Question for Short Debate
My Lords, the question is, “Why Khodorkovsky?”. There are a number of reasons. First, he is a successful businessman. He turned around a high-cost loss-making company into profit and increased production so that by 2003 it produced 20% of Russia’s oil and was Russia’s second-largest taxpayer. The leading Russian business newspaper, a joint Financial Times/Wall Street Journal venture called Vedomosti, awarded Khodorkovsky its entrepreneur of the year prize. Secondly, he challenged Putin. In a televised confrontation with Putin he cited opinion polling showing, among other things, that half the public believed that corruption had spread to a majority of state officials—including at the highest levels—and that more than 70% thought the use of the official justice system a waste of time. He concluded, “Corruption is spreading in this country. You could say that it started right here. And now is the time to end it”.
Thirdly, many feel that Putin’s response—arresting Khodorkovsky in October 2003 and driving his company into bankruptcy—marked a turning point in the development of the regime. The journalist Andrei Kolesnikov, described by Ben Judah as “the only ever defector” from Putin’s inner circle of St Petersburg friends, recalled a conversation with Putin in 2005 when he said, “I don’t like that after you arrested Khodorkovsky, I lost the feeling that I lived in a free country. I have not started to feel fear—”. Putin then interrupted him and said, “And did you not think that this was what I was aiming for”?
Kolesnikov recalls that after Putin’s inauguration in 2000 he was approached by a senior member of Putin’s inner circle to manage some funds for him. The funds initially came as gifts from various oligarchs. Kolesnikov was told that Putin wanted part of this money put into offshore funds. By 2005, $200 million had accumulated in this fund. In that year he was told to build a small house by the Black Sea for Putin—just 1,000 square metres, costing just £14 million. The project ballooned. The house became four times the size and was joined by a casino, a church, swimming pools and helipads, a summer amphitheatre and a winter theatre. Until the 2008 financial crisis, Kolesnikov divided the special fund between the building project and investments in a host of other businesses across Russia. Then he was told that all the funds were to be spent on the Black Sea palace. Kolesnikov later broke with Putin and fled the country. Ben Judah, in his book Fragile Empire, comments:
“What the Kolesnikov documents seem to show us is that Putin never changes. Instead, as he has grown more powerful, he grew ever more corrupt … He cannot change—and as long as he is in power, neither can Russia. Nor can the incestuous relationship of power and corruption that spiralled out of control under Yeltsin ever end”.
In 2007, after four years in detention, Khodorkovsky, whose trial had concluded in 2005 with an eight-year sentence, would have been eligible for release on parole, but in February of that year, new charges were announced which led to another conviction in December 2010. In February 2004 Khodorkovsky made his first application to the European Court of Human Rights, which concerned the circumstances of his arrest and pre-trial detention. In May 2011 the court ruled that there had been breaches of the convention and awarded the modest claim for $10,000 in full.
In March 2006 a second application was made to the ECHR concerning the first trial. This was ruled admissible in 2011 and last week it became known that judgment would be given on 25 July. A third application to the ECHR remains pending as does a fourth. As to the substance of these cases, I think it is sufficient to note that the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute, which had an observer at the second trial, concluded that the proceedings were unfair and had not produced clear proof of guilt. Many others agree.
Khodorkovsky will become eligible for parole in a year’s time but there are fears of a third trial. These fears are reinforced by current events. Sergei Magnitsky, a young lawyer who exposed a huge tax fraud in which many government officials were involved, was arrested and died in prison in 2009. Last month he was posthumously tried and convicted of tax offences. Bill Browder, a British citizen, was convicted in his absence in the same trial. How do the Government view that conviction? Last week Alexei Navalny was convicted of embezzlement in another sham trial. Navalny came to prominence as a blogger exposing official corruption. He coined the phrase, “United Russia is the party of crooks and thieves”, and was prominent in the demonstrations protesting the fraudulent elections in 2010 and 2012. Putin weathered those protests, which were mainly confined to the emerging Moscow middle class. This led Navalny’s wife, Julia, to say in despair, “Putin has decided to turn Russia into an authoritarian state like Belarus. He is pushing, a bit here, a bit there, to find out how far he can go. And there is only one thing that can stop him. A gigantic protest, or the West”.
Yet Putin’s current policy is based on a huge gamble. In 2007 he could balance the budget on an oil price of $40 a barrel. In 2012 he needed a price of $110 a barrel and he cannot compensate by increasing production. The technological changes pioneered by Khodorkovsky have run their course and oil production is predicted to decline by 20% in the coming decade, while shale and liquefied natural gas pose long-term problems for Russia’s gas.
What should we do? First, we should be careful about the messages we send. Sixty individuals have been identified as being involved in the tax fraud Magnitsky uncovered and in his torture and death. In the USA, legislation has been enacted banning them from entering the US. In April, Dominic Raab tabled a Written Question asking if any of those had visited the UK. Mark Harper replied in July saying that the Government,
“is already aware of the individuals on the list and has taken the necessary measures to prevent them being issued visas for travel to the UK”.—[Official Report, Commons, 18/4/13; col. 499W.]
However, a few days later he wrote to Hansard with a different Answer, this time saying in a letter that “applications for travel ... are flagged up for careful consideration on a case by case basis, no decision has been made to refuse their leave outright”. The amended Answer went on to refer to the longstanding policy not to disclose details of records of individuals and to reiterate that applications were treated on their merits,
“in line with our usual practice”.—[Official Report, Commons, 9/7/13; col. 2MC.]
The best thing that I can say about this apparently craven response by the Home Office is that it may be driven by a fear that in the absence of legislation it could not defend the policy to deny entry, but I am sure that the Kremlin will regard this as a fear of offending it.
The same, I fear, is true of last week’s decision by the Home Secretary to refuse a request by Sir Robert Owen, the coroner conducting the inquest into Litvinenko’s death. The coroner had requested a public inquiry because he could not hear in public secret evidence that might show the involvement of the Russian state in Litvinenko’s murder. Theresa May’s letter to the coroner conceded that international relations were a factor in the decision, and went on to say that inquests were more readily explainable to foreigners than an inquiry established by the Government under a chairman appointed by the Government. I am sure that the reaction to that in the Kremlin can be imagined. On this issue, I must ask the Minister: does this letter indicate that the Government are intending to amend or even abandon the Inquiries Act 2005, with the Home Secretary saying in effect that she could not use that Act in this case for the reasons that she gave?
In conclusion, we should have no illusions about the regime, and neither avert our eyes nor appease. Russia’s legal system is an extension of the ruling party, and the party and the Government as a whole are deep in corruption and will stop at nothing to preserve their power. I hope that the European Court of Human Rights will indicate the fundamental rights and freedoms of the convention in the cases that come before it, but what do we say to such a member of the Council of Europe? We should firmly oppose human rights abuses and the distortion of democracy; we should remind the Russians of their obligations as a member of the Council of Europe; we should press for a European law on the Magnitsky case—I say European because the Russians are adept at trying to divide the European countries on these issues—that imposes visa bans and freezes assets; and we should address the corruption that pervades the Russian system and, at the very least, stop the laundering of the dirty money that flows from there to here. That at least would hurt them in their pockets.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, on raising this important matter in this debate. We should put on record our appreciation of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Human Rights for the work that it does on this issue and the material results of its research, which are made available to us.
There are 13,600 people serving prison terms in Russia for what are described as economic crimes. The routine criminalisation of business disputes is all too symptomatic of the weak rule of law in Russia. Entrepreneurs are too often jailed on trumped-up charges by manipulative investigators and judges. Only 1% of cases in Russian courts result in acquittal. Indeed, the workings of a court in Russia have been described as “telephone justice”, with external pressure all too evidently exerted on judges to produce a particular verdict.
The noble Lord has spoken well about the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The oligarch has spent a decade in prison after two consecutive trials—the second said to be more legally questionable than the first—but just as he is due to be released next year there are sinister hints that a third case could be on the way. The heaviest hint came in the form of the release of a documentary from the once independent but now wholly tainted television channel NTV, alleging that the oligarch was behind the murder of the mayor of Nefteyugansk in 1998. Putin himself has alleged several times that Khodorkovsky has blood on his hands.
He is not alone, a point that the noble Lord made forcefully. As he reminded us, there was the case of Sergei Magnitsky and his posthumous conviction for tax fraud, having died in prison after terrible experiences at the hands of the authorities. William Browder was also convicted of tax fraud in absentia and sentenced to nine years. He plans to appeal. The Yaroslavl mayor, Yevgeny Urlashov, was also recently arrested in the middle of the night. The former member of the United Russia party was elected last year as the city’s mayor. In local elections this autumn, he was preparing to support candidates from a new party started by billionaire Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov. He has been accused of taking bribes and a judge has ordered him behind bars until 2 September.
We have all been heartened to hear of the release, pending appeal, of Alexei Navalny after intervention by Putin. However, there is a good deal of room for suspicion that this may all be cat and mouse—that, in fact, he will stand in elections that will be fixed, he will be defeated and he will then be more severely treated in court than before. The objectives of the President will have been achieved.
All this is bad enough, but we also have to look at it in the context of other things that are happening in Russia at the same time. There is, of course, the terrible crackdown on NGOs, which are standing up for human rights and humanitarian issues. As of the end of June, at least 62 groups have received warnings or orders to register as foreign agents or have been taken to court by the authorities. Of seven groups already taken to court, five have lost administrative cases and have been ordered to pay fines and register. At least one has been closed. Another 15 organisations that received direct notices of violation from the prosecutor’s office may face administrative charges if they fail to register as foreign agents. Authorities have warned at least 38 groups to register as foreign agents if they receive foreign funding and plan to carry out what are described as political activities, which would be seen in this country as very legitimate lobbying, on the issues that concern them.
The treason law expands the legal definition of treason in ways that leaves broad room for officials to arbitrarily interpret and selectively apply it against individuals engaged in routine discussions with foreign counterparts or presenting human rights reports to international conferences. Russia’s public assembly law, adopted in 2012, dramatically increased the maximum penalty for violating rules regulating protests and introduced new restrictions on public protests. Russia’s constitutional court has ruled that several of the law’s provisions were unconstitutional and the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe has found that the amendments represent a step backward for the protection of freedom of assembly—and indeed urges Russia to repeal or revise key provisions. Libel, decriminalised at the end of the Medvedev presidency, has been recriminalised.
Some argue that these sad and disturbing trends in the administration of justice started with Putin’s re-election as president in 2012, in response to the protest movements in 2011. Personally, I do not accept this. It may have accelerated them, but there was far too much indefensible myopia in the West to what has been going on since the end of the 1990s. I was for some years rapporteur to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on the conflict in Chechnya, with its inevitable consequences for Dagestan and Ingushetia. All I can say is that the numerous disappearances, the torture, the intimidation of witnesses, the home burnings, the indiscriminate bombardments and the extra judicial killings—not least of brave journalists and human rights activists such as Anna Politkovskaya and Natalya Estemirova, who tried to speak the truth—were cruel and terrible and provided ample evidence of the ruthless distortion of so-called justice.
Attempts to pin down the Russians became frustrating in the extreme. We would repeatedly be told that an investigation would be initiated but seldom, if ever, did we hear of the completion of such an investigation, with those responsible brought to justice. There have been 200 European Court judgments against Russia with reference to the North Caucasus, the majority involving multiple violations of the European convention. The lamentable inadequacy of official investigations in too many of these cases has been on a scale that indicates a systemic and continuing failure. Recently, Putin has certainly been shoring up his political base by mobilising reactionaries, nationalists and xenophobes. He puts his public money where his purpose lies; the salaries of the riot police have been doubled.
In conclusion, to the cynics who say, “But what on earth can be done about all this?”, lots of things can be done. One is to make sure that far more frequently, far more vigorously and in many more cases what is happening is brought to public attention and a stand is made. The Committee of Ministers in the Council of Europe must stop pussy-footing around and pursue Russia relentlessly in carrying out what has been ruled necessary by the European Court. It raises these issues, but it does not pursue them as vigorously as it should.
