International and Czech NGOs are campaigning in support of Tatiana Paraskevich, a Russian citizen held in Czech custody pending extradition over large-scale fraud she allegedly committed in Kazakhstan. But her supporters tell a different story: she and her family have been intimated by Kazakh and Russian authorities to provide evidence against Kazakhstan’s opposition leader Mukhtar Ablyazov.
Tatiana Paraskevich arrived in the Czech Republic last May for spa treatment in Karlovy Vary. Shortly thereafter, she was detained on an Interpol warrant and placed in custody she has not left to date. Apparently without her knowledge, the authorities in Ukraine launched a criminal case against her over the embezzlement of five billion dollars she allegedly committed in Kazakhstan as a manager of the BTA Bank.
But Ms Paraskevich and her supporters say the case is politically motivated. While working at the bank, she became an associate of Mukhtar Ablyazov, who owned a majority stake at the bank. A former minister of the Kazakh government, Mr Ablyazov started an opposition movement in 2001 which earned him a year in jail on charges of abuse of power. He moved to Moscow following his release, and so did Tatiana Paraskevich and her family. Ms Paraskevich’ daughter Maria, who now resides in the Czech Republic, explains.
“In 2001, they began persecuting Mukhtar Ablyazov who was the main opponent of Kazakhstan’s political elites. At the same time, they began pursuing my mother who worked with Mukhtar Ablyazov. They thought that she might provide evidence against him and they put her under pressure. That’s why our family decided to leave Kazakhstan.”
But Maria Paraskevich says that in Moscow, the persecution continued. And this time, investigators targeted other members of the family as well.
“We were living in Moscow but we can’t return there because we are too afraid. Russian investigators have threatened our family. For instance, investigator Nikolai Budilo threatened my 80-year-old grandmother that he will put her in jail if my mother doesn’t come up with accusations against Mukhtar Ablyazov. He also threatened to kidnap me, and told to my brother he would beat him up in jail until he provides evidence against Ablyazov.”
Nikolai Budilo is included in the Magnitsky list of persons who, according to the US Congress, took part in the torture of Russian whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky.
While in Czech jail, Ms Paraskevich fought her extradition. Five months after her detention, a court in Plzeň ruled she cannot be extradited and ordered her release, quoting concerns about fair trail in Ukraine. But the verdict was overturned by Prague’s High Court which said Ukraine’s guarantees of fair treatment were sufficient. In April, Ms Paraskevich applied for Czech political asylum but a month later, the Russian authorities filed their own extradition request.
One of the groups which support Tatiana Paraskevich is the Polish NGO Open Dialogue Foundation. The group’s president is Lyudmyla Kozlovska.
“If she really committed a crime, why do they want her family to give statements against Ablyazov and other civic society activists and journalists in Kazakhstan? That’s the question. If she really stole money, what’s the problem? Put her in jail and show the evidence, but leave her family alone.”
The activists say the case of Tatiana Paraskevich is closely linked to other former collaborators of the Kazakh opposition leader, Mukhtar Ablyazov. His wife and daughter were deported to Kazakhstan from Italy in June. Mr Ablyzov’s close collaborator, Muratbek Ketebayev, is in Polish jail pending extradition to Kazakhstan while his former chief of security, Alexander Pavlov, is awaiting extradition in detention in Spain – both of them are wanted by Kazakhstan on Interpol warrants.
“The cases of all these people are connected. If Kazakhstan gets the opportunity to get them back, or to Russia and later to Kazakhstan, it will be a clear sign for people who are fighting for human rights in that country that they will never get protection even in Europe. That’s why we started this huge campaign to protect them.”
The NGO has also raised the alarm over the international police organization Interpol’s role in the persecution of political activists in Kazakhstan and beyond, says Lyudmyla Kozlovska.
“The case of misusing Interpol is not only a problem of Russia, Ukraine or Kazakhstan. There are many such cases in Belarus, Brazil, and many other countries.
After we presented our report at the UN’s Human Rights Council in Geneva, and at the OSCE Human Dimension meeting last week, we had many requests from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan who have similar problems. But until now, there was debate of the need to reform Interpol.”
Interpol’s media office has declined comment but in an opinion piece for the website EU Observer, the organization’s secretary general Ronald K. Noble said Interpol had sufficient safeguards preventing abuse, and that any country “can nullify Interpol's action if it disagrees with that decision”.
In the Czech Republic, meanwhile, a recent ruling of the Constitutional Court prevents the authorities from extraditing foreign citizens until their asylum requests is processed by the Interior Ministry, which also refused to comment on the issue. A spokeswoman for the Justice Ministry, which will ultimately decide on Ms Paraskevich’ extradition, said in an email the ministry would respect the court’s ruling.
“There have been a number of cases with very similar scenarios. The Czech Justice Ministry and the courts approve extradition which could violate the human rights of the persons in question. The Interior Ministry, which should provide a review of whether that person’s human rights are at risk in the country of origin, somehow remains silent. They have the obligation to decide on asylum cases within three months but they usually prolong that period until the extradition decision is issued, or even the transfer is carried out.”
The best known asylum cases include that of former Ukrainian minister Bogdan Danylyshyn who received asylum, and that of Russian businessman Alexei Torubarov, who was deported. Do you see any kind of common approach of the Czech authorities towards extradition requests from post-Soviet countries?
“I would say common rule is unfortunately to extradite. The Interior Ministry simply does not decide quickly enough. The case of Mr Danylyshyn was unique in that the ministry reacted fast. But otherwise, they usually wait for the result of the extradition proceedings. Unfortunately, the Justice Ministry and one of its officials in particular who is in charge of extradition, Jakub Pastuszek, they are almost always in favour of extradition regardless of the reports about the country of origin. Regional courts, meanwhile, sometimes decide in favour of the foreigner.”
How do you see the case of Tatiana Paraskevich? Do you think chances are she will be extradited?
“The Constitutional Court issued an important ruling in the summer which says the person cannot be extradited until there is a final decision on their asylum claim. I’m concerned that since the decision came quite late but I still think the authorities should respect it. I would argue on behalf of Ms Paraskevich that she cannot be an exemption to this new rule.”
Her case is a little more complicated because she is not a political activist herself. Do you think there is a good reason why she should be granted asylum?
“I think the reason is not obvious but it’s likely. We are talking about non-democratic countries – Kazakhstan and Russia quite often use this tool of fabricated evidence to get whoever they want to get back in the country. Very often, they claim someone’s a murderer, or that they stole millions of dollars. It’s usually the same story – very serious crime and extradition to a country which is not a democracy and whose judicial system does not work.
“In that decision of the Constitutional Court, the judges said that the right to a fair trial of the foreigner was violated. I think it would be similar because the violation could occur in the Czech Republic because of the lack of respect for human rights obligations, and also in the country of origin because everyone knows that in Russia, courts are not independent at all.”
Some NGOs claim that Interpol is abused by some countries to persecute political opponents. What do you think of these allegations?
“I think it’s true. Interpol is primarily a technical tool willing to be in line with the country which requests someone’s extradition. They don’t really deal with human rights issues, and I think that if North Korea or whoever, Russia, simply enters someone into the system, Interpol does not deal with human rights violations, and the persons are sought in the EU or in the world. But I would blame Interpol – it’s just a tool that dictatorships and various regimes use to get the people they want back in the country.”