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 Wallenberg Family’s announcement that President Obama has agreed to raise the question of Raoul Wallenberg’s fate with Russian President Putin is welcome news to the Lantos Family and to the untold thousands who were rescued due to his heroism during World War II. Without Wallenberg’s extraordinary efforts, neither of my parents would have survived the Holocaust. They both dedicated their lives to seeking his freedom from the Russian gulag and, subsequently, to honoring Raoul’s memory and emulating his commitment to human rights. In fact, my mother, Mrs. Annette Lantos first brought up Wallenberg’s fate with another American President, Jimmy Carter, during a public radio call-in show in the 1970s. My father’s first act as a newly elected member of Congress was to introduce legislation which made Raoul Wallenberg an honorary American citizen - only the second individual so honored in our nation’s history. Today the Lantos Foundation continues their commitment to this remarkable humanitarian and diplomat by working to preserve Raoul Wallenberg’s memory and his rightful place in history as one of the greatest heroes of the Holocaust.
We are gratified by this news that the US government is going to reengage on Wallenberg’s fate after he disappeared in the Russian Gulag in 1945. The Wallenberg family richly deserves the answers they have been waiting nearly 70 years to hear.
Putin continues manipulation of judicial system
CONCORD, NH – Following the Russian Supreme Court’s ruling to reject Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s appeal of his second conviction and 13 year prisonsentence, Katrina Lantos Swett, President of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice, issued the following statement:
“It is not surprising that one of Putin’s first actions upon his return to the Russian Presidency was to continue his manipulation of the Judiciary and orchestrate the rejection of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s latest appeal. This action, coupled with the blatant election theft he and his party just orchestrated, provides ominous insight into what lies ahead for the Russian people in the next six years under Putin’s tight-fisted reign. We can only hope that the currents of change coursing among the Russian populace can slowly push Russia in the direction of genuine justice and a legitimate system that obeys the rule of law. It seems this is the only force that could be strong enough to persuade Putin to finally allow the Russian people, including Mikhail Khodorkovsky, to have the voice and freedoms they so richly need and deserve.”
The Lantos Foundation is proud to announce the release of a compelling mini-documentary about Russia’s most prominent political prisoner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. We hope you'll take the time to read this email, and share it with your social media contacts.
"The Man Who Believed He Could Change Russia”, is an engaging personal drama, and a powerful narrative about Russia’s retreat from democracy during Putin’s reign. Given recent events, this story is deeply relevant for all those who share Mikhail’s vision of a truly free Russia.
The mockery of justice and rule of law in Russia we have long highlighted in conjunction with the Khodorkovsky case was again on display this past week. Shockingly, Russian Interior Ministry officials announced plans to posthumously prosecute whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, who died in detention under suspicious circumstances over two years ago after he uncovered massive tax fraud on the part of Russian government officials.
This abysmal “legal nihilism” and absence of rule of law is at the heart of what ails Russia. Along with recent blatant electoral fraud, it is one of the reasons that hundreds of thousands of Russians have taken to the streets in opposition to Putin’s regime.
It is our hope that the people of Russia will have the courage and determination to bring about real reform in their country, and we owe them our encouragement and support. May we suggest something simple you can do? Please share this important message with friends and colleagues, by forwarding this email or posting to your social media sites.
If we work together, we can increase pressure on what Alexey Navalny has called the gang of “crooks and thieves” that currently rules the Kremlin. At the very least, we must try to shame them into dropping the outrageous and bizarre trial of the late young hero Magnitsky and grant freedom to Khodorkovsky, a man whose only real crime was daring to challenge Putin’s authority.
A month ago, there was a surprising moment at a sporting match in Russia when Vladimir Putin was booed in public for the first time in anyone’s memory. This brief episode turned out to be a small revelatory event that unmasked a significant truth: the Russian people were determined to reclaim their democracy.
Unfortunately, their chance at a true democracy was denied during Sunday’s Duma elections which were neither free nor fair. Even Mikhail Gorbachev has now denounced the elections as fraudulent. Apart from rampant ballot stuffing and widespread reports of people voting at multiple polling places, there were many other forms of intimidation intended to gain votes for Putin’s United Russia party, including harassment and fines for Russia’s independent election monitoring group, Golos, and the shut-down of popular internet media sites.
Though these efforts produced laughable results from outlying regions where United Russia received over 99% of the vote out of seven parties on the ballot, overall Putin’s party only garnered 49.5% nationwide. One would think that if you worked so diligently to steal an election, you should go big or go home.
