Rep. Smith Calls for State Department Investigation into Bitcovs’ Case

Lawmaker rejects assertion of 'no evidence' of Russian meddling in family's prosecution in Guatemala

Rep. Chris Smith (R., N.J.) / Getty Images

Rep. Chris Smith (R., N.J.) is requesting a State Department inspector-general investigation into a controversial case involving charges that a mainly U.S.-funded United Nations agency created to fight corruption in Guatemala colluded with Russia to prosecute a Russian family that says it fled after refusing extortion attempts by Russian government cronies.

During a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing Wednesday, Smith angrily said he would urge the inspector general to fully investigate the matter after a senior State Department official said agency officials had looked into the charges of Russian meddling and had found no evidence that anything improper had occurred.

"This is an issue that we follow closely," said Kenneth Merten, deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. "Our embassy [in Guatemala] and the department have looked into these allegations of collusion, and thus far, found no evidence that that has occurred."

Smith repeatedly pressed Merten for more details on how thoroughly the State Department investigated the collusion allegations.

"No evidence?" he asked. "Can you give us any detail of what that investigation included? Was it done just by asking Mr. Velasquez and a few others, ‘Hey, is there collusions?' Or did you really dig into documents and look into this? This just reeks of collusion, so I would like to know exactly what that investigation entailed."

Merten suggested that he get back to Smith on the details of the internal State Department probe as a "more effective way of answering the questions."

Smith was referring to Ivan Velasquez, who heads the U.N. International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, an anti-corruption agency known by its Spanish acronym CICIG.

Even though the commission was put in place to fight corruption, Smith and other U.S. lawmakers, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), have accused the agency of playing an improper role in the prosecution of the Bitkov family.

Rubio, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations' subcommittee on the western hemisphere, placed a hold on the release of $6 million in funding to CICIG in May out of concern that CICIG had been manipulated by
"radical elements and Russia's campaign against the Bitkov family in Guatemala."

The Bitkovs fled Russia in 2008 following a series of events that began in 2005 when Igor Bitkov said he refused to let a senior official at one of Russia's state banks buy more than half of his North-West Timber Company. His daughter was kidnapped in 2006, and was reportedly raped repeatedly, with the family paying $200,000 to ransom her.

Igor Bitkov contends that in 2008 the banks demanded full repayment of their loan to Bitkov's company despite the company's good credit. The company was forced into bankruptcy, its assets were sold at fire-sale prices, and the Bitkovs fled Russia fearing for their lives.

After fleeing Russia, the Bitkovs took up new identities in Guatemala and were eventually indicted and prosecuted for passport fraud. CICIG helped prosecute the family in Guatemala, even though it is not a crime in that country for refugees fleeing persecution to change their identities on official documents. A court ruled against the family and sentenced each of them to more than 14 years in prison.

Just days before Smith held a congressional hearing in April about the family's plight, Guatemala's Constitutional Court overturned the Bitkovs' conviction, but Smith on Wednesday said Igor Bitkov is now facing new charges.

William Browder, who was expelled from Russia in 2005 after Russian authorities seized his companies, has taken up the Bitkovs' cause, testifying to Congress about the case in late April.

Browder, a U.S.-born financier, has led an international campaign against the Kremlin in memory of his Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was murdered in 2009 after accusing Russian officials of massive tax fraud. His work led to Congress's enactment of the Magnitsky laws, which first targeted Russian human rights abuses and have since expanded to sanction other countries, such as Venezuela and Nicaragua, who are engaging in large-scale human-rights violations.

Browder in April told Congress that Russian people who run successful business are routinely victimized through a process called "Raiderstvo."

"I was a victim of Raiderstvo and so were the Bitkovs," he said. "It is standard practice in Russia where organized criminals work together with corrupt government officials to extract property and money from their victims."