Wednesday

16th Jan 2019

EU-funded body 'hunted Russian exiles in Guatemala'

  • Russian leader Vladimir Putin with VTB chiefs at investment forum in St Petersburg (Photo: kremlin.ru)

An EU-funded commission in Guatemala helped Kremlin corporate raiders to conduct a vendetta against a Russian family, campaigners have warned.

The outcry arose over the Bitkovs, a Russian family that faces years in jail in Latin America unless an appeals court sets them free on Wednesday (9 May).

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  • US and EU are Cicig's main financial sponsors (Photo: US Embassy Guatemala)

They fled to Guatemala after Kremlin-linked oligarchs raided their Russian paper products firm, but found themselves in prison when a Kremlin bank, VTB, pursued them via an EU-funded tribunal, the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, known as Cicig by its Spanish initials.

Now an MEP has raised their case directly with the European Commission, with politicians in the US also highlighting their light.

"Have you been acquainted with the Bitkovs' case ... including the controversy of possible meddling by any Russian government officials or other institutions?", Petras Austrevicus, a Lithuanian MEP asked the commission in a letter this week.

"Has the commission taken any action to conduct an independent investigation and asses the current financing to the Cicig in the light of these circumstances?," the MEP, a former rapporteur on Cicig, asked Neven Mimica, the EU commissioner for international aid.

The commission funds Cicig, which was created by the UN to combat serious crime, via its so-called Development Cooperation Instrument.

It paid the bulk of the €85m or so it has cost to run the tribunal over the past seven years together with Canada and the US.

The Bitkov affair saw Washington put on hold on a $6m (€5.05m) tranche of Cicig funds on Monday.

"I am concerned that Cicig ... has been manipulated and used by radical elements and Russia's campaign against the Bitkov family", US senator Marco Rubio said.

"Cicig was established by the United Nations and Guatemala to prosecute official corruption and human rights abuses, not to participate in it," he added.

The Bitkov family, Igor and Irina, built up their North West Timber Company (NWTC) in Arkhangelsk, Russia.

Hired thugs kidnapped and raped their then 16-year old daughter, Anastasia, as part of an intimidation campaign when they refused to sell it to Kremlin-linked businessmen.

Three Kremlin banks, VTB, Sberbank, and Gazprombank, also bankrupted NWTC by calling in loans as part of the raid.

The Bitkovs fled to Guatemala, which has no extradition deal with Russia, in 2009 because they feared the Russian authorities were going to arrest them.

But VTB went after them by pressing bogus fraud charges via Cicig.

The Kremlin raid has seen Igor, Irina, and Anastasia, the rape victim, each jailed for several years, and the couple's infant son, Vladimir, put into a Guatemalan orphanage.

"They went after them to make an example of them. It's what happens when you don't hand over your business when the Kremlin elite wants to take it away," Bill Browder, a British human rights campaigner who took up the Bitkovs' cause, told EUobserver.

"In Russia, people who run successful businesses are routinely victimised through a process called 'raiderstvo'," Browder recently told the Helsinki Commission, a US human rights agency.

"It is standard practice in Russia, where organised criminals work together with corrupt government officials to extract property and money from their victims," Browder, who used to own a hedge fund in Russia that was also the victim of a Kremlin raid, said.

"The Russian government routinely abuses international institutions in order to persecute its enemies who are outside of Russia," he added, referring to the VTB-Cicig action.

"The Cicig problem has metastasised to Europe," he told this website.

"It needs some kind of oversight mechanism by its contributor countries to make sure this kind of abuse doesn't happen," he said.

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