Tuesday

9th Aug 2022

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).

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • 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.

Analysis

Is Germany more hawkish on Russia?

Germany's socialist foreign minister just said the EU should "step up pressure" on Russia. Merkel aired "political" doubts on a Russian pipeline.

EU hopeful of Iran nuclear deal

A possible deal to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear pact is within reach, says the European Union. Washington backs the final proposals, but Tehran remains cautious.

Opinion

Let Taiwan's democracy shine brighter

Dr Ming-Yen Tsai, head of the Taipei Representative Office in the EU and Belgium, responds to EUobserver op-ed on Taiwan by the Chinese ambassador to Belgium. "Taiwan is an 'island of resilience'. That will continue to be the case."

Opinion

Supporting Taiwan 'like carrying water in a sieve'

China's ambassador to Belgium, Cao Zhongming, says the US has been distorting, obscuring and hollowing out the 'one-China' principle and unscrupulously undermining China's core interests. This is sheer double standards and a shameful act of bad faith.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBConstruction workers can check wages and working conditions in 36 countries
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Canadian ministers join forces to combat harmful content online
  3. European Centre for Press and Media FreedomEuropean Anti-SLAPP Conference 2022
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers write to EU about new food labelling
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersEmerging journalists from the Nordics and Canada report the facts of the climate crisis
  6. Council of the EUEU: new rules on corporate sustainability reporting

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us