantees our funds are used responsibly. CICIG should be running at the root real exit corruption, instead of building or knocking down winners and political losers. It hurts me to see sovereignty continually thrown in the gutter as has been the case in Guatemala. It is unfair to ordinary citizens. It has been unfair to the Bitkovs.
Today I wish CICG was never established. I wish we could have spent all these funds and all this time working on issues of corruption, but also on transnational crime. Or in the creation of economic opportunities for Guatemalans and Americans. Or to strengthen the current government of Guatemala established by the people of Guatemala. While we continue to use our resources to drive political wedges and undermine the freethinking human beings made in the image of God they want their country to be, we are going to stop taking advantage of the true growth opportunities that occupy us.
Attorney Victoria Sandoval
U.S. Helsinki Commission
Mrs Victoria Sandoval,
Bitkov Family Lawyer, Bar Member at the Colegio de Abogados y Notarios de Guatemala N° 9,789
Testimony before the U.S. Helsinki Commission
Hearing on “The Long Arm Of Injustice: Did a UN Commission Founded to Fight Corruption Help the
Kremlin Destroy a Russian Family?”
April 27, 2018
Good morning Co-Chairman Smith, Distinguished Members of the Helsinki Commission and to all the
public present in this room, for me it is an honor to have been invited to this hearing as a witness to the Bitkov Case.
My name is Victoria Sandoval, I am a lawyer and public notary and have worked on human rights and
criminal law issues since 2006. In January 2015 I started supporting the Bitkov family in their judicial
case, both personally and professionally.
- Start of the relationship with the Bitkovs:I personally know the Bitkovs since they first came to live in the same condominium where I live, and because they have a son of the same age as my child. Irina Bitkov and I both took our babies to the same early stimulation course and it was there that we strengthened our friendship. I could see how Vladimir was growing.His parents were concerned to ensure that he would grow up knowing and loving his Russian culture, in fact, he spoke the Russian language better than Spanish, which he spoke with a noticeable Russian accent.They gave Vladimir a life full of care and love. Every day at 5 o’clock in the afternoon the three of them, Igor, Irina and Vladimir would be seen together with their two dogs walking through the condominium.
- The raid:
On Thursday, January 15th, 2015 in the early morning I could see a lot of police movement in the
condominium and when I asked an employee why there was so much movement, he told me that CICIG was raiding the house of some Russians.The first thing I thought was that in the condominium there was another family of Russians because the ones I knew were very good people. However, when the guard told me the address of the house, I was surprised and went to see what it was all about.The blocks in the condominium are about 150 meters long, and the Bitkov house is at the far end of the block, and on both sides of the street I could see that it was full of official vehicles (General Prosecution Office, CICIG and National Civil Police). It was a very intimidating situation. It seemed to me as if they were pursuing them like dangerous criminals but I knew as their friend and an experienced criminal lawyer that they did not fit that profile.
- Closing of the house:
On Friday the 16th January 2015 I was finally able to see the Bitkov’s house which had been locked up and was guarded by two police officers.
- Carceletas:I learned from the news that the Bitkovs had been taken into custody and transferred to the carceletas at the Court House, to the Juzgado de Turno de Guatemala.The carceletas are open cages located in the basement of the Court House building where by
Constitutional order, people should not stay in the carceletas for more than 24 hours. The Bitkovs were kept in the carceletas for 5 days, Irina and Anastasia an 9 days Igor! The carceletas are very filthy places where the bathrooms are only cleaned very occasionally. The state does not provide those who are inside the carceletas with food or water. I was shocked that neither the Russian ambassador nor any of his representatives were concerned about the welfare of his fellow citizens. He never went to the carceletas to see if the Bitkovs needed food, water or anything else. He was not even the least bit concerned about Anastasia’s health.When the Bitkovs were taken into custody, the officials didn’t let Anastasia take her medication with her. She was very scared because her life depends on the regular intake of medication. Not having her medication with her caused Anastasia to have a severe breakdown.A Judge ordered that Anastasia and Irina be transferred to a private psychiatric hospital because
Anastasia was suffering a psychiatric breakdown that put her life at risk, as was established by a forensic psychiatrist from the National Institute of Forensic Sciences of Guatemala. However, the Penitentiary System refused to transfer them, which led to the imposition of a habeas corpus in favor of Anastasia and Irina.After the inquiries of the judge who handled the habeas corpus, two guards of the Penitentiary System sent a report saying that the General Director and the sub director of operations told them that they, Anastasia and Irina, could not be transferred to the hospital. The two guards asking the General Director if they have permission or not to fulfill a Judge’s order is something very weird and unusual. According to a press statement the refusal was due to the fact that the Penitentiary System had no budget to pay for gasoline.Anastasia’s breakdown was getting worse and following the Judge’s decision to start a legal process for disobedience against the General Director and Subdirector of the Penitentiary System, the Penitentiary System accepted to transfer Anastasia and Irina, along with 50 Sistema Penitenciario Agents to the 10-room private mental health hospital Mederi. The hospital declined to accept Anastasia and Irina because so many guards could intimidate their other patients. Anastasia and Irina were returned to the court house.They were then transferred to an annex to the men’s part of a prison where Igor was being held.
