U.S. JUDGE QUESTIONS RUSSIAN'S DETENTION
THE MOSCOW TIMES
JANUARY 16, 2004
ALEXANDRIA, Virginia -- Court hearings on the arrest and attempted deportation to Moscow of banker-turned-software magnate Alexander Konanykhin, who says he fears death if returned, went into a second day Thursday.
Even though the presiding judge on Wednesday accused the U.S. government of entering into a special pact with Russian authorities to speed up Konanykhin's deportation to Russia, the outcome was still unclear by press time.
But as the court reconvened Thursday morning, a lawyer for Konanykhin said: "It appears to be going our way."
The day before, U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis lambasted the U.S. government, questioning why it had rushed Konanykhin's deportation before he could appeal a November ruling that overturned his political asylum.
"I have the firm impression that it is the strong desire of people in the executive branch to return this man to Russia for what reason I cannot tell," Ellis said. "It stinks."
Konanykhin ran the U.S. operations of jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Bank Menatep for several years after arriving in America in 1992.
He eventually won political asylum in the United States in 1999 after a protracted courtroom battle over his legal status that arose from an earlier attempt by Russian authorities to have him deported on embezzlement charges.
But in a shock ruling Nov. 20, the U.S. Immigration Board of Appeals suddenly overturned his refugee status after four years of making no moves to decide on a Department of Justice appeal lodged in 1999.
The board concluded Konanykhin would not face political persecution if he returned to Russia.
Although Konanykhin filed to appeal that ruling in a Richmond, Virginia, court, where it is still pending, he and his wife, Yelena Grachyova, attempted to flee to Canada and seek political asylum there on Dec. 18.
They were seized in a dramatic arrest by agents from the Immigration and Naturalization Service just as they were attempting to cross the border.
Dressed in a black sweater and jeans, Konanykhin took the stand for the first time Wednesday, stumbling over his English.
He claimed he and his wife had fled because he feared their imminent deportation.
Konanykhin testified that he had made an appointment with a Canadian immigration officer who was waiting on the other side of the border to discuss his eligibility for political asylum in Canada.
Konanykhin called the immigration board's ruling "a death sentence hanging over our heads." By going to Canada, "we were basically trying to save our lives."
Ellis raised questions Wednesday as to why the U.S. authorities appeared to be rushing to send them back to Moscow.
"Why before his appeal is allowed to be heard, suddenly... [the U.S. government] wants to send him back to Russia. Doesn't it trouble someone [that if that happened] his claim would never be heard?" he asked.
Konanykhin testified that following the December arrest, he and his wife were whisked to Washington's Reagan airport, where INS officers made them run to catch a flight to New York.
A last minute intervention by Ellis halted the deportation only minutes before they were to be put on a connecting flight to Moscow.
"I would hope that some executive branch policy involving some promise, some quid pro quo to the Russian police or executive who wants Mr. Konanykhin ... wouldn't deter our government from honoring ... the heart of an agreement to let him have his asylum claim adjudicated," Ellis said.
In an interview on Wednesday, Grachyova, who has a different immigration status than her husband, said she and her husband only wanted to "live a normal life."
"We felt like we were being crushed between two superpowers all the time."
The INS argues that the Nov. 20 ruling gave it a final and enforceable order to deport Konanykhin back to Russia because the former banker had not filed to stay deportation.
The INS claims Konanykhin's attempt to cross the Canadian border was a violation of a 1997 deal with immigration authorities that allowed him to stay in America until a final ruling on his asylum request. It maintains that this breach of the agreement gave authorities the right to detain him.
Konanykhin, however, claims subsequent modifications to his 1997 agreement with immigration allowed him to travel freely across the United States without seeking the government's permission. He says the agreement also contained no provision preventing him from leaving the country.
On Wednesday, Konanykhin testified that one of the INS officers who detained him at the Canadian border had said it was unusual to make an arrest while an asylum appeal was still pending.
Ellis is due to rule on whether Konanykhin's attempt to flee was in breach of the 1997 agreement or not. Though his decision could free Konanykhin from detention in an Arlington, Virginia, jail, it will not decide Konanykhin's final status.
Two other cases are pending: one to stay his deportation and the other to appeal the asylum ruling and reconsider his case in the light of the legal campaign in Russia against Khodorkovsky and his associates.
On Wednesday the Alexandria court heard Konanykhin and his Canadian immigration lawyer, John Somjen, who testified by telephone conference call.
Thursday's hearing began with an INS attorney cross-examining Konanykhin, followed by testimony from Grachyova and the INS officer who escorted the couple to the plane that should have taken them back to Russia.