Katrina Lantos Swett: Interpol and Pichugin, Unwilling Pawns in Putin’s Yukos Game
In 2014, the Russian government surprised the world by releasing two high-profile prisoners of conscience and former Yukos executives, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, each of whom who had been imprisoned on what were widely recognized to be false criminal charges. Though this was in part an act of goodwill on the eve of the Sochi Olympics, it also gave hope that Russia was signaling a turn towards an improved respect for the rule of law. However, since the start of those Olympics, it has been clear that such hopes were ill-founded. One only need to look to the current treatment of the first Yukos employee arrested, Alexei Pichugin, and that of the scores of Yukos officials who managed to flee Russia, to see that Mr. Putin’s tactics remain an example of the legal nihilism that characterize Russian justice and are part of a greater pattern of feigned rapprochement.
The entire Yukos affair has been an enduring symbol of Putin’s misrule, and the civilized world should demand that this shameful chapter of Russia’s current government finally be closed. That seemingly large task can be accomplished in two simple steps: demand the release of Alexei Pichugin, Yukos’ last remaining imprisoned employee, while also declaring him a prisoner of conscience; and end Putin’s abuse of Interpol’s “Red Notices.”
Alexei Pichugin, the former head of Yukos’ Internal Economic Security Department, is undeniably a prisoner of conscience. As Putin’s first salvo against Yukos, Pichugin was the first employee to be arrested, charged with and later convicted of five counts of murder. Each of the two cases against him had a predetermined outcome, supported by the bribed or coerced testimonies of convicted prisoners, and intended to strengthen the fabricated cases against other Yukos officials. From the very beginning Pichugan was the small pawn in Putin’s obsessive effort to ensnare his most feared adversary, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Despite the condemnation of numerous outside tribunals regarding Russia’s selective use of “lawfare” in this case, Pichugin continues to serve a life sentence, upped from his initial 24-yr sentence, in the notoriously brutal Black Dolphin prison.
While many have rallied around a number of prisoners caught in Putin’s political web, few have recognized that Alexei Pichugin’s plight deserves the same attention and scrutiny afforded to his other once-imprisoned Yukos associates. If sunlight is truly the best disinfectant, then the international community owes it to Pichugin to shine as much light as possible on this maligned case and thereby pressure Russian authorities to rethink his wrongful imprisonment.
For those who were able to flee Russia before being arrested on trumped up charges, Mr. Putin has another weapon in his arsenal: Interpol’s increasingly abused Red Notices. Despite the fact that Russia’s criminal justice system is notoriously corrupt — it is ranked the world’s 136th most corrupt country by Transparency International — a simple request to Interpol from Russian authorities can, within hours, land someone on a list of those subject to international arrest warrants at nearly every border on the planet. It is absurd and Kafkaeasque that a world class abuser of the rule of law like Russia should have the ability to co-opt an intergovernmental organization to target its political opponents for arrest globally. Interpol’s mechanisms for countering this abuse are woefully inadequate. While a few individuals have been able to successfully petition individual governments not to recognize a Red Notice, most lack the resources to do so, and even these individuals continue to face enormous restrictions on their freedom even though they live in a free society.
Red Notices remain a favorite armament for Russia, and have been put to particularly rampant use against those tied to Yukos. These individuals have escaped Mr. Putin’s grasp, but through the misuse of Interpol he seeks to further his own illegitimate aims by recruiting the police forces of other law abiding countries to do his dirty work. Interpol has neither the resources, nor it seems the will, to call out Russia’s legal system for the mockery of justice it has become. Interpol must develop internal controls to filter and reject Red Notice requests from Putin and other ruthless dictators that blatantly ignore the rule of law.
Yukos was an example of what Russia could have been — open, transparent, and admirably powerful. Instead, Putin continues to punish anyone associated with this once important company through corrupt trials, wrongful imprisonment, and abuse of Interpol’s Red Notice system. Those of us who respect and embrace freedom, democracy, and rule of law should fight to end these shameful practices and demand that these and all other Yukos related torments come to a merciful end.
Katrina Lantos Swett is President and CEO, Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice