Acquitted American crabber in Russia still caught up in criminal justice system

IN PETROPAVLOVSK-KAMCHATSKY, RUSSIA An American who carved out a place for himself in the rough-and-tumble crab business here ran afoul of a capricious criminal justice system that suddenly turned its sights on him, and after three years in jail and an acquittal, he's still not in the clear.

Russian crabbing is a notoriously corrupt industry, with tight quotas that invite kickbacks and shakedowns. Arkadi Gontmakher, 53, who immigrated to Seattle from Ukraine in 1993 and has become a U.S. citizen, had been doing business in Russia for 20 years at the time of his arrest, and he knew how the game was played. He was a major buyer of crabs for export to the United States; they were all routed through the port of Pusan, South Korea, where Russian captains unload their over-quota catches.

He was not a powerful oligarch who earned the Kremlin's ire, the way the oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky did. Nor was he making accusations against the authorities, as the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky was before he was thrown into a Moscow jail, where he later died.

But like them, Gontmakher was caught up in a criminal justice system that makes doing business here a high-risk enterprise - one in which those in power, or with access to power, routinely use the police and courts to crush their commercial rivals, and in which being tried twice for the same crime is a matter of course, if that's what it takes to keep someone out of circulation.

"Somebody must have wanted his business," said Sergei Vakhrin, who runs a Web site about commercial fishing in Kamchatka.

In 2007, Gontmakher was arrested in a hotel in Moscow, where he had gone to attend a food show, and charged with poaching, money laundering and organizing a "criminal community." He pointed out, in his defense, that he owns no boats, did not deal with captains directly and was under no obligation to ascertain the legality of the crabs he was buying.

A jury here, in this grim Pacific coast city that is kept alive by the enormous profits in the crab trade, found him not guilty in December. Moments later, while he was still in the courtroom, he was rearrested, and he now faces new charges based on the same business dealings. But instead of being taken to the police station, he was rushed to the hospital. After three years in custody, his heart is failing and his doctors say he needs an operation.

'Chain' of criminality

"Crabbing became a criminal enterprise in the late '90s," Vakhrin said. That enterprise has three components: the men on the boats, the buyers, and the federal officials from the fisheries agency and the border guards who are supposed to enforce the law.

"Without these, a criminal community will not be possible," he said. "You can't say Gontmakher's guilty unless you can show the others in the chain are guilty."

Yet the prosecutor's office charged only Gontmakher and two Russian co-defendants who owned a holding company that dealt more directly with the boat owners. After all three were acquitted, Gontmakher alone now faces new charges. And as is usually the case in Russia, the prosecutor has also appealed the acquittal. There has been no evidence in his case suggesting how the allegedly poached crabs were spirited out of the country.

"Of course" there are kickbacks, said Mikhail Mashkovtsev, a communist who was the last elected governor of Kamchatka. (Since 2004, governors have been appointed by the president.)

"Most people there live on the illegal catching of crabs," said Vladimir Zherebyonkov, the lawyer for the co-defendants, referring to Kamchatka. A captain, he said, can add $5,000 a voyage to his regular $1,000-a-month salary if he's willing to poach. "And of course the border guards know all about it. Without them, it's impossible to get your stuff to Korea."

Requests for comment to the Federal Fishing Agency went unanswered. A spokesman for the border guards, who are under the direction of the Federal Security Service, said Friday he was unable to make an immediate comment on the case.

"If we had not been sure that we do our work properly, we would not have sent the cases to court," Alexey Anichin, head of the Investigative Committee of the prosecutor's office, said at a recent briefing. "We believed that there was a crime and that the guilt was proven - the court believed otherwise. There is a new case against Gontmakher under investigation in the Far East. I cannot comment on that yet."

Gontmakher has remained free since his rearrest, but his movements are restricted. After a medical examination in Kamchatka found cardiovascular problems that the local hospital is unable to treat, he flew to St. Petersburg and then Moscow for further diagnosis.

He is adamant that he does not want to have a heart operation in Russia - he's afraid someone would try to kill him while in surgery.

A cardiologist in Seattle who has looked at his records says he needs treatment for arrhythmia. The U.S. Embassy has asked for his release on humanitarian grounds so he can travel to the United States for the care he needs. Gontmakher's family said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton raised his case with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov when they met in Munich this month.

Family in the U.S.

Gontmakher has not seen his wife, Lena, or their two sons, Leo, 25, and Mike, 8, since 2007.

Leo is strong, Lena Gontmakher said when reached by phone Friday at her home in Bellevue, Wash. "The little one, of course, it's the hardest part. It's heartbreaking. He writes little notes to his dad."

The FBI investigated the Gontmakhers' company after he was arrested - apparently, Lena said, to make sure it was a genuine business and not a front. Copies of documents were turned over to Russian prosecutors, said Arkadi Gontmakher's attorney, Vladimir Odyagaylo, but they were not material to the case.

Odyagaylo thinks that crabbing had grown too notorious to be ignored and that an American made a tempting target.

Of course, he said, there's also the question of who benefited from Gontmakher's fall.

And, Odyagaylo said, after they regularly described Gontmakher as a criminal kingpin in the Russian press, prosecutors cannot admit they were mistaken to go after him.

"They would love to just destroy him," Lena Gontmakher said.

Arkadi Gontmakher is optimistic, sure that he will find a way to leave.

"I like Russians," he said. "They're kind and wonderful people. But I will never go back to Russia. If my kids go to Russia, I will write in my will that they won't get a kopeck."

 
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