My Lords, I also commend my noble friend Lord Trimble for bringing this important matter to your Lordships’ House and presenting it with his usual methodical and forensic accuracy. The timing of this debate is important, as he has pointed out, given the legal cases in Russia and those coming up at the European Court of Human Rights. However, the timing of the debate at this hour of the evening means that I do not intend to repeat what he has already said with such clarity about the case itself.
Part of the importance of this case, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said, is its significance regarding the deterioration of freedom and democracy in Russia. Since Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s arrest, there has been an extraordinary increase in the number of political prisoners in Russia; by most estimates, there are now more than in Belarus. The arrest of Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev in 2003 on fraud charges was probably the first major such politically motivated case brought against Kremlin opponents under Putin. Khodorkovsky was supporting the liberal opposition Yabloko party of my old friend, Grigory Yavlinsky, and challenging corruption and authoritarianism in Russia under Mr Putin, as my noble friend has said. The Russian leader—not the first to do so—saw the legal process as one that could be used to intimidate dissenters. In the words of one of my Russian colleagues, he almost killed off politics from 2003 until December 2011, when the people, outraged by election fraud, came out en masse to protest. In 2009, as my noble friend has pointed out, additional charges of embezzlement were brought against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev and, now, a third case against the defendants may effectively result in life sentences for them.
Then there was the case of the Yukos executive and former company director, Vasily Aleksanyan, who, according to the European Court of Human Rights, was improperly imprisoned and treated in an inhuman and degrading fashion, resulting in his premature death in 2011, some time after he was released from prison as a result of international pressure. In the Yukos case, Russia abused the European Court of Human Rights by, for example, repeatedly replacing the ad hoc Russian judge five times, so that every time a new judge came in, he or she would have to familiarise themselves with all the papers, thus delaying the whole process.
The Pussy Riot case is another example of manipulation of the court system to silence critics. Here, three young women were convicted in August 2012 of hooliganism, motivated by religious hatred, for an illicit performance by their rock group in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. Advised or ill-advised as that may have been, these performance artists were challenging the Kremlin’s increasingly close relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church, which has, sadly, become a central player in Putin’s strategy for national unity. Two of these women are currently serving two-year prison sentences.
The Bolotnaya Square case, brought against 12 defendants for allegedly rioting on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square on 6 May, the eve of Putin’s inauguration, was largely viewed as a provocation by police to undermine the protest movement. Those 12 people, many of whom had never before even participated in political demonstrations in their lives, are now defendants in a show trial and face up to 10 years in prison.
Therefore, with Khodorkovsky, Lebedev, the pre-inaugural 6 May case and Pussy Riot, Russia is now host to many political prisoners—and their numbers are rising. For example, there is the recent case of the opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, and that of Yabloko’s Pyotr Ofitserov, whose only crime was knowing Navalny; Magnitsky’s post-mortem conviction has already been mentioned; Yabloko’s activists now in jail such as Maxim Petlin, on a trumped-up bribery charge as he fought with a developer who tried to destroy a public garden; and Ivan Bolshakov and Vasily Popov, who were convicted and given sentences on fake evidence for their political activities. Then there are the suspected murders of journalists and human rights activists. Anna Politkovskaya was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, and Yuri Shchekochikhin investigated corruption in the KGB and died mysteriously—like Litvinenko—a couple of months after the first publication of his investigation; and there are many more.
Therefore, the Khodorkovsky case is important not just in itself but because it has paved the way for politically motivated reprisals in Russia. Intimidation and reprisals against political dissenters and opposition have turned into daily practices for the Russian authorities—from intimidation, searches and wiretapping to imprisonment and even, it is clear, extrajudicial killings. In addition to human rights concerns, this increase in political persecution is resulting in increased Russian asylum cases in the European Union, which has a direct impact on the EU economy and society. For example, one young man, Mr Dolmatov, was implicated in the Bolotnaya case, fled, and then committed suicide in a Dutch detention centre after being denied asylum in the Netherlands. Other well known figures such as Garry Kasparov and Sergei Guriev have left Russia for the US and France respectively due to their fear of arrest.
Amid these discouraging highlights, it is important to remember that there are many Russians inside the country who are fighting for democracy and human rights. They need our unwavering political and moral support—from the whole of the international community. Thousands of Russians are working steadily for peaceful democratic change in Russia. Putin’s attempt to use the legal process and other processes to frighten his citizens through the prosecutions we have mentioned will not ultimately work. Dozens of new political parties registered last year and are running candidates in the local elections on 8 September. Thousands of civic activists are preparing to monitor those elections. Those anonymous but courageous Russians want to change their country for the better and they deserve our continuing attention and support.
While my colleague Sergei Mitrokhin maintains that Khodorkovsky is a courageous, inspirational and increasingly symbolic figure for the Russian opposition, Khodorkovsky himself, writing in an opposition newspaper interview just a few weeks ago after his 50th birthday and around 10 years in prison, remains cautious about the prospects. He said:
“The struggle for power with an authoritarian regime always involves serious and mass sacrifices—the loss of a business, a job, or liberty”—
and, he might have added, even your life.
These are serious matters. The least we in this country can do is to give Khodorkovsky and others in the Russian opposition all the support we can in their fight for freedom and democracy in their great country. I welcome the statement by the Prime Minister at the Banqueting Hall and I look to my noble friend to be as robust and strident as she can in condemnation. However, it would be dreadful if our response was only words and we were intimidated, as my noble friend Lord Trimble said, into not taking the kinds of actions that need to be taken to emphasise that we mean what we say. I look to my noble friend to encourage us in that way, too.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, for raising this matter tonight. After the end of the Soviet Union, I had a long involvement in Russia with both churches and organisations for disadvantaged children and young people. In the course of this, I met Mr Khodorkovsky when he was a free man visiting London. I was impressed by him and by his efforts to make Yukos Oil a normal, responsible and transparent internationally quoted company. I also admired the work of the Open Russia Foundation that he started, which sought to make the young Russian generation full participants in a globalised world.