Anastasia and Irina were put into a fenced off area of the men’s prison. This area was only separated by a fence, which meant that Anastasia and Irina were not properly segregated from the male inmates who could clearly see them. Even more degrading for them was the fact that Anastasia and Irina were deprived of even the most basic right of privacy when using the bathroom which was also exposed to the male inmates. Anastasia and Irina would suffer daily humiliation of using the bathroom in full sight of the men inmates – many of whom were gang members. This was torture for them.On January 20th 2015, after remaining in the prison for five days, Anastasia and Irina were transferred to the Concepción Hospital, where they had to stay for a year under armed guard.In Igor’s case, after the raid he was transferred to the prison where he was sharing the 2 x 6 meters cell with 30 to 40 other detainees, most of them being gang members who were extremely aggressive and high-conflict people. There was not enough space for all the detainees to sit down and even less space to sleep. Consequently, Igor was deprived of sleep for 9 days and was then taken in front of the Judge to give his first testimony.
- Igor’s First TestimonyAt his first hearing, Igor was completely dumbfounded, he had not been provided with a translator and it was obvious that his Spanish was not good at that time.CICIG’s attorney, Claudia González Orellana clearly supported the participation of VTB by stating that the crimes committed in Russia should be investigated because they were related to those committed in Guatemala, despite the fact that later, she said that CICIG had no interest in whatever had happened in Russia.Likewise, CICIG’s Attorney said that Igor had illegally entered Guatemala arguing that he had no
migrating record. This was completely misleading she asked for Igor Vladimirovich Bitkov record instead of Igor Vladimirovich Bitkov record. CICIG’s attorney also failed to mention that the Bitkovs entered Guatemala using their valid Russian passports so there can be no question that their entry was nothing other than legal.Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez allowed VTB to be a provisional adhesive plaintiff arguing that it was
important to know what had happened in Russia. This is despite the fact that the Russian Bank never presented any proof that the Bitkovs had committed any crime in Russia. Instead they presented photocopies of personal guarantees supposedly signed by the Bitkovs instead of originals, refusing to provide the originals for examination.
- House Stripping
One of the Bitkovs neighbors told us that he had seen a patrol car of the National Civil Police outside the Bitkovs house and that he had seen policemen carrying children’s toys, carts, tricycles from the house.So, the Bitkovs filed a complaint to investigate the theft, it was ratified and Veronica, Vladimir’s nanny also went to testify since she knew what the Bitkovs used to have and what had been stolen.No investigation was conducted by the Public Prosecutor’s Office.
In January 2016 the Judge in charge ordered the opening of the sealed house. The house had been completely looted.
- Acta de Haroldo Flores:
In June of 2017 the Child Prosecutor of the Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la Nación -PGN), Harold Augusto Flores Valenzuela, was arrested in the case of Hogar Seguro, Virgen de la Asunción. According to Igor, before Mr. Flores Valenzuela arrived at Mariscal Zavala, his lawyers went to talk with him to see what his attitude was with respect to Harold Flores after he had sent Igor’s 3-years old son, Vladimir, to the “Love the Child” orphanage where Vladimir was abused.Igor said that all he wanted was for Harold Flores to tell him why he had tortured Vladimir in the terrible way that he did.When Harold Flores was taken to Mariscal Zavala prison the first thing he did was to visit Igor and told him that he had been called by a CICIG official that told him that he had to do everything he could, so that the “son of the Russians” would be sent to an orphanage. After that he was visited by a woman who ratified that order. He would not tell Igor this woman’s name because he feared for his life. So even though he saw that the reports on Vladimir’s guardians were just fine he ignored them and asked Judge María Belen Reyna Salazar to send Vladimir to that infamous orphanage. Flores also told Igor that Judge Reyna Salazar received the same orders from CICIG. As a proof of what he said, he wrote down his name and phone number.• Power of Attorney to Henry Phillipe Comte VelasquezVTB Bank was represented in Guatemala by its agent Henry Phillip Comte Velasquez who is a founding partner of the Law Firm Comte & Font – Legalsa.Henry P Comte is an alternative Judge of the Constitutional Court. This is the same court where is pending the ruling at the Bitkovs “amparo” appeal (Constitutional appeal) against the indictment stating that any passport irregularities are administrative offences punishable by a fine. VTB/CICIG appealed that decision in the Constitutional Court.Curiously, the Power of Attorney given by VTB to Henry Phillip Comte Velasquez to act for VTB was signed by the President of the Board of Directors of VTB Bank, Andrey Kostin, himself, and not by the head of the legal department, as is normally happens with any Bank.This mandate was granted to Henry Phillip Comte Velasquez with “Reserve of exercise” that is to say that he can delegate it to another lawyer of the Law Firm Comte & Font – Legalsa and his law firm still continues to exercise the powers granted under it.
- Anastasia’s illnessAnastasia has been diagnosed with Bipolar Affective Disorder, Borderline Syndrome according to the psychiatric reports of the National Institute of Forensic Sciences of Guatemala. Her psychiatric disorders was triggered by her kidnapping in Russia in which she was repeatedly raped and drugged.As a result of her illness, Anastasia has attempted suicide five times.
