Abduction of political critic showcases Kremlin methods
Publisher: International Herald Tribune
Author: By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN
Story date: 05/12/2012
Language: English

For two and a half days, Leonid Razvozzhayev, a little known leader of the Russian political opposition, moved furtively from one part of Kiev to another, meeting with political allies and human rights experts about seeking asylum in the West. At times, he was sure he was being followed. He was right.

On a Friday afternoon in clear daylight, masked men grabbed Mr. Razvozzhayev and shoved him into a black van outside the office of a lawyer who was preparing his asylum application on behalf of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The van sped off, with Mr. Razvozzhayev's personal belongings left behind.

More than the prosecution of the girl-punk band, Pussy Riot, or the criminal inquiries into numerous opposition figures, the abduction of Mr. Razvozzhayev in the Ukrainian capital on Oct. 19 has showcased the Kremlin's willingness to use aggressive — even illegal — measures to suppress the political critics of President Vladimir V. Putin.

It also fits a pattern of recent cases in which people seeking protection in Ukraine, perceiving it as a gateway to the West, were instead returned to the countries they fled, in violation of Ukrainian law as well as longstanding international laws and treaties to protect asylum seekers.

Ukrainian officials have refused to investigate Mr. Razvozzhayev's disappearance, saying an inquiry is unwarranted because he is not a missing person.

''We see a problem of disrespect for international law on the part of Ukraine,'' said Maksym Butkevych, a rights advocate with a group called Social Action Center in Kiev.

Other advocates say Russia appears equally at fault.

''If any government was complicit in the abduction of Leonid Razvozzhayev, that government committed a grave violation of Mr. Razvozzhayev's right under the 1951 Refugee Convention to be protected from involuntary return,'' said Mark Hetfield, the president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a private group whose lawyers in Ukraine were preparing Mr. Razvozzhayev's asylum application.

After Mr. Razvozzhayev resurfaced two days later outside a Moscow courthouse in Russian custody, Vladimir Markin, the spokesman for Russia's top federal investigator, insisted that he had ''turned himself in'' — an assertion flatly contradicted by interviews with Mr. Razvozzhayev's wife, lawyers and associates who saw him in Kiev. While Russia could have requested his extradition legally, international rights monitors say Ukraine routinely flouts the normal procedures.

In 2011, a Palestinian engineer, Dirar Abu Sisi, who had applied for Ukrainian citizenship, was pulled off of a train traveling between Kharkiv and Kiev. Weeks later, the Israeli authorities confirmed that Mr. Abu Sisi, whose wife is Ukrainian, was in prison in Israel, charged with helping Hamas develop weapons, including Qassam rockets.

In December 2009, Khamidullo Turhunov, a refugee from Uzbekistan, disappeared in Kiev, and though there has been no official acknowledgement of his whereabouts, his family says he is imprisoned in Uzbekistan.

In a report on human rights abuses in Ukraine, Amnesty International wrote in 2010: ''There is no adequate and fair asylum procedure in Ukraine, and its asylum system fails to comply with international law.''

Mr. Butkevych said that kidnappings were dramatic and exceptional but that asylum seekers were routinely deported or extradited from Ukraine without full protection of their rights. He said many political refugees were drawn to Ukraine wrongly perceiving it as a democratic country where international law was respected.

''In general terms, Ukraine is not a safe country,'' Mr. Butkevych said. ''For some people, especially those people who are actually wanted by their countries of origin, it can be dangerous.''

That certainly proved true for Mr. Razvozzhayev, a former amateur boxer and native of Siberia who has long been a close associate of Sergei Udaltsov, the leader of the Left Front, a radical socialist group that is at the core of the Russian political opposition.

Mr. Razvozzhayev's lawyers say that after he was abducted, he was driven across the Russian border, held for nearly two days in the basement of a house, denied food and subjected to psychological ''torture,'' including death threats against his family.

They said he was also forced to write and sign a 10-page confession, admitting to allegations first raised in October in a documentary on NTV, a government-controlled television channel. It showed Mr. Udaltsov, Mr. Razvozzhayev and others, allegedly at a meeting in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, appealing for financial assistance from a political operative from the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

While they have admitted meeting with the Georgian, Givi Targamadze, Mr. Udaltsov and Mr. Razvozzhayev say much of the documentary was fabricated.

On Wednesday, Mr. Markin, who insisted that Mr. Razvozzhayev had turned himself in, said the Russian authorities were also charging him with armed robbery in a case dating from December 1997 in his hometown of Angarsk, in eastern Siberia. Supporters of Mr. Razvozzhayev said the 15-year-old charges were just another attempt to intimidate him into making a false confession.

In October, when the political opposition held elections to choose a leadership council, both Mr. Udaltsov and Mr. Razvozzhayev were on the ballot. But with pressure over the documentary intensifying, Mr. Razvozzhayev decided not to wait around for the results. He filled a small plastic bag with personal belongings and left the apartment on the western outskirts of Moscow where he lived with his wife and two children, for Kiev.

On VKontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook, he posted a note denying the allegations made in the NTV documentary and announcing that he was going into hiding. ''If in the near future, I am arrested or if something bad happens to me do not believe anything,'' he wrote, ''no matter what bad things they say about me.''

It is clear that he was afraid of being followed, and also that he had no intention of returning to Russia. Instead of taking one of the many direct trains to Kiev from Moscow, or an even quicker direct flight, he took a circuitous route first to Belarus, where Russians can travel without a visa, and then from Belarus into Ukraine.

Arriving in Kiev on a Tuesday afternoon, he called Sergey Kirichyk, an old friend and the leader of Borotba, a Marxist group.

They met, along with other associates, at a kitschy, Soviet-style restaurant near the railroad station, a place with tasseled lampshades, carafes of vodka on the tables and old front pages of Pravda papering the ceiling. Mr. Razvozzhayev contemplated an escape to the Czech Republic or Sweden.

That night, he slept on a mattress in the offices of Borotba, an apartment overlooking Kiev's majestic opera house. The next morning, Russian authorities officially declared him a fugitive, and masked special services police in Moscow searched his apartment as well as the apartment of Mr. Udaltsov, who was brought in for questioning and barred from traveling outside Russia.

In Kiev, Mr. Razvozzhayev stepped up his efforts to apply for political asylum, and on that Wednesday night he went for a walk with a friend, Dmitry Galkin, a writer for a political newspaper called 2000. They met at a subway station near the headquarters of the Ukrainian central election commission not far from Mr. Galkin's apartment.

Mr. Razvozzhayev added Denmark and Belgium to his list of potential destinations.

''I didn't know he was in direct danger,'' Mr. Galkin said. ''He told me that he wanted to become a political refugee.''

As they walked along the darkened streets, they were sure they were being followed. Mr. Razvozzhayev shut off his cellphone and ran off through a dark courtyard.

The next day he called the Kiev office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, where officials arranged for him to meet with a lawyer at 10 a.m. the next day. Anxious to get his application done, Mr. Razvozzhayev skipped breakfast. So at about 1:30 p.m when his lawyer said he needed to make some calls, Mr. Razvozzhayev stepped out for a bite.

He did not come back.
 

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