I agree that Mr Khodorkovsky may have breached an informal agreement with his Government by taking a position in politics. However, it is worth noting that he returned voluntarily to Russia in 2003 when he could have stayed abroad and joined other exiled oligarchs. He went back to prove his innocence, and in solidarity with his partner, Mr Platon Lebedev, who had by then been arrested. In the same year, the then chairman of the Russian President’s advisory commission on the judiciary said of the trial:
“There are more features of political games here than of justice”.
It is also true that his legal counsel was harassed and wrongly called as a witness. In 2007, the European Court of Human Rights found that Mr Lebedev’s trial had violated international law, and in 2011 it awarded damages to both men. Have these damages yet been paid?
The fate of Yukos Oil was also most unsatisfactory. Its assets were compulsorily sold for less than full value to semi-state companies such as Gazprom and Rosneft. It is likely that the treatment was a breach of the Energy Charter Treaty 1994, to which Russia was a party. The fact that Russia got away with this behaviour led naturally to BP’s bad experience in its joint venture with TNK, and to Shell’s serious problems over Sakhalin Island.
I turn to the second trial, which took place over 21 months in 2009-10 and led to a prison sentence of 13 and a half years. It is highly relevant that it was criticised by Russian institutions as well as by the International Bar Association and Amnesty International. More important critics were our Foreign Secretary and the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, on behalf of the EU. A further point is that the location of Mr Khodorkovsky’s imprisonment may have violated Russia’s criminal executorial code, which states that convicted persons should be held in their home region and not sent to Siberia. The implications for visits from their family and others are obvious.
A wise former British ambassador to Russia commented on the case in 2009. He wrote that our two countries had many common interests and that it was unwise to expect a rapid Russian evolution to the full rule of law and democracy, but that nevertheless Her Majesty’s Government should stand by the European Convention on Human Rights and Russia’s other international obligations, and should make clear their abhorrence of Russian behaviour in the Litvinenko case, over Abkhazia and South Ossetia and over the cyberattack on Estonia.
In the light of this advice and of this debate, what is the Government’s response? Will they press the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to bring forward consideration of pending applications by Khodorkovsky and Lebedev? This, along with a strong British response, could prevent the holding of a third trial of the two men. It could also lend some protection to Mr Alexei Navalny, who has already been mentioned in the debate. He is a Russian anti-corruption lawyer and opposition leader who faces a five-year sentence. I urge the Government to take up this matter very strongly and not to let it fade away.
My Lords, I would be happy to give way to the noble Baroness because I am sure that her remarks will be of greater interest to the House than mine. Like the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, for securing this debate and, also like him, I had the opportunity to meet Mr Khodorkovsky in 2003 at the World Economic Forum annual meeting, where he spoke very passionately and persuasively. He was the star of the show. At the time, he was Russia’s richest man and chief executive of Yukos and could seemingly do no wrong. He spoke of the importance of corporate governance and independent oversight and was innovative in bringing foreign investors on to the board of his company to improve oversight. He was passionate about shareholder rights and issues of that nature. We were all greatly impressed by this man. At that meeting he invited us to attend the first annual corporate governance summit on investment in Russia, which was to be held in Moscow later that year. We all dutifully turned up in Moscow only to find that our host and sponsor was in prison. That was a bit of a shock and did immense damage to foreign perceptions, particularly as regards foreign investment as many institutional investors had turned up.
I do not think there is any doubt about how this situation came about. Mr Khodorkovsky was a very rich and powerful man. In the period between the January Davos summit and his own summit in Moscow he had declared that he intended to stand down from the chief executive position at Yukos in 2007.Given that President Putin’s term was to come to an end in 2008, that was a very clear indication that Mr Khodorkovsky’s intent was to pursue political office. It would not be the first time that the lethal cocktail of oil, political ambition and extraordinary wealth led to some pretty unpleasant happenings. The mechanism by which the events happened became clear afterwards. In an article in Time magazine in January 2011, there was a very interesting interview with Igor Yurgens, who was principal adviser to President Medvedev. Igor Yurgens said:
“Everyone understood [the first trial] was a case of selective justice. They all broke the law and only one was put in prison”.
A senior official stated:
“No one said it out loud, but of course it’s impossible to mention Russia’s investment image”
abroad without referring to what happened to Khodorkovsky. Therefore, it was clear that immense damage was done to foreigners’ perception of the country.
William Browder, whose Hermitage Fund was the largest foreign investor in Russia, said in the Time article:
“It seems they’ve decided they don’t care what anyone thinks outside of Russia”.
Browder says that the Russians need to ask themselves why Russian stocks have a market value 50% to 70% below their peers in other emerging economies. The reason is simple: in Russia, you have property rights conditional on the whims of various corrupt officials who may decide your future. We hear all that and we think, “There the Russians go again. We have seen it all before. The Russians are up to their usual tricks. Putin is up to his usual tricks”.
I close by making a slightly wider point. I would argue that, going back through history, one of the greatest weaknesses of British foreign policy is that we have manifestly failed to understand Russia. Churchill famously described Russia in 1939 as,
“a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”.
It has puzzled us and we have never quite got to grips with it or how to respond to Russia in foreign relations.
In a thoughtful paper by Andrew Monaghan for the Foreign Policy Centre entitled, UK-Russia Relations: a Bad Case of Mutual Misunderstanding, he says that the political other is the problem,
“particularly as often portrayed in an over-simplified, headline-based approach. Each appears to be a major target for the mass media of the other, which tends to emphasise and often exaggerate the conspiratorial element of the other, usually framed in spies, hostile intelligence operations, ‘cloak and dagger’ intrigue and murder, and competition for international influence”.
That is indeed probably a pretty accurate description of how relations have been, but in many ways, it belongs to the pages of a John le Carré novel such as Smiley’s People. We need to think about how our perceptions of Russia can themselves come in from the cold.
In this regard, we need to recall how, going back through history, Russian-UK relations have been a strength. As far back as the Napoleonic Wars, the Great War and the Second World War, we have been on the same side; our interests have been aligned. When we are tempted to engage in that rather simplified gesturing towards Russia, it does little to improve our misconceptions. If we really want to understand the Russian people, we need to start reading a little more of Pushkin, Chekhov, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and a little less of John le Carré, because Russia is today an important point of reference for us in foreign relations. If we want to do anything about the bloodshed and the appalling situation in Syria, if we want to do anything about Iran and its nuclear aspirations, there is no question but that we cannot do it without Russian engagement.
