Late last year, a mobile billboard was spotted driving around London’s Knightsbridge. The official-looking advert offered a reward for any information concerning the assets of a Russian banker and his sister.
The billboard’s target, Georgy Bedzhamov, is currently subject to extradition proceedings by Russian prosecutors. Russia seeks Bedzhamov in relation to an alleged massive fraud committed at the now-defunct Vneshprombank. Bedzhamov says the proceedings against him are politically motivated, and that credible threats have been made against his life.
It is unlikely that he will ever be extradited.
For some years, a storm over UK-Russia extradition has been gathering in the British courts. Powerful arguments made in defence of the human rights of potential extraditees threaten to frustrate the Kremlin’s requests and further fracture the relationship between the UK and Russia.
“There is an impasse,” said Labour MP Chris Bryant, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Russia. “We have got to the stage now where we half-shrug about extradition because we know that nearly everybody that Russia wants extradited from the UK is for political reasons. The Russian authorities also have no intention of surrendering anybody who should face justice in the UK.”
For British courts, fears relating to politically-motivated proceedings persist. But new concerns have emerged regarding the very real risk of torture and ill-treatment in detention, as Russia attempts to seal off its vast prison system from outside scrutiny.
The protected presence of high-profile Russian émigrés in the UK has long attracted the ire of the Kremlin. High-profile cases include Kremlin arch-critic Boris Berezovsky, who was granted asylum in 2003, and exiled Chechen leader Akhmed Zakayev, whose extradition request was refused on grounds of political motivation.
In the late 2000s, the refusal of the Russian authorities to hand over Andrey Luguvoy, the prime suspect in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, deepened the rift between the UK and Russia. A 2007 UK foreign affairs select-committee report described arguments surrounding the asylum and extradition status of individuals (in both countries) as the “most serious source of tension” in the bilateral relationship.
Freedom of Information disclosures reveal that the UK authorities have made 15 arrests on the basis of requests from Russia since 2016. Eight of these extradition requests have been refused. One was withdrawn. The other six are ongoing. The Home Office has refused to disclose any further information.
The aftermath of the Skripal poisoning in 2018 laid bare Russia’s frustrations at having repeatedly tried and failed to secure wanted persons through conventional means. Over a decade’s worth of legal refusals had exhausted the patience of state officials.
That year, the UK’s Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) chose not to request the extradition of two suspects in the attempted murder of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, expectant that the Russian government would issue a refusal on the same grounds. The Russian constitution forbids the extradition of its own citizens.
A Scottish judge noted that a “sudden silence” followed the Skripal poisonings. Russian prosecutors and consular officials ignored repeated requests made by Scotland’s Crown Office for legal assistance in the case of a businessman who had fled Russia for the Scottish highlands. The CPS noted a “similar withdrawal of cooperation” after enquiries were made in this case.
At a 2018 press conference, the Russian ambassador hit out at the UK’s refusal to extradite “more than 60 persons” on supposedly spurious human rights grounds as a key reason for poor relations between Moscow and London. The Russian Embassy in London had previously accused the UK of “harbouring Russian fugitives”. It once published a lengthy list of individuals, most of whom were wanted for economic crimes. No.1 on the list was Nikolai Glushkov, a former Aeroflot executive charged with fraud in Russia, who was found strangled to death at his London home a week after the Salisbury attack. Extradition requests for other listed individuals had either been frustrated by grants of asylum or blocked through what the Russian embassy called “chicanery tactics” in the British courts.
“The Russian authorities are very interested in securing the extradition of certain individuals from the UK,” explained Sergey Golubok, a human rights lawyer based in St Petersburg. Russia’s Prosecutor General’s Office has even set up a special unit to coordinate extradition requests to their UK counterparts.
“We have got to the stage now where we half-shrug about extradition because we know that nearly everybody that Russia wants extradited from the UK is for political reasons. The Russian authorities also have no intention of surrendering anybody who should face justice in the UK”
Extradition from the UK to Russia has now been effectively halted by the UK chief magistrate’s decision to block a series of Russian requests late last year. Four separate cases of individuals were grouped together and heard before Westminster magistrates’ court in December 2019.
During the initial hearings, Russia’s legal counsel apparently made repeated trips to the Russian consulate during breaks, only to return with - in the words of the judge - a “rolling series of reactive assurances and ad-hoc proposed means of monitoring” designed to satisfy the tribunal. A High Court judge later agreed with a description of the Russian authorities’ behaviour as “inappropriate and unfair.”
The court eventually refused the requests because of the serious risk that the individuals would be ill-treated in detention if extradited, and that the absence of an independent system of prison monitoring in Russia increased that risk. All four individuals were discharged. London’s High Court later upheld the decision after Russia appealed.
Since the European Court of Human Rights issued a “pilot judgment” in 2012 that found systemic violations in Russian pre-trial detention centres, the Russian authorities have been obliged to prove to the UK courts that individuals will not be held in poor conditions if extradited.
“The burden is automatically reversed,” said Ben Keith, a specialist extradition barrister. “Russia always has to provide diplomatic assurances, and those assurances must be monitored.”
Russian prosecutors have begun to provide detailed information to the UK authorities about the facility that a requested person will be held in, and the material conditions guaranteed to them, including specifications of individual cells by square metre.
