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Victory for the Bitkov

Congress should get to the bottom of this outrage in Guatemala.

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The Constitutional Court of Guatemala in Guatemala City, Guatemala. PHOTO: SAUL MARTINEZ/EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

By The Editorial Board of the Wall Street Journal
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Our Mary O’Grady has been telling you about the Bitkovs—Igor, Irina and Anastasia—who were railroaded to prison in Guatemala. Well, good news. On Thursday Guatemala’s Constitutional Court upheld an earlier ruling that the family of Russian migrants fleeing persecution were victims of document fraud. If there is any rule of law in Guatemala, the trio’s release from jail should be imminent, and they will need asylum lest they be returned to Russia.

The ruling comes the day before the U.S. Helsinki Commission, chaired by Sen. Roger Wicker (R., Miss), holds a hearing on the case. It will examine the role that a U.S.-funded United Nations body known as the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) played in this disgraceful episode.

The Bitkovs were successful entrepreneurs in Russia but fled in 2008 after they rejected extortion demands. They landed in Guatemala in 2009 and thought that fees they paid to a law firm for legal documents were aboveboard. They picked up their new passports and identity cards at government offices.

The Russian state bank VTB then accused them of fraud, money laundering and using fake documents. Without evidence, the first two charges went nowhere. The Bitkovs did have illegal papers—given to them by a crime ring inside the government. According to the U.N.’s Palermo Convention, this made them victims of human trafficking not criminals. A Guatemala court said as much in December. But VTB bank, CICIG and Guatemala’s attorney general ignored that ruling and went back to a lower court to get a conviction and stiff sentences.

On Friday Congress will hear about the Bitkovs’ odyssey as they were hunted by Russians with close ties to the Kremlin and then punished under the guidance of powerful CICIG top prosecutor Iván Velásquez. The commission should get assurances that the law will be followed this time. But it also needs to uncover the rot at CICIG that led to this outrage.

Appeared in the April 27, 2018, print edition.