Thursday

2nd Apr 2020

Opinion

Wikileaks proves the case for MEP's immunity

  • Viktor Uspaskich was the victim of a politically-motivated campaign to force him out of front-line politics (Photo: EUobserver)

A Lithuanian Member of the European Parliament and colleague of mine in the Liberal (ALDE) group, Viktor Uspaskich, continues to fight allegations of fraud and improper behaviour while he was leader of the Lithuania's Darbo Partija (Labour party) in the mid-2000s.

The European Parliament stripped Uspaskich of his legal immunity from prosecution last year at the behest of the Lithuanian authorities, but MEPs are now re-visiting the issue.

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Wikileaks - the force behind so much political change of late - has just made his case a whole lot clearer.

In 2006, Uspaskich, a wealthy businessman and successful politician, was accused of fraudulent financial management - he denied the allegations but was forced to quit as leader of the party at the time. It was alleged that he then 'fled' to Russia, refusing to return to Lithuania despite a prosecutor's summons.

That was the version of events as reported at the time and after his resignation by major international news outlets such as the BBC, The Economist and The New York Times.

But the real story, as told by Uspaskich himself, is much more complicated - as revealed in US Embassy cables dating back to 2005-06 which were published by Wikileaks earlier this year.

Uspaskich contends that he was targeted and forced to resign from his position as leader of the Labour party and Minister for the Economy for political reasons and for alleged (but unsubstantiated) ties to the Russian secret service. He has consistently protested that the fraud allegations were merely a cover for this.

He has described how Lithuania's State Security department 'happened' to launch its investigation into the fraud allegations on the day that Uspaskich had to return to his hometown in Russia for a family emergency - a terrible fire had broken out in his mother's house in Russia and his brother had burnt to death. His return to Russia was not to flee the allegations; he went back to deal with a family tragedy. Uspaskich also recounts how his home in Lithuania had been physically attacked with grenades, how he was beaten up by police and how Lithuanian authorities tried illegally to kidnap him in Moscow. Fearing for his safety, he claimed political asylum in Russia for a while, before returning to Lithuania voluntarily.

Oddities

The material in the US Embassy's cables may not provide legal proof of Uspaskich's innocence; it is nonetheless convincing. Indeed, the cables fill in the blanks and explain the oddities surrounding Uspaskich's case.

The Wiki-leaked (is that now officially a verb?) cables state that, in a conversation with US officials, foreign ministry state secretary Albinas Januska "claimed that the government of Lithuania (and, by extension, he himself) engineered the departure of Labor Party kingpin Viktor Uspaskich from Lithuania because of the latter's ties to the Russian SVR [Foreign Intelligence Service]". Uspaskich denies any such links and claims that the suspicion that he was a Russian spy was based solely on the fact that he is ethnically Russian and was born in Russia.

As the American cables comment, "blaming the Russians is a familiar explanation whenever a prominent Lithuanian falls victim to scandal." Uspaskich was an easy target: a newcomer to the political scene and an ethnic Russian to boot.

The cables also state "one potential source of instability remains - the PM's party continues to seek to meddle in Labor's internal politics in a risky gambit to reduce Uspaskich's influence." The PM's party, the Social Democrats, was a rival party to Labour and was losing ground to them in the polls.

However, a US embassy note confirms that the then prime minister and leader of the Social Democrats Algirdas Brazauskas admitted, in a statement at Vilnius University: "an order was given to expel him [Uspaskich] from Lithuania. High-powered people did this. Through the prosecution, through the tax inspectorate."

Regarding the accusations of financial mismanagement, Uspaskich points out that at no point did the Lithuanian government provide proof that Uspaskich himself instructed anyone to do anything illegal. As chairman of the Labour Party, he transferred the power to manage the financial affairs of the party to three others by signing a series of 'authorisations' and is thus protected by the principle of countersignature.

In fact, Uspaskich himself did not sign the party's financial declaration for either 2005 or 2006 - these were signed by his successors. But his successors were never accused of wrongdoing, which suggests that Uspaskich was targeted for reasons other than the alleged fraud.

It seems clear to me that Viktor Uspaskich was the victim of a politically-motivated campaign to force him out of front-line politics. The Wikileaks cables are persuasive. I hope MEPs come to Viktor's defence this time, and reinstate his immunity.

The author is Liberal Democrat Member of the European Parliament for South West England and Gibraltar and chaired the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe from 2002 - 2009.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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