The Russian government has formed an action plan in order to tackle the structural issues identified in the ECHR pilot judgment, including chronic overcrowding. Some progress has been made in emptying prisons and remand centres. According to Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service, the prison population has fallen to historic lows in recent years, with more offenders being sentenced to home curfew rather than custodial terms. Ex-detainees who have suffered abuse in prison are now also able to sue the state for compensation.
But there are concerns that the focus has been too narrowly on improving material conditions, and that not enough is being done to tackle systemic violence within Russia’s prison estate.
“Compensation post factum is simply not enough,” said Sergey Golubok. “The [Russian] Government should prevent cases of inhuman or degrading treatment in its prisons from occurring in the first place.”
UK judges are increasingly fearful that individuals will be at risk of torture if extradited. The chief magistrate in the recent grouped cases expressed shock after watching a now infamous video leaked from a Yaroslavl penal colony in July 2018. The video shows an inmate, Evgeny Makarov, being restrained on a table in an educational work class. Several prison officers brutally beat the soles of his feet with their truncheons and fists as the man screams in agony.
“That’s when the UK courts understood that physical and psychological ill-treatment is a problem in the Russian prison service,” explained Professor Judith Pallot, an expert on Russian prisons at the University of Oxford who has provided compelling evidence to recent extradition tribunals.
The European Prison Rules, which provide Council of Europe member states with good standards for the management of detention facilities, include the independent monitoring of prisons as a key safeguard for the rights of detainees. The Council of Europe’s anti-torture committee (CPT) carries out ad-hoc and timetabled visits to Russian prisons. Russia has not allowed the committee to publish reports of its visits since 2012.
Impasse over monitoring
But it is the present state of Russia’s prison monitoring commissions that has come under particular scrutiny in the British courts.
The commissions were first introduced in 2008 under legislation enacted by the Dmitry Medvedev administration. “It was a good law which gave good powers to the commissions,” said Pallot. Commission members could visit prisons without special permission, assess conditions, speak to detainees and publish reports. The commissions were thus meant to provide public oversight in places of detention.
But according to a recent submission to the Council of Europe by a coalition of Russian human rights NGOs, the monitoring commissions are now in “a state of almost complete paralysis.” In recent years, their ranks have been filled with ex-law enforcement and military personnel.
“The procedure for election [to a commission] is opaque,” said Yana Teplitskaya, who served as a volunteer member of St. Petersburg’s public monitoring commission between 2016 and 2019. With her friend and colleague Ekaterina Kosarevskaya, Teplitskaya formed a working group called 16% within her commission (“We did not want to speak for the whole commission”), publicising serious allegations of torture committed by the local FSB directorate, including those voiced by several men accused in a high-profile terrorism investigation into Russian anarchists.
Neither Teplitskaya nor Kosarevskaya were readmitted into their monitoring commission at its most recent selection. Regional public chambers select new members from a list of nominees, but are not obliged to explain their choices. “At this stage, the applications of well-known human rights defenders are usually rejected,” Teplitskaya said.
Commission members are also more frequently being refused access to places of detention or are barred from bringing cameras and recording equipment into prisons.
“The most serious problem is that commission members cannot talk to prisoners in remand centres about torture which may have taken place outside of the facility,” Teplitskaya said. Recent legislation has resulted in prison staff routinely interrupting conversations between commission members and detainees if they veer “off-topic”.
“At present, there is simply no effective independent oversight,” concluded Teplitskaya. “No-one should be extradited for detention in a Russian prison.”
UK judges have previously proved willing to accept Russian assurances. Two individuals were extradited from the UK in 2017 and 2018 (on the basis of arrests made prior to 2016). In both of these cases, Russia did not breach its assurances, although one of the men was briefly confined in unsuitably cramped conditions during his lengthy transit to a remote prison colony.
“They were what you might term ‘common criminals’,” said Ben Keith, whose typical clients are businesspeople accused of financial crimes. “The real issue for them is that it is a political prosecution and that there is no prospect of receiving a fair trial. Sometimes the Article 3 [ill-treatment] issue can distract from that.”
“You are only likely to find direct interference in cases that are important to the regime. But only very rarely do you have a smoking gun”
The UK courts have been especially reluctant to block requests on fair trial grounds. “Judges do not want to make a blanket judgment on the Russian judicial system,” explained Bill Bowring, Professor of Law at Birkbeck, University of London, who regularly provides expert evidence in extradition cases. “You are only likely to find direct interference in cases that are important to the regime. But only very rarely do you have a smoking gun.”
In the UK, judges have to be persuaded not of general problems concerning prisons or courts in Russia, but that the rights of the defendant are at real risk on the facts of their case.
Defence counsels in extradition cases have therefore more confidently alighted on the risk of torture and ill-treatment in detention. Given the absence of an independent prison monitoring system in Russia, the assurances that Russia provides can no longer be safely relied upon.
“Experience shows that the Russian authorities take this matter very seriously, and that they will come up with new assurances,” said Sergey Golubok.
“It remains to be seen whether [Russia’s] assurances will be made in good-faith or whether they will be appearances made in order to ensure the extradition of those sought by prosecutors, irrespective of guarantees for safeguarding their human rights.”