Federal judge grants Russian banker political asylum

Court rules man targeted for exposing corruption

February 23, 1999|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

In a ruling that spotlights the corruption of the Russian legal system, a U.S. immigration judge has granted political asylum to a Russian banker accused by Moscow prosecutors of stealing millions from a bank he helped found.

Judge John M. Bryant wrote in his decision that he was convinced by testimony from several experts -- including a former KGB agent and a former Soviet Communist Party official working for the CIA -- that banker Alexandre P. Konanykhine was targeted for prosecution for political reasons.

"Emotionally, we are very happy," said Konanykhine, 32, referring to himself and his wife, Elena Gratcheva, who also was granted asylum.

"It shows a shift of opinion in this country from seeing Russia as a newborn democracy to a more sober view."

Cora Tekach, a lawyer for Konanykhine, said that while Russian Jews fleeing anti-semitism have been granted asylum since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Konanykhine apparently is the first Russian to be granted refuge from political persecution by the post-Communist government of Russia.

"He's probably the first Russian to get asylum from persecution based on his capitalist and democratic views," Tekach said.

Konanykhine started a Moscow construction company in the late 1980s as Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev eased controls on private business.

In the economic free-for-all as Soviet economic institutions crumbled, he built a business empire that included a commodities exchange, a real estate firm, a security agency and other companies.

In 1991, he opened the Russian Exchange Bank, which became one of the first to receive a currency-trading license from the government of Boris N. Yeltsin, whose rise to power Konanykhine had helped finance.

At 25, Konanykhine became a multimillionaire, living in a heavily guarded mansion and being chauffeured in a limousine from Gorbachev's former fleet.

But in late 1992, by Konanykhine's account, former KGB agents he had hired as managers muscled his businesses away from him.

He says he was kidnapped in Budapest, Hungary, in late 1992 but managed to escape with his wife and fly to the United States.

Konanykhine immediately began writing to Russian officials, from Yeltsin down, demanding an investigation.

He got one -- but Russian prosecutors targeted him, accusing him of stealing $8 million from his bank.

He fought back, exposing what he called the Russian "Mafiocracy" in letters and on a Web site.

In 1996, in cooperation with Russian prosecutors, U.S. immigration agents arrested Konanykhine at his Watergate apartment in Washington.

The same year, Bryant ruled against Konanykhine, denying him asylum.

But his luck turned when a federal judge, acting on evidence of misconduct by Immigration and Naturalization Service attorneys, ordered him freed after 13 months in a Virginia jail.

An internal Justice Department probe of the INS lawyers' conduct is continuing.

Because of the misconduct allegations, the INS agreed to return the case to Bryant.

For a week in December, Bryant heard from experts on Russian politics, crime and justice, including the former Soviet officials and a former top FBI expert on Russian organized crime.

The new testimony persuaded Bryant to reverse his earlier ruling.

He wrote in a 25-page opinion filed Friday that Russian prosecutors "engineered the case against" Konanykhine "in order to punish him for exposing corruption amongst Russian government and business officials."

Russ Bergeron, a spokesman for the INS, declined to comment on the ruling except to say that INS lawyers are reviewing the decision and deciding whether to file an appeal.

Pub Date: 2/23/99

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