Banker Linked to Jailed Russian Fighting to Stay in U.S.
A week before Christmas, a green BMW rolled up to the Canadian border near Buffalo. As the driver, Alexandre Konanykhine, a Russian seeking political asylum in Canada, paid a bridge toll to leave the United States about a dozen armed federal agents surrounded his car and arrested him, Mr. Konanykhine said.
American authorities then whisked him to a local airport and on to the Russian Embassy in Washington, Mr. Konanykhine said, where they unsuccessfully attempted to enforce a federal order that he be deported to Russia. Mr. Konanykhine, an ex-banker, now sits in an Arlington, Va., jail awaiting a federal court hearing next week.
Although Mr. Konanykhine is wanted in Russia on embezzlement charges filed several years ago, he cites another reason for his predicament. A former partner of imprisoned Russian tycoon Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, Mr. Konanykhine claims that the only reason American officials are sending him home now is that Russian prosecutors want to interrogate him about Mr. Khodorkovsky's business dealings.
"I am sure that I will be tortured in order to produce, from my own mouth, evidence which I know is not true, but which will lead to Mr. Khodorkovsky's illegal conviction and death," Mr. Konanykhine asserted in an affidavit he filed in federal court in Alexandria in late December.
Federal immigration authorities, who work for the Department of Homeland Security, declined to comment on Mr. Konanykhine's case.
Mr. Konanykhine has been hounded for more than a decade by questions about possible financial improprieties or crimes, as well as his own proclamations about uncomfortable encounters with Russian organized crime and corrupt former KGB agents. All of this has complicated his efforts to seek political asylum in America, and suggests possible directions that Russian prosecutors may be following in their controversial case against Mr. Khodorkovsky.
Mr. Konanykhine first crossed paths with Mr. Khodorkovsky more than a decade ago, when both men were starting banks in Russia. In late 1992, after he said he was forced out of his bank, Mr. Konanykhine joined Mr. Khodorkovsky's bank, Menatep, as vice president for international development. Mr. Konanykhine, in a telephone interview this week, said that while most Russian banks at the time were infiltrated by organized crime, his first bank and Menatep were not.
In 1994, Mr. Khodorkovsky briefly served as a director of the European Union Bank, an Internet bank Mr. Konanykhine opened above a bar and restaurant on the Caribbean island of Antigua. At the time, law enforcement officials regarded Antigua as a haven for money laundering and other illicit banking activities, and European Union Bank later collapsed amid accusations from various regulators and auditors that it was a fraud. Mr. Khodorkovsky has said that he was a director for just one week in 1994 and had no further involvement with it. Neither he nor Mr. Konanykhine were ever charged with wrongdoing in connection with the bank, and Mr. Konanykhine said this week that the bank's only purpose was to provide off-shore tax shelters for clients.
Mr. Konanykhine left Menatep in 1994, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation notified him a year later that Russian organized crime figures had paid to have him killed, according to court documents filed in conjunction with his immigration case. Mr. Konanykhine said the contract on his life was arranged by the KGB, which he said had a vendetta against him for exposing how former agents and the mafia used banks to steal money from Russia.
American officials arrested Mr. Konanykhine on visa violation charges in 1996, and Russian authorities accused him of embezzling at least $3 million from a Moscow bank, a charge he denies. After a year in jail and tangled court proceedings in the United States, he was granted asylum here in 1999.
In the meantime, Menatep, the European Union Bank and Antiguan banking transactions were closely scrutinized by federal and European law enforcement officials in the sprawling Bank of New York money laundering investigation of the late 1990's. In the end, no banks were charged in the case, and only two people pleaded guilty to money laundering.
A senior American law enforcement official involved in the investigation said it stalled because Western authorities received inadequate cooperation from their Russian counterparts, who, the official said, may have been intimidated by the case's possible ties to senior Kremlin officials.
That all occurred under the Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, and the official said that President Vladimir V. Putin might be more willing to help the investigation. Mr. Konanykhine said he was never questioned in the Bank of New York investigation, and Mr. Khodorkovsky has also denied any involvement. While Mr. Khodorkovsky has said he believed that criminal funds moved from Russia through the Bank of New York, he said he thought they were controlled by government officials.
Mr. Konanykhine's current troubles began last November when immigration officials revoked his asylum and ordered him returned to Russia, just a few weeks after Mr. Khodorkovsky was jailed in Moscow. Immigration officials accused Mr. Konanykhine of violating residency requirements, a charge he and his lawyers dispute.
The federal judge hearing Mr. Konanykhine's case has already voiced concerns about how American officials have handled the matter, suggesting that larger political forces are involved. For his part, Mr. Konanykhine said he has nothing but respect for Mr. Khodorkovsky and suspects him of no wrongdoing.
"Some people may have conspiracy theories about me and Menatep Bank and the European Union Bank, but I'm prepared to be examined by anybody in a court," Mr. Konanykhine said in a telephone interview. "Just not in Russia under torture."