While at the Hospital Concepción she suffered several crises due to the harassment of the National Civil Police agents who were guarding them. She was also greatly affected by the fact that Judge María Belén Reyna Salazar had sent her little brother to an orphanage and also that Judge Carol Patricia Flores Polanco sent several forensic psychiatrist to determine whether she had to stay at the hospital or whether she could be sent to the jail of Santa Teresa.The National Institute of Forensic Sciences ruled that Anastasia should not be sent to a prison because it could cause her to make further attempts to commit suicide.Ignoring this, the President for the Tribunal de Sentencia, Judge Iris Yassmin Barrios Aguilar ordered to send her to the Mariscal Zavala prison for 14 years.Currently she is under a lot of emotional pressure because she has been threatened by Judge Iris Yasmín Barrios Aguilar and by the warden of the Women’s section of Mariscal Zavala to be transferred to the Federico Mora Psychiatric Hospital if she shows any sign of her illness (that triggers her anxiety).A few days after Anastasia was sent to prison, the President of the Tribunal de Sentencia ordered that Anastasia be evaluated by the National Institute of Forensic Sciences of Guatemala to determine whether it was necessary or not to send her to the Federico Mora National Mental Health Hospital, named as the worst in the world by the BBC
- Similar Cases:
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. I list below the most relevant:A verdict was issued by the same court that sentenced the Bitkovs to penalties of 19 and 14 years in prison and expulsion from the country. The same 3 judges, in February 2018, that is, one month after they imposed custodial sentences on the Bitkovs, sentenced 2 members of the dangerous and notorious Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang to conmutable prison sentences of 5 years. Mr. Israel Antonio Cabrera Luna, whose alias is “el demonio” (the demon) and Mauricio Antonio Rivas Hernández, whose alias is “goat” or “patoja”, were of Salvadoran nationality. These MS-13 gang members were not expelled from the country, unlike the Bitkovs. These MS-13 gang members did not cooperate at the investigation. (*judgment Mara Salvatrucha process C-01031-2017-00005).CICIG, in its statement number 042 – 2013 indicates that 2 Colombians were convicted, for similar acts as the Bitkovs, but they only got 3 years suspended prison sentences and expulsion to their country of origin.The case of Marcela Ortega Bejarano. She was a witness proposed by the General Prosecution Office who described the way the mafia operated within the General Directorate of Migration and within the National Registry of Persons (Civil Registry). In her testimony she recounts the way in which the documents were delivered, which is the same process by which the Bitkovs received their documents.She was also only given a 5 year suspended prison sentence and was expelled to her country of origin.
- Refugee Status:It is important to clarify that the Bitkov Family had not requested asylum upon entry into Guatemala.
They hired Cutino Associates International assuming that the Law Firm that would take care of all the legal procedures required to obtain Guatemalan citizenship. Cutino Associates International also advised them to change their names in order to avoid any persecution by the Russian Federation in Guatemala. The advice provided by Cutino Associates International made the Bitkov family think that their documents were absolutely legal so they did not need to request asylum or refugee status. They found Cutino Associates International via the internet.
In February 2015, the Bitkovs filed the asylum application with the General Directorate of Immigration.
The lawyer who made the filing told the Bitkovs that they had to appear personally to sign the initial request in front of the migration officer.
Authorization was requested to Judge Carol Patricia Flores Polanco, to give them permission to go to sign the request for asylum, however, the Judge denied their request.
This caused a delay in the filing of the asylum application. The Directorate General of Migration had offered to go to the Hospital and to Mariscal Zavala to obtain these signatures, however, they later retracted their offer.
Finally, the authorization was given to the Bitkovs lawyers to obtain the signatures directly from the Bitkovs and the application for asylum was filed on July 23, 2015. The application for asylum was refused on 23 November 2016. The decision was notified to the Bitkovs on February 2017 so the appealed it before the General Secretariat of the Presidency on February 16, 2017 and is currently pending.
- Russian Embassy:Irina and Anastasia were first approached by the Russian Embassy in Guatemala when they were in hospital. The officials from the embassy asked Irina to allow Vladimir to be given Russian citizenship. She refused. The only reason that the Russian Embassy sought Russian citizenship for Vladimir was to enable them to take Vladimir back to Russia and put him in an orphanage.
- Call to justice:The evil with which this case has been handled is shocking. The Kremlin, through VTB bank has
conspired with the Guatemalan justice system to (i) separate a 3-year-old boy from his family and send him to an orphanage where he was tortured (ii) to lock up in a prison a young woman with psychiatric disorders and finally (iii) condemn with ridiculous punishments a family who went to Guatemala in order to flee Russian persecution that was threatening to destroy their lives in contravention of Palermo Convention, Guatemalan Migration Law and an Order from the Constitutional Court.Anastasia told me once: I have suffered a lot, my life has never been even close to normal. I want to fight so my little brother can have a normal life, he still has time.Permalink: https://www.csce.gov/sites/helsinkicommission.house.gov/files/III.a%20Testimony_Victoria%20Sandoval.pdf
Attorney Rolando Alvarado
U.S. Helsinki Commission
Rolando Alvarado Testimony
Bitkov Family Lawyer, Bar Member at the Colegio de Abogados y Notarios de Guatemala N° 7,286
U.S. Helsinki Commission
Hearing on “The Long Arm Of Injustice: Did a UN Commission Founded to Fight Corruption
Help the Kremlin Destroy a Russian Family?”
April 27, 2018
Good morning Co-Chairman Smith, Distinguished Members of the Helsinki Commission and to all the public present in this room, for me it is an honor to have been invited to this hearing as a witness to the Bitkov Case.
I’m a lawyer who specialises in banking matters as well as cyber and economic crimes. I first came across the Bitkov family two years before their arrests when I initially met Irina and Anastasia Bitkov. They set up a small film company in Guatemala and I registered the copyrights of the material they produced. Since then, I have become a close friend to the family and I am in fact the legal guardian of Vladimir Bitkov, Igor and Irina’s son, who is now six years old.
Firstly, I would like to address the actions for which the Bitkov family has been accused of. The Bitkovs were criminally charged for using identity documents and passports issued by the State of Guatemala. The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and the General Prosecution Office argued that these documents were issued illegally.
