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law firm represents the Bitkovs, said the family has no travel documents, as their Russian and Guatemalan passports are no longer valid.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.
After the lender’s take-over attempt, Anastasia, then 16, was allegedly kidnapped, drugged and raped for three days in St. Petersburg in 2007. Igor and Irina paid $200,000 for their daughter’s release. Mr. Browder said the family accuses Russia’s Federal Security Service of the kidnapping.
In 2008, the Russian state banks demanded immediate repayment of the US$158-million loan, forcing the company into bankruptcy.
Facing threats, the Bitkovs fled to Latvia and then Turkey, where they found a law firm that offered what they believed to be a legal route to obtain Guatemalan citizenship for US$50,000 a person. They paid US$150,000 and in 2009, arrived in Guatemala, where Igor and Irina taught at a local school, while Anastasia started a modelling career. Irina gave birth to a boy, Vladimir, in 2012.
In 2015, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a United Nations agency created to fight corruption, opened a criminal case against the Bitkovs as a part of its investigation into human trafficking. Mr. Browder accused VTB – one of the Russian state banks that lent money to the Bitkovs – of persuading the CICIG to open the case. Seventy armed police officers raided the Bitkovs’ home, arresting Irina, Igor and Anastasia.
In January, Igor was sentenced to 19 years in prison, and Irina and Anastasia to 14 years. Mr. Browder said they are in a cramped, filthy prison, with little food and medical treatment. He said Anastasia suffers from mental illness stemming from her alleged kidnapping.
The Russian embassy in Ottawa did not comment on the Bitkov’s plea for asylum, instead referring to a CICIG statement from March criticizing “biased” reports on the case.