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Interview

The choice of the target country is crucial

The choice of the target country is crucial: Ex-candidate for presidential elections in Belarus, Ales Michalevic, on how to receive protection in Europe

The ex-candidate for presidential elections in Belarus, Ales Michalevic, is a lawyer, who specializes on extradition cases of the citizens of Russia, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Belarus from the European Union to their countries. In 2010 he was under investigation of the Belarusian KGB, was granted the status of prisoner of consciousness and political asylum in the Czech Republic, made the deletion of his name from the Interpol`s database possible and won the extradition process. Since then he has been working on protection of the citizens, persecuted by their home countries, who fled to Europe. Yekaterina Krongaus, from “Medusa”, interviewed Ales Michalevic, and found out what are the best countries for requesting asylum and surrendering.

- How come you decided to run for the presidential elections in Belarus?

- I was an independent candidate in the elections in 2010. In Belarus, the thesis “if you are not Lukashenko, then you are nothing” is being exploited pretty much. I engaged myself with the elections, understanding that being 35-years old I did not have good chances, but I was supported by a great and interesting team: businessmen, people from the media – young and independent experts who wanted to show the alternative for the development of Belarus. Though I ended up in prison together with the other candidates after the peaceful rally.

- Was that the eve before the elections?

- Yes. I was arrested in the early morning at the office of my election campaign, was offered to read aloud the text with accusations against the other candidates. I refused to do so and was sent to prison. There appeared some mysterious people in masks, it is still not known who they were. They were treating me much worse than ordinary employees of the detention facility of KGB. And, consequently, they started to torture and beat me, and so on.

- Which tortures?

- Beatings for any small disobedience, while we were naked; in my case they simply pushed me down a winding staircase, twisting my arms and shouting “Are you going to cooperate or not?!”.

It lasted for 1,5 months, and then for two more weeks till I started testifying. Two months later I was told that the only way to leave the prison was to sign the cooperation agreement, become the informant agent of KGB. I did it and was released a few hours later, with the operative nickname “Gavrila” that I made up myself.

The dispersal of the opposition rally in Minsk on the night after the presidential election, December 19, 2010
Photo: Gleb Garanic / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

- What happened next?

- After I got out of prison, I started preparing a press-conference, and it was a big problem as I was being watched all the time, my phones were wiretapped. At the press-conference I told about the conditions of detainment of people in prisons as well as stated that I was not going to cooperate with KGB. They stated immediately that they never offered me any cooperation. So, I am probably the only person in Belarus about whom KGB made an official statement that I am not an agent and have never been one. Then two the most difficult weeks of my life followed, as I realized that I offended them pretty much and that they were preparing revenge, And, of course, I thought that every sound, every doorbell was them coming for me.

As soon as I saw that foot surveillance became obvious, I received the information that my case was discussed at the highest level, so I, basically violating the recognizance not to leave the country, very carefully left for Ukraine through Russia.

- How did you manage to do that?

- There is no border between Belarus and Russia, I had my old Belarusian passport, which was not valid, but was not registered as such in the Russian database. The Belarusian would have immediately noticed that it was an expired document. I moved to Ukraine through Russia and there the Czech embassy helped me obtained their visa promptly. So, I flew to Prague from Kiev. The Ukrainians were interested to get rid of me as fast as possible, as in any case I was a problem for them.

In Czech Republic I was granted political asylum in the shortest period. The possibility to come back appeared only four years later.

- Because all this time you knew you would be arrested?

- Belarus placed me on the Interpol`s database, and I was arrested in different airports as I was in all possible databases. I was arrested crossing any border – in New York, for example, at the Kennedy airport. After I faced the problem with the Interpol, I started my activities. I started sending them requests, found human rights defenders and lawyers, who were working on such cases, was consulting with them, started meeting the employees of the Interpol…

- How did you get free after your arrest in New York?

- The state department informed the border officers that I would be landing there and that I should be let in, as they knew I was in the database for arrest. But, of course, the local official did not know about it, did not want to look for any papers. I had to spend 10 hours with illegal immigrants. Then I was called and told that they have a paper on me from the State department, welcome to the United States. I was also arrested at the airport in Warsaw.