The Russians, in my limited experience, are fully aware of the shortcomings of their own systems of government, but they are also hugely proud of their country and implacable in their belief that it is solely their responsibility to sort it out, because they are the only ones who truly understand it. In that respect, at least, they are rather like us.
My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Bates; I had not realised that he was there waiting to speak. I join in his congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, not only on embarking on this debate but on giving us an extremely concise and excellent description of the whole of the Khodorkovsky case. He did it in a brilliant way.
I am rather like the noble Lord, Lord Hylton: I know Mr Khodorkovsky to some extent. I have come across him when I have spoken or been lecturing at various higher education institutions in Moscow and in other parts of Russia. What I can say about him is that he is an extremely direct man. He is not very good at the more gracious elements of the language, but he cannot stop himself from speaking out honestly about the things that concern him, the things that he thinks are wrong. He is also a man of that rather rare Russian characteristic, an almost crazy kind of courage. One can say to him and to other Russian dissidents that perhaps it is unwise to speak out, that it may be foolish to fall out with the authorities, but they are almost unable to be stopped, in many ways. They have the kind of almost crazy kind of courage that one associates with the work of Dostoevsky or Chekhov. It is still there.
That brings me to what the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said. Alongside the long list of terrible misjudgments, unfairnesses and abuses, about which my noble friends Lord Trimble and Lord Alderdice have already spoken, it is also true of Russia that there is always an amazing new harvest of attempts to get freedom going again. NGOs spring up like grass in the spring. New parties spring up all over the place; they die and come back again. What is very striking about Russia—and one can see it slowly moving on—is the level of growing commitment among young Russians to something resembling not so much the rule of law as the rule of liberty, and their willingness to put themselves at risk in order to achieve it.
The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, spoke about the efforts that Mr Khodorkovsky had made to try to deal with the plight of disadvantaged and abandoned children, for example. He supported them financially in a courageous and not at all prejudiced way. It does not seem to have done him any good, but there is no doubt that he went out of his way to spend money for that purpose. He also went out of his way to spend money on educating young Russians, and has been willing to take part in quite risky episodes of opposition. One that I might refer to involved Pussy Riot, which has been mentioned. In prison, Mr Khodorkovsky suddenly made public statements about his support for them, which seemed to many of us a rather extraordinary thing to do.
What can we do about it? There is a real prospect of a new generation in Russia which is much more open to democracy than the present one. Yet it sees itself as having a President who talks the language of the old Tsars, because they were brilliant at imprisoning almost everybody. That was their favourite way of silencing opposition and Mr Putin seems to be following in that tradition.
There are three points to make. One was implied by my noble friend Lord Bates. He is quite right to ask whether there might not be reactions in the market to attempts to stop, for example, innovation and technical and other relationships with other countries. That is something that we have not explored sufficiently and is something that Mr Putin would understand; perhaps much better than a great many other fine moral statements about freedom, which all of us share but which appear to cut little ice with the Russian President.
The second area, which is extremely important, is where we can exercise influence through the many other links we have with Russia: educational, musical, artistic and so forth. The third area—which I shall be quite blunt about—is something that we as a country might want to consider rather more carefully: which Russians we allow to come and rest in our country and which Russians we might find not fully acceptable. There is something that, in a way, grinds on one’s mind when we allow such a string of Russian oligarchs with dodgy pasts in terms of their behaviour in the economic world by seizing Russia’s resources and exploiting them, then to come to Britain where they will be protected by the police in order to pursue obscure rows with one another, which are then dealt with in the British courts. There is something odd about the fact that it is not Russian dissidents, asylum seekers and courageous, outspoken men and women who come to this country, but increasingly people who come here almost entirely because of the assets they hold and the money they have. We will often find that those seeking asylum are likely to be turned back.
I once again praise my noble friend Lord Trimble and thank him for bringing this debate before us. I also thank my noble friend Lord Alderdice for what he had to say. It was important to speak about the long string of Russian crimes, sentences and misjudgments, and to say loud and clear that we need to exercise over a much wider range than we have so far sought to do, steps that will make it very difficult for Russians to continue to do what they are doing with Khodorkovsky.
I end by saying what my noble friend Lord Trimble has talked about: for example, exploring money-laundering practices, washing and cleaning out money which has come by dubious methods. This is something that we should explore. The OECD has just mounted new action in this field. Perhaps that is something that we should look at, which might speak more loudly to President Putin than most of the statements we might make—even in the most oratorically splendid ways—in this House and elsewhere.
My Lords, I declare an interest or, more precisely, a brief. For the past five years I have represented Mr Khodorkovsky as his leading counsel in his applications to the European Court of Human Rights, where he is complaining about his two trials, convictions and prison sentences. It would therefore be inappropriate for me to comment at all on the merits of those applications and I will not do so. However, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, for introducing this debate. He has provoked valuable contributions from all noble Lords who have spoken and has given me the opportunity to address certain wider issues.
The first of these is the quite extraordinary delays by the European court in reaching its judgments. Your Lordships know that Mr Khodorkovsky has been detained and then imprisoned by the Russian authorities since October 2003. His first application to the European court was filed in February 2004. It complained about his arrest, his detention, the conditions in which he was detained and a number of other matters. The European court took more than seven years to reach a judgment, which was delivered in May 2011, finding a number of violations of the convention by the Russian authorities.
Mr Khodorkovsky filed a second application in Strasbourg in March 2006, and that one complained about his first trial conviction and sentence, the trial ending in May 2005. The European court will give judgment on that application this Thursday coming, which is more than seven years after the application was lodged in Strasbourg. There is a third application which Mr Khodorkovsky filed in November 2007, and that complains about his second prosecution and subsequent trial, conviction and sentence. The second trial began in March 2009. It ended with a further prison sentence in December 2010. This third Strasbourg application remains pending some five and a half years after it was filed, and indeed it is still in the early stages of consideration by the European court.
