An immigration appeals panel reversed yesterday its decision to send former Russian banker Alex Konanykhin back to Russia, ending a deportation effort that was sharply criticized by a federal judge this week.
U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III had expressed dismay with the Department of Homeland Security for its insistence that Konanykhin be sent back to Russia. One of the first post-Soviet Russian millionaires, he fled to the United States in 1992, saying his life was in danger from ex-KGB officers and Russian mobsters.
In yesterday's surprise ruling, the Justice Department's Board of Immigration Appeals said recent developments raise enough questions about the fairness of the Russian justice system to return the case to the immigration judge who granted Konanykhin political asylum in 1999.
The same board overturned the asylum grant in November, finding "no evidence to suggest that the Russian government employs corruption in its criminal justice system as a tool of political persecution."
That baffled experts on Russia, particularly because it followed the arrest of Russian billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was charged with fraud and tax evasion. The arrest sparked an international outcry and was criticized by the U.S. government as a move by Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to punish the billionaire for financing the political opposition.
In its new decision, the immigration appeals board appeared to take into account the concerns raised by the Khodorkovsky case. It also agreed that Konanykhin's lawyers could argue that the businessman would face torture in Russian prisons.
The new decision does not rule out deportation for Konanykhin and his wife, Elena Gratcheva, but makes that prospect unlikely, said Konanykhin lawyer J.P Szymkowicz.
Konanykhin, 37, made a fortune building a bank and other businesses as Russia emerged from communist rule in the early 1990s. After fleeing ex-KGB agents who, he said, had muscled him out of the bank, he resettled in Washington and worked for a time for Khodorkovsky, trying to drum up international business for Khodorkovsky's Menatep Bank.
In 1994, a Russian prosecutor accused Konanykhin of stealing $8 million from his old bank, charges he said were trumped up by former colleagues.
In 1996, Konanykhin was arrested by U.S. immigration officers on grounds that he had committed immigration fraud. The charge was thrown out.
Documents indicate the fraud charge was devised by U.S. officials to satisfy their Russian counterparts, who had sent several alleged mobsters to face criminal charges in the United States and were demanding Konanykhin in return.
After a legal battle, Konanykhin won asylum in 1999 and built a Web advertising business based in New York City. But after the November decision ordering his deportation, Department of Homeland Security officials took unusual steps to try to send him to Russia.
Last month, U.S. immigration agents swooped down on Konanykhin and his wife as they tried to cross from Buffalo, N.Y., into Canada for an appointment to apply for political asylum.
The next day, Homeland Security officials ordered the couple put on a plane to Moscow as Ellis was hearing an emergency appeal from Konanykhin's lawyers. At the last minute, he halted the deportation.
In a later hearing, Ellis wondered aloud why Homeland Security officials wouldn't permit Konanykhin to go to Canada instead of Russia, where he says he would be killed.
"Why is there such an intense interest in the U.S. government to send this man to Russia?" Ellis asked department attorneys. He called the government's rush to deport Konanykhin "redolent," adding, "You know what redolent means? It stinks."