There, of course, I was released, as it was clear that the case was political. My case was enlightened in the media and people did recognize me. But as bureaucracy has its own rules, I was in all databases and in many of them my name remains. Even if you were in the Interpol`s database once, in some lists there will be comments that you were deleted from it. You come to the USA, and it is much easier for the immigration officer just to not let you in, rather then try and find out who you are, why you were in the Interpol`s database and so on. In addition to that I had an extradition process – Belarus was requesting my return from the Czech Republic. The Czech court officially refused to extradite me as they found my case to be based on political motives. And then many people with similar problems started approaching me, asking for advice – businessmen, journalists, politicians…

And I started consulting them, advising them how to best leave the country, which stated are less likely to extradite them…

- Where did you get all that information?

- I studied the whole legal database and was meeting with the representatives of the Interpol. As an ex-politician I had a lot more possibilities as an ordinary person, accused of crimes, and many of the managers of Interpol are also ex-politicians. I started meeting them, asking how this system works, how the Interpol`s database is related to, for example, the Schengen information system. Then tens of persecuted people started finding me, sending me their materials, I was trying to help them, did help many of them, and of course, was just collecting the necessary information.

- Who were those people?

- Well, for example, persecuted businessmen. Belarus, Russia, Uzbekistan, were trying to extradite them from Poland, Czech Republic, Sweden. I dealt with Greece, Spain, France. And I knew exactly which mistakes were made by those countries, placing someone on Interpol`s database.

The National bureau of Interpol is a part of the police in each country. In case with Russia, NCB of Interpol of Russia is part of the Ministry of the Interior. When they issue an international arrest warrant against someone, they have to do it in accordance wit the Russian legislature, the rules and constitution of the Interpol. Any violation, that may occur in these procedures, is the basis for deletion of the person from this database. The Interpol has the Commission for Control of the Interpol`s Files, which is like a judicial body, that decides whether the rules were violated. That is also where the requests and appeals for deletion are sent.

There are a few of those lawyers in the whole world, who cooperate with this body, as such cases are very unique. But as I was a public person and had similar problems, people started contacting me and I started helping them prepare the requests for deletion. Surely, many of those people are citizens of the Russian Federation.

Candidates for the presidency of Belarus Grigory Kostusev, Alexei Mikhalevich and Vitaly Rymasheuski (left to right) before submitting a collective statement to the Belarusian Prosecutor General's Office about violation of the electoral legislation, December 19, 2010
Photo: Alexey Filippov / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

- Are all such cases economic?

- Almost all of them are based on economic crimes and fraud. At some point I started cooperating with one of the Czech law agencies, which specialized particularly on Interpol and extradition.

- In the Interpol cases your task is to find a violation. What about extradition?

- The questions of extradition are balancing between public international law and national criminal law. It means that if there were violations in national criminal law, a person got his papers arranged wrongly, for example, such as an indictment, a decree on institution of a criminal case, a decree on issuing an international arrest warrant, an extradition case can be easily won on this basis. Moreover, I noticed that extradition is a very political question. It means that it matters a lot from and to which country a citizen should be extradited. For example, Finland usually extradites to Russia.

- What about other countries?

- The head of the Prosecutor`s office in Cyprus has an Order for outstanding service from the Russian Federation, and she is proud of this medal. It just shows that Cyprus extradites everyone without any serious investigation. But if some country, for example, Germany, asks for additional documents, that would prove guilt, very often it happens so that there are no additional documents.

- Who else extradites?

- Let`s put it this way: almost all countries of Europe extradite as all states-members of the EU signed a special agreement on that. That is why if there is an extradition requests on a serial killer, a raper, anyone may be extradited. Here I will mention Cyprus again, Bulgaria and Romania, there are still many questions about Latvia and the Latvian judicial system in general. But it still matters a lot how good the relationships between countries are and whether there is trust to the Russian legal system in a particular country. Sweden does not have much trust to Russia. That is why it is easier to win the extradition trial in Sweden or Poland than in France or Portugal.

There are many ways to make the arrest happen in the necessary country. For example, in any hotel in the EU, even if you register, your information is transferred to the police in the evening, and in the morning, by 11 am, they come for you. That is because hotels of almost all EU countries are obliged to register all their visitors through the police databases.