As a consequence, CICIG and the General Prosecution Office initiated a criminal prosecution, notoriously disproportionate and even more aggressive and shocking than high-impact crimes such as drug trafficking, murder or even terrorism. They channelled their criminal prosecution before special courts that know of crimes of greater risk. All this for what in reality constitutes a lack of migratory rights.
CICIG has no right to participate as a complainant against the Bitkovs, since the mandate granted by the United Nations and the Government of Guatemala, establishes that the Commission has jurisdiction only to investigate crimes committed by members of the illegal security forces and the clandestine security apparatuses. The Bitkov family was not accused of being part of these illegal security forces and therefore does not fit into the functions entrusted to CICIG. This implies that CICIG exceeded its legal powers and abused its authority.
In addition to violating its agreement, CICIG also violated the Palermo Convention. The Bitkovs were accused of using false identity documents and passports, however in accordance with the Palermo Convention – of which the State of Guatemala has signed and ratified – as migrants the Bitkovs are clearly exempt of criminal responsibility as well as exempt from criminal liability under the Migration Law of Guatemala.
The actions for which the Bitkovs have been accused of do not even constitute a crime.
Now allow me to set out a timeline:
On January 15th 2015, CICIG and the General Prosecution Office with the support of the National Civil Police, conducted three raids. One in the family home, another in the Bitkov’s office located 10km from their home and the third in the house of Anastasia’s boyfriend, Mr. Andrés Avelar.
On January 15th 2015, I witnessed the search being carried out at the Bitkov’s family home.
This raid was documented in the minutes of January 15th 2015.
The search began at 6:00am. The prosecutors did not allow the Bitkovs to call their lawyer until 9:00am, three hours after the search began. For that reason, I showed up at the house at around 10:00am. Upon my arrival, the Bitkov family felt extremely tormented, annoyed and helpless. They told me that the police entered the home whilst they were sleeping and did not leave the bedrooms for them to get dressed freely. Igor was forced to cover up his wife Irina and his daughter Anastasia so that they could get dressed.
The search lasted a total of twenty hours, as it ended at 1:40am the next day. All this is confirmed in the document that contains the tally sheet. During the 20 hour raid, the entire family was placed in the living room.
There was an excessive amount of public force as the house was invaded by dozens of police officers. The operation was carried out jointly with CICIG personnel and the General Prosecution Office. This excessive use of public force cannot be justified in any way. The crime investigated – the use of supposedly false documents – is not high risk nor does it constitute a crime. Whilst the raid was carried out I asked the prosecutor Stuart Ernesto Campo Aguilar the reason as to why there were so many policemen. He told me that it originated from the million dollar fraud case committed by the Bitkovs against a Russian bank. This bank was in fact managing the criminal process against the Bitkov family.
During the raid, Anastasia panicked and fainted. Vladimir was also very scared to see so many heavily armed policemen inside of their house.
The prosecutors and police seized: the family’s vehicles, their jewellery and electronic devices, although they had no connection with the crime that was being investigated. Prosecutors indicated that any request for the return of these personal belongings had to be made before a judge. Concerning the jewellery, half was taken during the raid and the other half was left at the house.
At the same time, two more raids were carried out, at their office and at Anastasia’s boyfriend’s house. A large number of police officers were also present. These raids were also not justified since the crime the Bitkovs were accused of was the use of identity documents.
Once the raids had come to an end, twenty hours later the prosecutors and the police proceeded to execute the arrest warrants against the family in the early hours of the following day. Igor, Irina and Anastasia were handcuffed. Vladimir who was only three years old at the time was woken up by the police. I asked the prosecutors and the police officers
not to wake the child because he would be frightened but they ignored my request and continued.
After the Bitkov family was arrested, prosecutors indicated that the child would be transferred to an orphanage, however he first had to be transferred to court so that a judge could define his legal situation. They put him in a grey car belonging to the Attorney General’s Office. They wanted to bring him alone but I requested that his nanny Mrs. Veronica Gonzales accompany him. She quickly prepared a suitcase with clothes and they both got in the car. I myself followed the car in my vehicle. Igor and Irina – anguished by their son’s situation – begged me not to leave Vladimir seeing as they did not know anyone trustworthy which could take care of their son. They asked me to make sure that he would not go to an orphanage.
Having arrived at the court located 25km from the Bitkov’s home at around 3:00am in the morning, we hoped that the judge on duty would attend to us. We waited two hours as other cases were being processed. Before the hearing at around 5.30am, I asked the psychologist and social worker at the court to interview Vladimir and to determine whether he had a close bond with his nanny Veronica Gonzalez. Vladimir did not want to be separated from her and the court staff easily determined that the child had a close and affectionate bond with his nanny.
The judge on duty, Attorney Marjorie Rene Azpuru Villela agreed with the court staff regarding the child’s emotional bond with Veronica. Before handing over Vladimir, the judge asked me if as a lawyer I was committed to providing financial support – such as clothing, food, education expenses etc. – for Vladimir while his parents’ situation was being resolved. I replied saying yes. Veronica and I were given joint custody of Vladimir. In order not to victimize him even more, we arranged for Veronica to move into my house seeing as the Bitkov’s property was seized and closed off. Vladimir was basically left homeless and without his family, only in the company of Veronica and myself. The official date that Vladimir was given to us (his guardians) was January 16th 2015.
