Tuesday, May 28, 2024
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Russian family jailed in Guatemala seeks Ottawa’s help

From left to right: Igor Bitkov, Vladimir Bitkov, Irina Bitkov and Anastasia Bitkov.

A Russian family jailed in Guatemala on what they say are trumped-up, Kremlin-influenced charges is begging Canada to grant them asylum so they can avoid possible deportation to Russia when they are released from prison.

The Bitkov family is expected to be released in the coming days, and have enlisted anti-Putin campaigner Bill Browder to help them get to Canada. Mr. Browder, a U.S.-born financier, has led an international campaign against the Kremlin in memory of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was murdered in 2009 after accusing Russian officials of a massive tax fraud.

In a seven-page, handwritten letter from a Guatemalan jail, the Bitkov family asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government for “immediate protection” after their release. The letter, by 27-year-old Anastasia Bitkov, the daughter of Igor and Irina Bitkov, alleged more than a decade of persecution from Russian authorities, including her own kidnapping and rape.

“Our lives run a great risk while we remain in Guatemala, knowing the corrupt nature of Russian and Guatemalan justice systems,” the letter read. “We are a hard-working family that is asking for a chance to restore our lives in a country with honest, uncorrupted government and a free economy.”

Gary Caroline, a Vancouver-based lawyer whose law firm represents the Bitkovs, said the family has no travel documents, as their Russian and Guatemalan passports are no longer valid. They are asking Ottawa for certificates of identity, which would allow them to fly to Canada to claim asylum.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland’s office said the government is “actively engaged” on the case, and that Canada’s embassy in Guatemala is working with the U.S. embassy to gather information. It said the government works closely with the United Nations Refugee Agency in the selection of refugees for resettlement in Canada, adding that “the safety and security of asylum seekers is of paramount concern to us.”

Last week, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court overturned the Bitkovs’ conviction for using forged documents to migrate to Guatemala. A lower-court judge is expected to order their release in the coming days.

The Bitkov’s ordeal started in 2005, when their pulp and paper business, North-West Timber Company, obtained a US$158-million loan from Russian state banks to renovate its factories. When one of the bankers asked Igor Bitkov to sell 51 per cent of the business to him for less than what he thought it was worth, he refused. The family began to receive threats.

Mr. Browder said the Bitkovs are victims of the Russian government process known as “reiderstvo.”

“It is a standard practice in Russia where organized criminals work together with corrupt government officials to extract property and money from their victims,” Mr. Browder told the Helsinki Commission, an independent U.S. government agency that monitors human rights in Europe.