JUDGE SAYS U.S. CAN'T DEPORT BANKER TO RUSSIA YET
January 26, 2004
ALEXANDRIA, Va. (Reuters) - A federal judge on Monday ruled that a former Russian banker, who has ties to a jailed Russian oil magnate, should not be deported until he exhausts his legal effort to seek asylum in the United States.
U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis, who has repeatedly accused the U.S. government of wanting to deport Alexander Konanykhin just to carry out a special deal with Moscow, said the banker could stay in the country to appeal his deportation.
Konanykhin had business ties to Mikhail Khodorkovsky -- the billionaire former chief of YUKOS oil company who is in jail in Russia on fraud and tax evasion charges. Khodorkovsky's arrest in October was widely viewed as orchestrated by the Kremlin to reign in his political ambitions.
Konanykhin, who is wanted in Russia on charges of embezzling millions of dollars from his former bank, fled Russia in late 1992 and came to the United States.
In court papers, he said the Russians would torture and kill him to get information, including about Khodorkovsky.
After a series of legal battles over his status in the United States, Konanykhin was granted asylum in 1999 by an Immigration Court judge who said Konanykhin had demonstrated a "well-founded fear of persecution" if he returned to Russia.
The government appealed and a Justice Department Board of Immigration Appeals overturned the court's decision in November 2003. It ruled that Konanykhin faced no risk of political persecution if he were sent back to Russia.
U.S. IN BREACH OF TERMS OF DEAL
Konanykhin appealed the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia. He also sought a review of the Board of Immigrations Appeals decision. Both are pending.
While waiting for the appeals, Konanykhin and his wife were arrested in December by U.S. officials who prepared to deport him. Ellis stayed the deportation just as Konanykhin was about to board a flight to Moscow.
Ellis ruled on Monday that by arresting and trying to deport Konanykhin, the U.S. government had breached the terms of a 1997 deal with immigration authorities which lets him stay in the United States pending final outcome of his asylum request.
Ellis set a hearing for Wednesday to see if the government would appeal his ruling. Konanykhin would likely be released under house detention if the government appeals, Ellis said.
Konanykhin's lawyer, J.P. Szymkowicz, said his client was relieved by Ellis's decision.
"The Konanykhins are so relieved that they have a light at the end of the tunnel to look toward, and they look forward to the day when they can go to bed secure in their freedom," he said after the hearing.
Although Ellis often accused the government -- which does not have an extradition treaty with Russia -- of having an agreement with Moscow to deport Konanykhin, he admitted that he did not have jurisdiction over the actual deportation order.
"I hope somebody in the executive branch ... is proud, is able to stand up and say what we are doing is right," he said. "But I doubt that -- and it makes me a little angry."