Following Vladimir and Veronica moving into my home, we received a phone call from the Attorney General’s Office, which deals with cases related to children in Guatemala. We were summoned so that psychological evaluations could be done on Vladimir and financial checks could be conducted on me and Veronica. The psychological evaluations were very positive. Vladimir clearly told the psychologist, Sheila Ninette Santiago Lopez, that it was his desire to be with Veronica. He said: “she takes care of me and gives me my feeding bottle”. This is stated in the judgement of March 18th 2015 of the Court of Appeals for Children.
Although the psychological evaluations showed an affectionate bond between Vladimir and his nanny, we were summoned by another judge, Maria Belen Reyna Salazar. She told us that we had to attend court with Vladimir on February 10th 2015 (almost a month after Vladimir had been living with us). On February 10th we presented ourselves with the child. We had a detailed report which showed that the child was well taken care of in terms of housing, education and food. We attached photographs, details of his diet and other important aspects. Although the psychological evaluations – which were conducted by the
Attorney General’s Office – were very positive, Judge Maria Belen Reyna Salazar, without asking the child’s opinion (which is a serious abuse as the law obliges the child to be heard), arranged to separate him from us, arguing that we were not his relatives and there was doubt on who his parents were due to their passports and identity documents being the subject of a criminal investigation. The doubt surrounding the identity of Vladimir arose from a report that was sent by the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity (FECI) indicating that his identity was flawed. FECI is part of the General Prosecutions Office that investigates all cases which CICIG participates in.
During the hearing on February 10 2015, the judge ordered the child, Vladimir Bitkov to be moved to a special room for abandoned children. Vladimir cried out loud but the judge insisted on moving him away from us.
The judge decided to immediately separate Vladimir from me and his nanny despite being his legal guardians. Veronica tried to leave his feeding bottle but they did not take it stating that they already had the essentials for the child. They did not let us say goodbye to Vladimir, they only told us that after crying he had fallen asleep deeply. So when Vladimir woke up he was already with total strangers in an orphanage called “Love of the Child” that is located in the interior of the country. The judge forbade us, his guardians and anyone else to visit Vladimir at the orphanage, arguing that it was for “his safety.” The day in which this separation took place was extremely shocking for us, and I do not want to imagine how shocking it was for Vladimir to wake up in an orphanage with strangers. From that day a very strong legal battle began, we fought to recover Vladimir. Following 42 days in the orphanage, a Child Appeals Chamber declared that the act of Judge María Belén Reyna Salazar had been illegal and ordered the child to return with his guardians.
The day he left the orphanage, he was delivered to us in court. Vladimir looked very scared and did not speak with us. We travelled 20 kilometers he only spoke once to ask to go to the bathroom. We made our way to the hospital where his mother and sister were being kept. When Vladimir saw his mother you could tell he was extremely upset. He did not speak to her either. When he asked for food we bought him pizza. We found it very disturbing that Vladimir put a number of pieces of pizza inside his shirt, as if he was saving food. This made us think that he had gone hungry in the orphanage and was not fed properly. We then discovered he had a chipped tooth and an infection in both his eyes. We asked the doctor to give him a medical examination in which he later on stated that Vladimir had a scar on his eyebrow, chipped front teeth, conjunctivitis, an upper respiratory infection, severe inflammation of his ear and had clearly suffered from physical and psychological abuse. After returning from the orphanage Vladimir was another child, he no longer used his feeding bottle, he did not speak to anyone and he wanted to be alone. Prior to this, he was an outgoing, happy and social child and when he returned he was remote and introverted. He was clearly still afraid. Support was sought from a psychologist to give him therapy for several months. Many nights Vladimir woke up crying, with a face of fear, and anguish.
Because of the way Vladimir left the orphanage, we filed a complaint with the Human Rights Ombudsman. It is clear that Judge María Belén Reyna Salazar committed an illegal verdict as there was no legal and moral justification for Vladimir being sent to an orphanage. The Human Rights Ombudsman of Guatemala issued a resolution on February 8, 2016 where he
stated that Vladimir’s rights were clearly violated by the judge and the director of the orphanage, “Love of the Child”.
When leaving the orphanage Vladimir and Verónica were in my residence for almost a year. On the 15th January 2016 Irina and Anastasia were granted house arrest and were able to leave the hospital where they were held for one year. Vladimir returned home with his mother, his sister and his nanny.
I would now like to testify about the illegalities that arose in the criminal process. I will start with the action of VTB Bank:
From the beginning of the process, VTB bank justified its participation in the process by claiming that the Bitkovs had committed fraud against the bank. The participation of VTB bank was always supported and defended by CICIG through its representative Claudia González Orellana, who declared before the judge that the events that occurred in Russia were related to the events that occurred in Guatemala and that VTB bank should be allowed to defend its interests in Guatemala. An audio recording of the hearing which took place on January 22nd 2015 is available.
Prior to presenting the accusations, that is, the pre-hearing procedure where the sentence is handed down, the main judge was informed of two fundamental points: (i) That the Bitkov family are migrants and that the actions for which they are accused of does not constitute a crime under the Palermo Convention (signed by Guatemala). Furthermore, (ii) under Guatemala’s own Migration Law, it states that no migrant may be prosecuted criminally for obtaining false identity documents. These rules state that the criminal subject is not the migrant since the only responsible criminal is the trafficker, which in the case of the Bitkovs was Cutino Associates International. Cutino Associates International is a large immigration law firm in Guatemala and Latin America which has never been investigated by CICIG even though the Bitkov family filed a number of criminal complaints against them. CICIG and the General Prosecution Office have a clear knowledge of these complaints.
In addition, Igor Bitkov filed a complaint in May 2016 against Cutino Associates International addressed directly to the Attorney General of the Republic of Guatemala, Mrs. Thelma Aldana.