The Minister will know that the Strasbourg court regularly criticises national courts for failing to decide cases within a reasonable time, contrary to Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Can I ask the Minister whether the Government think that it is satisfactory for the European court itself to take such lengthy periods of time to decide cases, particularly in relation to an applicant who is complaining about his detention and his imprisonment? What representations will the Government make to the Strasbourg court and what steps will the Government take in the Council of Europe urgently to address these delays?
The second point I want to touch on is the record of the Russian Federation in Strasbourg. Last year, in 2012, the Strasbourg court gave 134 substantive judgments in cases concerning the Russian Federation. In 122 of those, it found at least one violation of human rights. Some 36 of the cases concerned breaches of the right to a fair hearing, while 64 cases involved breaches of the right to liberty or security of person. The year 2012 was typical of the appalling human rights record in Strasbourg of the Russian Federation. The Minister will also know that from 2004 until 2010, the Russian Federation, alone among all Council of Europe countries, refused to ratify Protocol 14 to the convention to make the Strasbourg procedures more efficient. What representations are the Government making to the Russian Federation about Russia’s appalling human rights record, and, to echo other noble Lords tonight, what action are we taking in this respect?
There is a third and final point that I want to touch on. The United Kingdom Government have regularly and regrettably reacted to adverse judgments in the European Court of Human Rights with complaints, criticisms, and sometimes years of delay in implementing adverse judgments against this country. The issue of votes for prisoners is the most extreme example but, regrettably, it is not the only one. Earlier this month, the Strasbourg court decided that prisoners serving whole-life tariffs must receive a periodic review of their sentence. The Prime Minister’s spokesman was quoted as saying that the Prime Minister was,
“very, very, very, very disappointed. He profoundly disagrees with the court’s ruling”.
Does the Minister recognise—do the Government recognise—that the prospects of encouraging the Russian Federation to respect judgments of the Strasbourg court and to adhere to basic human rights principles are simply undermined by the Government’s own lack of respect for the judgments of the Strasbourg court?
I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, for introducing this debate, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I, too, would like to commend the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, for the great knowledge, conviction and clarity with which he spoke about this subject. I thank him for bringing this timely debate, coming as it does two days before an important judgment by the European Court of Human Rights on whether Mr Khodorkovsky’s rights to a fair trial under Article 6 of the European convention have been violated.
Mr Khodorkovsky has been detained and imprisoned by the Russian authorities since October 2003, nearly 10 years ago. It is fair to say that he is a controversial character in post-Soviet Russian history, as the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, pointed out. Prior to his arrest in 2003, he enjoyed an astonishing—and astonishingly rapid—rise to economic success, and to cultural and political prominence. He had a career ranging from internet trainer, philanthropist and funder of political parties to Minister of Fuel and Energy and financial trade magnate. If the proposed merger between Yukos and Sibneft had gone through after 2003, he would have been at the helm of one of the world’s largest oil companies.
During this period, however, he became the subject of a range of allegations concerning fraudulent activity: allegations that he engaged in asset-stripping of Yukos for private gain, and that he engineered forced sales of oil within the holding company to transfer billions of roubles to shell companies owned exclusively by him. Whatever one’s view of these allegations, the concern, which tonight’s debate has shown is shared by Members on all sides of the House, centres on Mr Khodorkovsky’s experience of Russian justice—the circumstances and process surrounding his arrest, trial and continued detention. The central point is that expressed by the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly’s Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights in November 2004, when it said that,
“the circumstances of the arrest and prosecution of leading Yukos executives suggest that the interest of the State’s action in these cases goes beyond the mere pursuit of criminal justice”.
I want to talk briefly about three aspects arising from the long and continuing saga of this case: first, the circumstances surrounding Mr Khodorkovsky’s arrest and charges; secondly, his treatment in the Russian judicial and prison system since he was detained; and thirdly, wider lessons for the state of justice in Russia today. Starting with his initial detention in 2003, Mr Khodorkovsky was arrested after an investigation into the tax and financial arrangements surrounding Yukos’s purchase of a stake in a company called Apatit. He was arrested to appear as a witness, but within hours of being in custody he was charged with fraud. In 2011, the European Court of Human Rights found that his arrest was,
“unlawful as it had been made with a purpose different from the one expressed”,
and that he had been held in “degrading and humiliating conditions”.
It has been widely thought that the motives for his arrest and prosecution go well beyond the pursuit of justice. Many have noted, for example, that in February 2003, just a few months before formal investigations began, Mr Khodorkovsky accused the Russian Government of large-scale corruption at a meeting with President Putin that was broadcast on Russian television. The European Court of Human Rights found in 2011 that it did not have sufficient evidence to conclude that his first trial was politically motivated and that the charges against him were grounded in “reasonable suspicion”. However, Mr Khodorkovsky’s family and supporters, as well as the Council of Europe committee that I referred to earlier, see his detention as motivated by a desire to weaken an outspoken political opponent.
Whatever one’s views on political motivation, two worrying aspects of Mr Khodorkovsky’s initial prosecution seem clear. First, the arrest furthered a widespread impression that the Russian authorities were engaged in selective prosecutions against those oligarchs and senior businesspeople who had come into conflict with the Putin regime. In the words of the US State Department, the arrest,
“raised a number of concerns over the arbitrary use of the judicial system”.
It damaged not just the Russian economy and the climate for investment but confidence in the consistent application of the rule of law in Russia.
Secondly, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that part of the motivation behind his arrest and subsequent treatment was to enable the Russian state to regain control of strategic economic assets. A 2009 Council of Europe report spells this out clearly, noting that,
“Yukos, a privately owned oil company”,
“made bankrupt and broken up for the benefit of the state-owned company Rosneft. The assets were bought at auction by a rather obscure financial group, Baikalfinansgroup, for almost €7 billion. It is still not known who is behind this financial group. A number of experts believe that the state-owned company Gazprom had a hand in the matter”.
What representations we have made to Russia about the Government’s view of this first trial, given that this is the issue at hand in Thursday’s judgment? In addition, given that the Russian criminal procedure code stipulates a direct dependence between the court’s acknowledgement of the violation of Article 6 of the European convention and the necessity of cancelling a sentence, can the Minister tell us whether the Government have talked to the Russian Government about our expectation that they should comply with the decision of the court and adjust his sentence accordingly?
