Crab buyer detained in Russia returns to U.S.

Arkadi Gontmakher, left, and his attorney, Vladimir Odyagaylo, at a Kamchatka resort last month.
Arkadi Gontmakher, left, and his attorney, Vladimir Odyagaylo, at a Kamchatka resort last month. (Will Englund)
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 20, 2011; 6:27 AM

MOSCOW - A Seattle man who was in jail in Russia for three years while awaiting trial on charges connected to crab poaching, then was acquitted only to be immediately re-arrested, left Moscow on Friday and is back home with his family in Bellevue, Wash.

Arkadi Gontmakher, a Ukrainian immigrant with U.S. citizenship, had been refused permission to leave Russia as the second case against him was being launched, and his release was unexpected. After landing in the United States, he said nothing about the circumstances of his return; nor did his wife or attorney.

Gontmakher, 53, had sought to be released on health grounds. Medical examinations showed he had been suffering bouts of arrhythmia, and he argued that he required treatment in the United States. He also said he was afraid that if he were operated on in Russia, he might be killed.

Gontmakher had been a major buyer of Pacific crabs for export to the United States. The Russian crab business is notoriously corrupt, hemmed in by tight quotas that invite kickbacks and extortion. He was arrested in 2007 and charged with poaching, money laundering and organizing a "criminal community." At Russia's request, the FBI carried out a search warrant on his U.S. business, a move that has created a stir in the legal community because it implies that the United States accepts the validity of the Russian justice system - even though that system lacks, as in this case, any protection against double jeopardy.

In December, Gontmakher was found not guilty by a jury in Kamchatka, in Russia's Far East, but was told before he could leave the courtroom that he faced new charges.

Earlier this month, he was allowed to fly to Moscow for medical assessments.

Gontmakher's wife, Lena, confirmed Saturday that he had arrived in the United States. "Thanks God," she said in English but declined to comment further. Neither she nor her husband replied to e-mail requests for an interview. Their Russian lawyer, Vladimir Odyagaylo, declined even to confirm that his client had left Russia.

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow, which had asked the Russian government to allow Gontmakher to get medical care, referred questions to the State Department in Washington. A State Department official said in a statement Sunday: "The Department of State was not aware of Mr. Gontmakher's departure from Russia and played no role in aiding his movements."

It was not clear whether Gontmakher had to provide bail or agree to any other terms in exchange for his release. Russian prosecutors could not be reached for comment.

Gontmakher had said in an interview in January that, if he ever got out, he would never return to Russia.

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