Several days later, on the 18th May 2016, Irina Bitkov filed another complaint with the Attorney General. The accusations against Cutino Associates International have never been investigated, although Irina Bitkova specifically stated them in her complaint. She provided the telephone numbers that appear on Cutino Associates International’s website and asked that the IP addresses, the entry logs to the site and the name of the person who acquired the domain on the internet be investigated as well as setting out other useful means of investigation for that case. In spite of this, no meaningful investigation was conducted.
Igor Bitkov also specifically stated that he made a wire transfer to Cutino Associates International and later on requested CICIG to investigate and trace this bank transfer, which they failed to do. Instead of investigating the real perpetrators, CICIG accused the true victims of this crime.
In addition to the two complaints filed with the Attorney General against the company that processed the identity documents for the Bitkovs – that is, Cutino Associates International – Irina Bitkov reported these facts directly to the Commissioner Iván Velásquez Gómez on the
18th May 2017. In addition, we have a video where it was clearly recorded that Irina Bitkov personally spoke with Mr. Iván Velásquez. She gave him documents which demonstrated the political persecution by the Russian government which they were victims of, and which had to be investigated. The Bitkovs also denounced that the CICIG representative repeated word for word the infringed complaint of VTB bank without having any proof. Commissioner Velasquez said he would review the case but did nothing about it. CICIG never investigated Cutino Associates International nor ceased to support it.
Additionally, Igor Bitkov gave power of attorney to a lawyer from Cutino Associates International – named Mr. Edwin Orlando Xitumul Hernández – to conduct all necessary action in order for the Bitkovs to receive passports. This power of attorney constitutes further evidence that Cutino Associates International was given authority to do whatever was required by law to obtain passports. CICIG should have investigated the criminal structure that is Cutino Associates International, however an investigation was never opened.
The defense’s other argument during the trial was that VTB bank should be excluded from the criminal proceedings since the claim for payment of a supposed debt is not a criminal matter. In addition, there was no proof of the existence of such debt to begin with.
The Bitkovs asked a Civil Court to require VTB Bank to present the original bail document that constituted the main document of its complaint. VTB Bank refused to provide to the Court any documents to support their complaints, arguing that the Guatemalan Courts did not have jurisdiction to see the claim. However, Judge Ericka Aifán, at the request of CICIG and the General Prosecution Office, rejected the defense’s arguments and proceeded with hearings against the Bitkovs. The other defendants in the case were effectively officials and state employees who formed the criminal structure. The Bitkovs were the only migrants in this case.
During the hearing, the senior official of the passport office declared that thousands of passports were issued with irregularities. In addition, the witness Carlos René Gómez Díaz, stated that the General Directorate of Immigration issued between 1 and 3 passports with irregularities per week in favor of foreigners. However, only the Bitkovs were sentenced to prison. Other foreigners were sentenced to suspended sentences meaning that instead of going to jail they had to pay a fine and return freely to their country of origin.
Another illegality that arose during the criminal process was that prior to the sentencing of the Bitkov family – during the hearing – a higher constitutional court granted an order in favor of the Bitkovs, whose ruling stated that the migrants could not be prosecuted criminally in accordance with the provisions of the Palermo Convention and the Migration Law of Guatemala. However, the Court chaired by Judge Yassmín Barrios did not comply
with that court order and continued the hearing which later sentenced the Bitkov family with extraordinary and illegal penalties.
The court that sentenced the Bitkovs, in addition to applying the maximum prison sentences, ordered the deportation of the Bitkov family from the country, even though we indicated that their lives are in danger if they are expelled back to Russia. In addition, on the day of the conviction, that is, on January 5, 2018, the Court revoked the house arrest of Irina and Anastasia, and they were at once again sent to prison that same night. In addition, I told Judge Yassmín Barrios that Anastasia Bitkova suffered from a psychiatric illness and had five documented suicide attempts, and that there are reports from forensic psychiatrists in Guatemala that she cannot be imprisoned because there is a risk of death. This did not matter to the Court and she was sent to prison together with her mother. In addition, the Court did not take into consideration the best interests of the child Vladimir Bitkov and ordered a second separation from his family.
On the day of the conviction Irina and Anastasia were remitted to the court jail. That day January 5, 2018 was one of the coldest days in Guatemala. Together with Attorney Victoria Sandoval and myself, they did not let us bring them clothes despite the intense cold. We had to enter and leave our own clothes so that they had a little heat, since they were shivering from the cold. We filed an immediate complaint against the police for their inhuman actions which was only taken into consideration days later and eventually ignored.
The above is what I have to say in this brief, in relation to the case of the Bitkov family. The family at this moment is suffering because they are facing illegal sentences that were imposed by CICIG and the General Prosecution Office.
Global Magnitsky Campaign for Justice
U.S. Helsinki Commission
Testimony by William Browder
To the US Helsinki Commission
On the Bitkov case in Guatemala
April 27, 2018
Co-chairman Smith, Distinguished Members of the Helsinki Commission,
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to present the story of the Russian Government’s
persecution of the Bitkov family in Guatemala.
As many of you know, I was the client of Sergei Magnitsky in Russia. When he was murdered by Russian government officials for uncovering state corruption, I started a campaign for justice, which led to this Commission spearheading the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act in 2012, and the Global Magnitsky Act in 2016.
I wrote about the Magnitsky justice campaign in a book, entitled “Red Notice, which was published in February 2015. Following the book’s publication, I have received messages from people all over the world telling me about their reactions to the Magnitsky case and sharing their own stories.