I turn now to the second set of issues: the way in which Mr Khodorkovsky has been treated by the Russian judicial and penal system since his trial. The timeline of his 10 years in prison is both depressing and bizarre. In 2005, he was taken to a labour camp attached to a uranium mining and processing plant—at which, according to my quick Google search on it, inmates now have,
“much better chances of survival than in the past”.
In April 2006, he was attacked by a prison inmate. In February 2007, new charges were brought against him just before his parole was due, one year before the Russian presidential election. The emergence of new charges related to the alleged crimes of which he was initially convicted. At the time, President Obama said it looked like,
“a repackaging of the old charges”.
France’s Human Rights Ambassador expressed a similar view, saying:
“It seems odd that Khodorkovsky could be sentenced twice on facts which look the same, or even contradictory … the charges seem to be so unclear … the defence does not even know what the precise charges are”.
In August 2008, he was denied parole for myriad reasons including—famously—because he refused to attend sewing classes in jail. When he was convicted of the second tranche of offences in October 2010, the judge convicted him and colleagues of stealing 40% more oil than the prosecutors had even alleged.
Alongside this, as set out in a joint letter by Human Rights Watch, Freedom House and three other reputable NGOs, there is evidence of: intimidation of defence counsel, Yukos executives and witnesses; repeated procedural irregularities during the second trial over the use of evidence; and prosecutorial misconduct. An assistant to the judge who convicted Khodorkovsky in his second trial in 2010 alleged that the judge had the verdict read against his will. She remarked that,
“everyone in the judicial community understands perfectly that this is a rigged case, a fixed trial”.
It is little wonder, in light of these and other facts of the case, that Amnesty International designated both Mr Khodorkovsky and Mr Lebedev “prisoners of conscience” in 2011 and that grave concerns about his treatment at the hands of Russian justice have been expressed by Parliaments in Italy, Germany and the United States, as well as by President Obama, Angela Merkel and our own Foreign Secretary.
Lastly, I turn briefly to the wider set of concerns, of which this case is merely a particular example, about access to justice in Russia. Other noble Lords have talked about people such as Sergei Magnitsky, Anna Politkovskaya and Natalya Estemirova. This is not an isolated case. Just last week we saw Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption campaigner, sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for embezzlement. The case bore many familiar hallmarks: ambiguity about the charges; an admission by investigators that the authorities’ inquiries were prompted by political activities on the part of the defendant; and near-universal condemnation of the verdict by Russian media and public opinion, as well as NGOs abroad. Mikhail Gorbachev commented after the verdict:
“Everything I know about this case ... unfortunately confirms we do not have independent courts”.
We are also seeing a more restrictive social and legal climate for free expression since President Putin returned to power. Human Rights Watch has commented that the Russian authorities have,
“introduced a series of restrictive laws”—
the foreign agents law, the treason law and the assembly law”—
“harassed, intimidated, and in several cases imprisoned political activists … and sought to cast government critics as clandestine enemies”.
Does the Minister share my anxiety about these developments? In what forum have the Government shared these anxieties with the Russian Government?
Finally, some may argue that issues of internal due process should remain a matter for national Governments, a point to which the noble Lord, Lord Bates, alluded in his remarks. My honourable friend Emma Reynolds, the shadow Minister for Europe, has said,
“raising human rights issues is not about interfering in the affairs of the Russian Government, but is a way of holding Russia to its international obligations. Russia has signed the European convention on human rights, the universal declaration of human rights, the charter of Paris and the EU-Russia partnership and co-operation agreement … In signing each of those agreements, Russia made a solemn commitment to respect human rights … It is therefore reasonable to ask whether the Russian Government are living up to their side of the bargain”.—[Official Report, Commons, 7/3/12; col. 932.]
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Trimble for calling this important debate on the Khodorkovsky case, and I am grateful once again for the quality of this debate and the expertise of noble Lords.
I start by assuring noble Lords that we have raised our concerns about the serious shortcomings in the Russian judicial process and the wider human rights situation with Russia on many occasions. We will continue to encourage them to address these issues as a matter of urgency. Many noble Lords have spoken in detail of the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev. We have heard that, as his wealth grew, Khodorkovsky became increasingly politically minded, that he was cautiously critical of the Russian system of managed democracy, and that his relations with the Russian leadership took a downward turn.
The case has highlighted serious flaws in the Russian judicial process. These were compounded after new charges of theft and embezzlement were brought against him, which, critically, ensured that Khodorkovsky would not be released prior to the presidential elections in 2012. Khodorkovsky and Lebedev are set to be released in 2014. I stand with those in this House and in the international community who call on the Russian Government to honour those release dates. It would send exactly the wrong message about the state of the Russian judiciary and the rule of law in Russia if their sentences were extended further.
The European Court of Human Rights ruling recognised many of the serious human rights violations suffered by Mr Khodorkovsky: degrading prison conditions; inhuman and degrading conditions in the courtroom, unjustified detention and unfair hearings. While it ruled that there was no direct proof that the prosecution was politically motivated, the court recognised that the weight of evidence presented by Mr Khodorkovsky’s lawyers would be sufficient to satisfy even the most assiduous of domestic European courts, and that they would refuse extradition, deny legal assistance and issue injunctions against the Russian Government on this evidence. As the Government have intimated on numerous occasions, we, like this House, continue to have serious concerns about the application of the law in Russia.
It is also important to put this discussion in context by setting out the current state of the rule of law in Russia, where recent cases and developments fuel concerns about the politicisation of judgments and the lack of judicial independence. Three years after Sergei Magnitsky’s death in pre-trial detention, there has been no meaningful progress towards securing justice. The investigation into his death has been dropped. The fact that Mr Magnitsky was posthumously convicted of tax evasion earlier this month, by definition without the opportunity to defend himself, simply adds to the already negative perceptions of the judicial process in Russia. We continue to call for a full and transparent investigation into his tragic death, as my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary did when he met Foreign Minister Lavrov earlier this year.