It is very important where you run to and where you are arrested. That is why many Russian businessmen love Great Britain so much. I would not advise this country as it is an island which is not part of the Schengen zone, and a person will still have very big problems moving to Germany, France and so on. So basically, he will be locked on the territory of Great Britain, and many additional procedures would have to be carried out in order to get the other countries open for him.

- So how many cases do you have?

- In the first year when I started, in 2011, I had over 10 extradition cases, mostly in Czech Republic, Poland, Latvia and Sweden. And then I just continued working as an extradition lawyer.

- And how many cases did you win or lose?

- Around thirty cases, when people came to me or called me being free, I won. There were a couple of cases where I refused to defend the potential client, as among the economic charges there was also murder. Murders, drugs or raping is something we do not deal with. Though, of course, if a social activist will be accused of using drugs, we will take such case.

- Which cases are you mostly interested in?

- We are interested in political and purely economic cases, when a person became a victim of conflicts between clans or some regional elites.

- So, the cases in which you find a person innocent. Or, at least, when he is persecuted not for his crime.

- Yes. Of course, any Russian businessmen does commit some illegal actions. I have only one question: why should he be put in trial when there are those a lot guiltier than him? And, of course, he is persecuted not for committing a crime, but for his refusal to bribe, or to share his property, or pay.

- Did you have to study again to be able to represent clients in the courts in Sweden, Poland, Czech Republic?

- In Czech Republic I had to obtain a certification but in all other countries I cooperate with local lawyers. I analyze the Russian part of the case, or for example, Uzbek, look for violations there that will help with the case.

- Did you lose many cases?

- A lost case is only when a person has already been detained, his wife calls you and says that her husband lost the first hearing in France, please, take care of it. The same is in medicine, when a patient turns up at the initial stage of a disease it is much easier to heal him, rather than when he comes at the last stage. In our case, when a person is still not detained or being prepared for extradition, more can always be done. For example, there is a possibility to try this case in a court of the country where it will easier to win.

- Which is your favorite court?

- I like Swedish, Polish and Lithuanian courts. If a person is really not proven guilty, it is also easy to win such case in Germany. A German court will study the case very deeply.

The Germans are not afraid of wasting money on judicial procedures. If five hearing should be held, they will be arranged. At the same time Poland or Lithuania try to come to the final decision fast, to spend less time and money of the tax payers on this case.

- Can you tell us about some of your past cases? Have there been any famous participants?

- Let`s skip this question for now.

- Are you not allowed to talk about the successful cases as well?

- Even though people won these cases and live in Europe, many of them still hope to come back to Russia, Uzbekistan or Azerbaijan one day and get back the property they were deprived of. Basically, they are doing everything possible to come back and close the case. I always advise not to burn the bridges and not to fight the system openly. That is why, for example, not so many clients use political motives as an argument.

- Are there Interpol cases not related to extradition?

- These are two different procedures.

- Does it mean that a person can be on the Interpol`s database but no one will request his extradition?

- No, if a person is wanted by Interpol, the authorities, as a rule, automatically request his extradition. But if we win the Interpol case and he is deleted from the database, it is much easier to win the extradition process.

- What is easier?

- It depends on a specific situation. In general, Interpol studies the documents starting from half a year and longer. Also, if persecution is really related to politics, a client may apply for the refugee status or political asylum during or before extradition. He, for example, can come and apply for political asylum immediately. And then a couple of autonomous judicial procedures will be happening simultaneously.

- If someone was granted refugee status, will he not be extradited?

- To the country from which he escaped? Of course not.

- So, every time you choose the most successful way, or do you start working on all three options at once?

- If a person is wanted by Interpol, the main thing is to win the extradition process. If the extradition was declined than we can continue working on the other elements of the case. And it is not necessary to have refugee status. If he, for example, has a residence permit in one of the European countries, he may never need the refugee status. It can only be really important if someone entered the country with the single-entrance visa which is expiring.

- Do you have any statistics – how many Russian citizens escape the country every year due to criminal persecution?

- There is no general statistics in Europe, one should look at each country individually. But there is definitely no categorization based on the type of crime – murderers flee just as well as those accused of economic crimes.

- The number of such cases is anyway increasing, does it mean your sphere of legal services becomes a popular one?

- I think it does.

 

Yekaterina Krongaus, Meduza
Riga

International Secretariat

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