One of those stories came from a Russian woman named Irina Bitkov. She described how she and her family had been persecuted in a similar way to Sergei Magnitsky in Russia and when they fled, their persecutors from the Russian government chased them all the way to Guatemala and ruined their lives.
I am here today to share the Bitkov’s story because they can’t be here to do it themselves. They are currently in a Guatemalan prison where Igor Bitkov (the father) is serving a nineteen-year prison sentence and Irina and Anastasia Bitkov (the mother and daughter) are serving fourteen-year prison sentences, all for “passport violations” in Guatemala.
I’d like to point out that I have no business relationships with the Bitkovs. I am receiving no compensation for the advocacy I am doing on their behalf. I am entirely motivated by the shocking injustice of what has happened to them.
This story starts in the 1990’s when Igor and Irina Bitkov became owners of a paper mill in Russia called the North West Timber Company. Over the course of the 1990s, they built a highly successful business that reached $80 million in profits by 2007. It was apparently valued by the Russian state bank, Sberbank, at roughly US$400 million.
In the course of its business, the company obtained loans from Russian state banks, including Sberbank, VTB and Gazprombank in order to upgrade its facilities. Shortly after the loans were issued, the Bitkov’s problems began.
One of the bankers involved in issuing the loan approached Igor Bitkov and asked Igor to sell 51% of the business to him personally for US$25 million. As the business was worth many times that, Igor refused.
Following this unwanted take-over attempt, a terrible trauma befell the Bitkov family. The Bitkov’s then 16 year old daughter Anastasia was kidnapped in St Petersburg. The kidnappers demanded a ransom, which took the Bitkovs three days to accumulate. They paid the kidnappers and Anastasia was released, but when she was safely back home, the family discovered that Anastasia had been drugged and repeatedly raped by her kidnappers. The ordeal left Anastasia deeply traumatised and set off a cascade of psychiatric ailments, which require medication and treatment to this day.
Following that, and in a further escalation of the attempts to take over their company, the Russian state banks simultaneously called in the $158 million loans forcing the company into bankruptcy.
During the bankruptcy proceedings, the equipment of their factories was sold for a fraction of its true value.
The Bitkovs were then told that they would be imminently arrested. This was the moment the Bitkov family fled Russia. They first travelled to Latvia, and then to Turkey. In Turkey, they sought out a country to settle in where they could avoid the risk of being sent back to Russia where they feared
the worst. They chose Guatemala because it did not have an extradition treaty with Russia.
They found an advertisement on the Internet from a Latin American law firm called Cutino Associates that specialised in immigration law and advertised its expertise in organizing Guatemalan immigration for US$50,000 per person. The family engaged Cutino and began the process of becoming immigrants to Guatemala.
In their initial communications with the Cutino law firm, they explained that the reason for their immigration was to avoid persecution from Russia.
Cutino explained to them that they could change their names in their immigration applications to avoid detection by the Russians. Cutino then submitted applications for the family and the Guatemalan migration service issued them new documents in new names. Anastasia kept her original name hoping that because she was not targeted with Russian criminal cases she would be ok to keep it.
The family then began a new life in Guatemala. Igor became a high school math teacher at the Brillo De Sol School in Antigua, Guatemala. Irina became a drawing teacher at the same school, and Anastasia who was beginning to regain her confidence after her terrible trauma in Russia, began a career in fashion.
In January 2012, Irina Bitkov gave birth to a baby boy named Vladimir.
It appeared that after their terrible ordeal in Russia where the family had lost nearly everything, they could begin a new chapter in their lives.
Unfortunately, their dream of a new life came crashing down in late 2013.
Investigators working for VTB Bank tracked down the Bitkovs in Guatemala. The head of the VTB Bank, Andrey Kostin, personally hired Henry Comte, one of the most prestigious attorneys in Guatemala and an alternate judge on the Guatemalan Supreme Court, to assist VTB in pursuing the Bitkovs in Guatemala.
VTB and Comte’s first attempt to go after the Bitkovs was to file a criminal complaint with the Attorney General’s Office of Guatemala claiming VTB had been defrauded by the Bitkovs in Russia. VTB presented photocopies of forged documents in the Guatemalan court. These documents had already been rejected as forgeries in similar proceedings in the Russian courts. When the Guatemalan court requested the originals, VTB bank withdrew its application.
VTB and Henry Comte then came up with a ‘plan B’ to go after Bitkovs. For several years before
2013, there had been an ongoing investigation into human trafficking and Guatemalan officials’ complicity with human traffickers in the country. It was called the Migration Case and was supported by a UN organisation called CICIG whose mandate was to go after organised crime networks who previously enjoyed impunity in Guatemala.
VTB and Comte successfully convinced CICIG to focus on the Bitkovs as part of the Migration Case in spite of the fact the Bitkovs were clearly not part of any organised network of traffickers.
Inexplicably, VTB Bank gained the legal status as an ‘interested party’ in the Migration Case
against the Bitkovs with the support of CICIG. In January 2015, a criminal case against the Bitkovs was opened at the direction of CICIG. Immediately after, 70 armed police officers raided the Bitkovs’ home, arrested Irina, Igor and Anastasia and detained them in cage behind the parking garage in the main court building in Guatemala City.
While they were being held, Anastasia was deprived of her anti-depression medications and she had a severe psychiatric break-down. Anastasia and her mother were moved to a hospital under armed guard, and Igor was put into pre-trial detention at the Mariscal Zavala prison while the case awaited trial.