Just last week my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary again highlighted concerns about the selective application of law in Russia, this time in relation to the case of Alexei Navalny, which was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Wood. An outspoken anti-corruption advocate, Navalny has become the face of the Russian opposition movement. But, in an increasingly familiar story, he has been charged with embezzlement. During his recent trial, his legal team were prevented from calling any defence witnesses to give evidence. On Thursday he was sentenced to five years in prison. Huge protests broke out in Moscow and on Friday he was unexpectedly released on bail, pending his appeal. In 30 days we will know the outcome of his appeal. For the moment, he will continue his campaign for the Moscow mayoral election.
One cannot ignore the common threads between these cases—the selective justice and the violations of due process—which lead to a lack of domestic and international faith in the integrity of the Russian legal system. The fact that there are scant signs of improvement is worrying.
In parallel, President Putin’s third term has been characterised by a clampdown on civil society; the noble Lords, Lord Judd and Lord Wood, referred to some examples of this. A string of new pieces of legislation has led to a narrowing of civil liberties, with serious curbs on freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly and protest. Russian people now face a fine greater than the average annual salary for violating the “public order”.
NGOs now face the threat of raids by various bodies since a new law requires any non-governmental organisation that conducts “political activity” and accepts foreign funding to bear the label of “foreign agent”. Critically, the definition of what is and what is not political is unclear. In addition, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members of Russian society have been directly targeted. In June, a law was passed which bans the promotion of “non-traditional sexual relations”. This effectively makes all LGBT rallies and sharing information on LGBT issues illegal and subject to heavy fines.
In short, it would be no exaggeration to say that what little progress there has been in Russia on human rights has now stalled. So now, more than ever, we must work to kick-start change. We must work to retain and build on the channels of influence we have available to us from all levels of our network. This must be our focus, and it is one from which we have not shied away.
I remind the House that the United Kingdom is unique among all EU member states in holding annual bilateral meetings to allow formal discussions about human rights. This gives us the opportunity to hold Russia to account on the human rights obligations into which it has entered through its participation in various United Nations conventions and the European Convention on Human Rights.
At the 2013 UK-Russia human rights dialogue, senior officials reiterated the very plain concerns articulated by my right honourable friends the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Minister for Europe, and made it clear to the Russian authorities that we hoped to see both Khodorkovsky and Lebedev released according to schedule in the second half of 2014. This dialogue is a forum in which we can confront the Russians’ shortcomings and try to call them to account.
However, this is about more than just setting out our concerns. It is also about offering support to both the Russian authorities and civil society in their efforts to try to strengthen the rule of law in Russia. On a Government-to-Government level, we signed a UK-Russia memorandum of understanding on justice co-operation in 2010. In this, we undertook to exchange information and expertise through contact between legal professionals, officials and NGOs.
There has also been high-level contact between our respective Ministries of Justice. My noble friend Lord McNally attended the St Petersburg International Legal Forum in May this year, which allowed the opportunity for us to offer support and advice on the value of a strong and independent judiciary. Russian uptake of our offers in this area has sometimes been slow since we signed the MoU, but we have a long-term commitment to delivering in this area.
We have also offered practical support and shared UK best practice through a series of projects, including working with the Supreme Commercial Court of the Russian Federation and the Russian probation service. It is true that these projects sometimes take place in a difficult environment but we believe that they have had a direct impact on the rule of law environment in Russia, and in a small way have empowered those elements, described by my noble friend Lord Alderdice, in the Russian system committed to making real progress.
The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, asked specifically about compensation to Khodorkovsky. We understand that the Russian Federation has paid him €10,000, as instructed by the European Court of Human Rights, but the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, may well have more information through his involvement.
Indeed the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, asked about our view of the European court’s delay in dealing with these cases. We recognise the importance of the European Court of Human Rights for the protection of human rights across Europe, but we recognise that it needs to be more efficient and to focus on cases where it really is needed. These were the two priorities that we felt were needed for reform of the court. The Brighton declaration agreed last April has gone some way towards achieving these, and we will continue to push for further meaningful reform when negotiations start later in the year.
The noble Lord asked a broader question about the UK’s approach towards human rights and the European Court of Human Rights. I can assure him that the Government’s commitment to human rights is strong and clear. Human rights contain many of the basic rights and freedoms that have been fundamental to British law for centuries, such as the right to a fair trial, freedom from torture and freedom of speech. These rights are vital in Britain today, as they were in earlier years and as they are throughout the world. The Government agreed in the coalition agreement that their obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights will continue to be enshrined in British law.
My noble friend Lord Alderdice spoke about the case of Pussy Riot. I can assure him that the Prime Minister raised this case specifically with President Putin. My noble friend Lord Trimble spoke about the Litvinenko case. The Government remain committed to seeking justice in this case. We want to see a trial in the United Kingdom of the suspects named by the Crown Prosecution Service. The Russian Government are in no doubt about the strength of our feeling on this case. We believe that the coroner’s inquest can continue to investigate effectively the circumstances of Mr Litvinenko’s death, and we will continue to co-operate fully with it.
My noble friend Lady Williams spoke about asylum cases from Russia. She is of course aware that asylum cases are not determined by foreign policy considerations, and that all decisions around asylum claims are taken according to the relevant UK and international laws, which are subject to strict and impartial judicial scrutiny.
My noble friend Lord Bates spoke about the broader UK-Russia relationship, and said that British foreign policy has struggled to understand Russia—to find a common mutual understanding. I accept that this is important, and that is why, although there are well known differences in the relationship, the Government have continued to favour high-level and frank dialogue with Russia.
In conclusion, it is right that the UK continues to call Russia to account for this situation and other cases. Khodorkovsky is due to be released on 15 October 2014. We must continue to encourage Russia to fulfil its commitments to strengthen the rule of law and promote the independence of the judiciary. President Putin has publicly said he wants Russia to move up the international “ease of doing business” tables, and make Russia a more attractive destination for foreign investment. For this to happen, his Government need demonstrably to support the development of a strong civil society and to demonstrate that the rule of law is respected in Russia. Business leaders must see evidence of the fair application of law. It is that climate that will bring foreign investment to Russia. The release of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev would be seen as a huge step internationally towards that goal.
House adjourned at 11.24 pm.