"Russian banker wins political asylum"
March, 1, 1999
Branded a criminal by Russian military prosecutors and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, former Russian banker Alexandre Konanykhine won political asylum last week from the same judge who had ordered him deported more than two years ago.
Konanykhine's wife, Elena Gratcheva, was also awarded political asylum by the judge.
Konanykhine, who made a fortune in post-Communist Russia as the head of the All-Russian Exchange Bank, claimed he was fleeing from the Russian mob when he and Gratcheva entered the United States in 1992. He said an organized crime group associated with the KGB had stolen his business and assets at gunpoint in Budapest, Hungary.
Russian prosecutors pursued Konanykhine in the United States, claiming that he had stolen $8 million from his own bank. The couple were arrested in June 1996 for alleged visa violations and filed for political asylum.
Gratcheva was released on bond, but Konanykhine was jailed in Virginia for more than a year because he was considered a flight risk.
U.S. Immigration Judge John Bryant originally denied the couple's asylum petitions and ordered Konanykhine deported. The couple appealed.
But in July 1997, a former INS attorney who originally prosecuted the case against Konanykhine and a former KGB agent who had analyzed documents in the case for the stepped forward. They testified that INS officials had misled the court about their reasons for detaining Konanykhine and had ignored suggestions that some of the evidence against him was flawed. (See "Did KGB Dupe INS?" July 28, 1997, Page 8.)
The former KGB agent testified that he had told INS officials he believed Russian prosecutors had built a phony case against Konanykhine.
The former INS prosecutor alleged that Konanykhine had been detained because INS attorneys had promised Russian prosecutors that he would be held in custody until he could be returned to Russia. The United States does not have an extradition treaty with Russia.
After a hearing in federal district court in Alexandria, Va., Judge T.S. Ellis III freed Konanykhine and ordered a Justice Department inquiry into the conduct of the INS attorneys on the case.
Out of jail, Konanykhine still faced deportation proceedings by the INS, which had vowed to continue pressing for his expulsion. (See "Russian Freed, INS Faces Ethics Probe", Sept.1, 1997, Page 12.)
The Board of Immigration Appeals had planned to hear the case in 1997, but on the eve of that hearing, INS lawyers agreed to have the asylum issue remanded to an immigration judge in light of the new evidence.
Bryant's ruling last week totally reversed his original finding. He declared that Konanykhine and Gratcheva have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of their political opinion if they are returned to Russia. "Furthermore, it is apparent that the men who seek to harm them cannot be controlled by the Russian authorities," Bryant wrote.
The judge found that the Russian prosecutor's case against Konanykhine had been engineered in order to secure his return to Russia and punish him for exposing corruption among Russian government and business officials. Konanykhine has spoken out about corruption in his former country in interviews, in letters to Russia officials, and on his personal Web site.
Bryant also concluded that Konanykhine would face persecution if he were returned to Russia and imprisoned, a finding based in part on evidence of "subhuman" conditions in Russian prisons.
The INS can appeal Bryant's decision to the Board of Immigration Appeals. The agency is reviewing the judge's decision, says spokesman Donald Mueller.
Konanykhine says he feels confident now, even if the INS decides to appeal.
"I am in very good shape now. After three years long, the struggle appears to be over. I believe the decision is airtight," Konanykhine says. "You can imagine how you would feel if you faced … accusations from two governments, from [a superpower and] one former superpower. It's quite annoying."
Says Konanykhine's immigration attorney, Michael Maggio of D.C.'s Maggio & Kattar: "This was an immensely satisfying case on a number of levels."
Maggio says the case could have a far-reaching impact on other immigration cases stemming from the former Soviet Union.
"The Russian legal system was very much on trial. There are a whole lot of other cases out there by Russians who say they fear persecution rather than prosecution" if they are returned to Russia, he says.
Findings of the probe into the conduct of INS attorneys in the case have not been reported to Judge Ellis, Maggio says.