The Bitkovs arranged for their family lawyer, Rolando Alvarado, to be a guardian for their 3 year old child, Vladimir, while they were incarcerated. In spite of Mr. Alvarado’s valid guardianship papers, the Prosecutor of Guatemala filed a motion with the court calling for Vladimir Bitkov to be placed in a state orphanage instead.
At this point, the Russian government also got involved. Pavel Astakhov, the Russian government’s ombudsman for children’s rights publicly called for Vladimir Bitkov to be returned to Russia to be put into a Russian orphanage.
The Russian foray failed because Vladimir is only a Guatemalan citizen, not Russian and could not be returned to Russia. However, the Guatemalan prosecutor’s motion succeeded and Vladimir was placed in a state orphanage.
The family desperately applied to reverse the decision and get Vladimir out of the orphanage. It took
42 days for that application to be heard. When Vladimir finally emerged, he was examined by medical experts who found he had an upper respiratory infection; severe inflammation of the middle ear; conjunctivitis in both eyes; scars along the left eyebrow; and chipped front teeth. They concluded that he suffered from physical and psychological abuses in the orphanage.
In the meantime, the case against the Bitkovs for passport violations moved through the courts, they were formally indicted as part of the CICIG Migration Case in April 2015.
The Bitkov family appealed the indictment in the Appeals Court arguing that they were migrants and could not be subject to criminal prosecution applicable to traffickers. In December 2017, the Guatemalan Appeals Court ruled in favour of the Bitkovs declaring that any passport irregularities were administrative offences punishable by a fine and as migrants they should not be under criminal penalty.
However, CICIG and VTB were not happy with this decision and both immediately filed appeals against that court decision that would have freed the Bitkovs. While their appeal was pending, the decision was not in force.
A few days later on January 5, 2018, the Guatemalan District Court found Igor, Irina and Anastasia Bitkov guilty as users of the criminal network in the Migration Case. The court sentenced Igor to 19 years in prison, and Irina and Anastasia to 14 years. CICIG trumpeted their court victory on their website pointing out that they prosecuted 39 people from the criminal network, including the Bitkovs.
I understand that the 19-year sentence that Igor Bitkov was given was greater than sentences for manslaughter, rape, burglary and fraud in Guatemala. The sentences that all three of them were given appears to exceed the sentences of many of the government officials in Guatemala and traffickers who were part of the human trafficking network.
There was no evidence that the Bitkovs bribed any government official, or were involved in any corruption.
The Bitkovs who did not speak Spanish and did not know anyone in Guatemala on arrival, relied on the law firm, Cutino Associates who presented themselves as legitimate immigration lawyers.
It also appears that nobody from Cutino Associates who organised their passports and settlement documents has ever been prosecuted.
No other customers of Cutino appear to have been tried, convicted and sentenced like the Bitkovs. In the list presented by CICIG, which includes 39 people in the Migration Case, 36 were low & middle level officials from different Guatemalan governmental bodies and a few ‘coyotes’ who physically moved people through Guatemala.
So, what’s going on here?
There are two big Russian themes in this case, neither of which are unusual.
First, in Russia people who run successful businesses are routinely victimised 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. There are literally hundreds of thousands of businessmen in jail in Russia who are victims of this as well.
The second theme is the abuse of international institutions. The Russian government routinely abuses international institutions in order to persecute its enemies who are outside of Russia.
In my case, the Russian government tried six times to have Interpol arrest me after the Magnitsky Act was passed. The Russian government also successfully recruited a senior official inside the Swiss Federal Police to stymie a Swiss criminal investigation into money laundering by Russian officials in the Magnitsky case. The Russian government also succeeded in getting a Deputy Attorney General of Cyprus in charge of mutual legal assistance and extradition affecting the Magnitsky case, and many other politically sensitive cases to inappropriately assist Russia in pursuing their enemies in Cyprus.
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.
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.
Nor has VTB tried to hide its role in this case. In spite of the fact that VTB obtained no financial recovery for their alleged financial dispute with the Bitkovs, they became interested party in a case involving something that had nothing to do with them in order to vindictively punish Igor Bitkov and his entire family.
In the Wall Street Journal on April 4, 2018, Igor Kostin, the Chairman of VTB, says: “VTB’s action relating to the Bitkov family is an example of standard procedure in resolving financial business disputes through the available legal channels.”
This is an appalling case in which the Bitkov family deserves justice and the United States has an opportunity to deliver them justice.
CICIG is a UN organisation in which approximately 50% of its budget comes from the US government.
I do not believe that anyone in the US Congress or the US government ever envisaged that US tax dollars would be spent to support a Russian persecution of a family fleeing persecution in Guatemala. I would recommend that CICIG’s funding be suspended until this situation is resolved.
When I began the process of advocating for the Bitkov family, I discovered that CICIG is a highly contentious issue in DC and around the world. There are some people who are pro-CICIG, there are others who are anti-CICIG.
Up until two months ago, I had never heard of CICIG. I come into this case with no prejudices one way or another. I’ve gone where the evidence leads. So far, the evidence leads towards the conclusion about the involvement of this organisation in the Bitkov’s persecution.
As journalists from the Wall Street Journal and other news organization have started to investigate, CICIG has avoided answering a number of direct questions about their role in the Bitkov case and their support of VTB.
When CICIG was invited to give evidence to Congress, they declined claiming as a UN organization, it is not accountable to any institution in the United States.
They can’t have it both ways. They can either be the heroic anti-impunity organisation that their mandate sets for them and not take on other country’s vendettas, or the situation at CICIG needs to be cleaned up.