It is well known that much of the election tampering took place before a single ballot was cast. The most credible and vibrant opposition parties were prohibited from running in the elections, and the country’s entire media apparatus was used as a propaganda machine for Putin’s United Russia. As one independent Swiss election monitor said, “These elections were like a game in which only some players were allowed to play, and on top of it the field was tilted in favor of one of the players.”
When the Russian people gave their verdict on this outrageous and undemocratic manipulation, their answer was a resounding rejection of much more than electoral fraud. They were saying no to the rampant corruption that characterizes the current Russian government at every level. They were saying no to the shadow war against the free press that has seen more than 150 journalists who sought to expose government misdeeds slain under highly suspicious circumstances. They were saying no to the “legal nihilism” in which the Judiciary is used as an instrument for persecution and blackmail by the government. And perhaps they were also saying no to the slanderous historic notion that the Russian people want a strong Tsar to rule and protect them instead of a vibrant democracy.
In the aftermath of last week’s election, one thing is clear. VladimirPutin has lost much of his legitimacy and perhaps his inevitability as well. Unfortunately, this message is not sitting well with the current government. This week major pro-democracy demonstrations have taken place in Moscow and the regime has reacted with mass arrests and the movement of additional security forces into the Capitol.
Today Russia finds itself at a cross-road, and it must move towards genuine democracy or towards greater repression. As Americans, we must support the Russian people in their pursuit of freedom and democracy, both for their sake and for ours. Let us hope that the on-coming Russian winter will not freeze the new signs of a “Russian spring.”
Statement from Katrina Lantos Swett, President of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice
“The conviction and sentencing of Mikhail Khodorkovsky on false and absurd charges is disturbing evidence of a return to the ‘bad old days’ in Russia. Khodorkovsky is a victim of a political prosecution directed by Vladimir Putin in an effort to punish and silence one of his most fearless and forceful critics.
Many of us had high hopes that President Medvedev would take meaningful steps to reverse the decline in respect for human rights and the rule of law that has been so evident in Russia in recent years. Unfortunately the outcome of the Khodorkovsky/Lebedev trial has dashed those hopes. Furthermore the Russian Foreign Ministry’s statement that outsiders should ‘mind their own business’ in the Khodorkovsky matter is reminiscent of the Soviet days when efforts to uphold international human rights commitments were attacked as an intrusion on Russia’s sovereignty.
The Lantos Foundation calls on governments, human rights organizations, and individuals around the world speak up against this legal travesty. Putin needs to know that while he may be able to control the Russian judiciary, he cannot protect himself from being properly convicted in the court of public opinion for this clear abuse of power. The verdict of history will find that Mikhail Khodorkovsky was a man who came to recognize the inestimable value of true democracy, human rights, and transparency, and he was willing to put his freedom and his life on the line to defend these values. As for Vladimir Putin, unless he changes course, his reputation and legacy—like those of others before him—will be found on the ash heap of history.”
by Katrina Lantos Swett
Today, as expected, the judge in Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s second show trial returned a “guilty” verdict. This result was pre-determined long ago by forces at the very heart of power in Russia. These forces have been in the driver’s seat of this judicial persecution since the very beginning.
Although the verdict was a foregone conclusion, it has been remarkable to watch the growing embarrassment and discomfort of both the judge and the prosecution as this trial descended into a true theatre of the absurd. The charges are ridiculous, the evidence laughable, and the only one convicted by this “guilty” verdict is Russian justice. Indeed the unprecedented decision of the judge to expel the press from the courtroom during the reading of the verdict is tantamount to an admission of his own sense of guilt and shame at presiding over this kangaroo court.
The rap sheet against Russian rule of law is already long and shameful. It includes a business community that has been blackmailed and intimidated, 150 slain journalists, human rights activists who are routinely harassed and threatened, young men brutalized in the armed forces, and many others.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky loves his country and believed in its future which is why he wanted to use his power and influence to work for a Russia that was fully democratic and modern. A Russia with bona fide political opposition, a truly free press, and a business community that was transparent and socially responsible. He has paid a heavy price for pursuing these goals and he now sits in prison as Russia’s most prominent and outspoken political prisoner.
During my recent visit to Moscow, I met with numerous human rights leaders who spoke of the growing dread and intimidation in their country. They emphasized the importance of governments and groups in the West continuing to shine a bright spotlight on the increasing
authoritarianism and corruption in that country. Pushing a “reset” button on US/Russian relations cannot be an excuse for turning a blind eye to outrages such as the persecution and wrongful conviction of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and many others. If Russia is to be a country that we can trust to abide by its treaty obligations, if it is to be a place where businesses can invest with confidence, if it is to be a country where its young people have hope and optimism for their future, then it must be a country that respects and abides by the rule of law. A good place to begin would be with justice for Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Katrina Lantos Swett is the Founder and President of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice.