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CBC’s The Current Interviews Robert Amsterdam (Transcript)

On March 6, 2012, The Current radio program in Canada aired the following interview with Robert Amsterdam.  You can listen to the show here.

Host Anna Maria Tremonte:  An estimated 14,000 people choked the streets of Moscow yesterday to protest the re election of Vladimir Putin to the Russian Presidency. Mr Putin has already served two terms – the maximum allowed under Russian law – then served as prime minister. The break was long enough to allow him to run again for president and now he’s back despite allegations of widespread voter fraud.

When he takes the president’s chair this time however he faces a much more prominent and better organized opposition.

Robert Amsterdam is a Canadian lawyer who confronted Mr Putin’s Russia head on when he was hired to defend Mikhail Khordorkovsky. Mr Khorsorkovsky was the richest man in Russia. He was stripped of his business interests and jailed for tax evasion in a case many believe was politically motivated. His legal team was threatened; Mr Amsterdam was detained and expelled. Since then he has been an outspoken critic of Mr Putin and Robert Amsterdam is with me today.

The news in the Moscow times and even in the NY times today is that in the wake of this election, the outgoing president, Mevdevev, is analyzing the legality of the case of Mr Khordorkovsky and 30 others. What do you think?

Not very much.

This doesn’t require anyone to analyse anything. This procedure that Khordokovsky has been under is nothing less than Kafkaesque. Every international organisation and company set up by Medvedev said the same thing. There is only one thing left for them to do and that is to release him. I pray to g-d that’s what they will do. It wont be anything other than the decision of Vladimir Putin.

He’s supposed to get out in 2017 is that right?

Perhaps earlier. But I’ve often said. There is no actual legal penalty – he is a hostage of Mr Putin. Make no mistake – there is no Russian legal system – what passes for a legal system is a weapon of mass destruction – we shouldn’t have looked for them in Iraq they were in Moscow all along.

Well despite reports of violations from opposition groups and all the independent observers who have raised concerns, Vladimir Putin has declared victory in Russia’s presidential election by a margin – I think its 60% – they are still counting. What do you think that means for Russia?

This was not an election – you cant disqualify all your opponents, control the media, manage to eek out what many real observers are saying is about a 50% vote and call it victory – it’s a tragedy.

I read an article by, I’m sure, a brilliant professor talking about what Mr Putin needs to do to turn things around. It misses the point – he cant – he is part of a corrupt clan that has stolen and raped Russia in no way that no oligarch could have imagined.

Russian corruption is running at about $350 billion a year. He is in power for one reason. He is afraid to lose power because he might face at some point an independent tribunal.

This man is a criminal – this man doesn’t deserve to shake the hand of any western leader.

It is a tragedy and it is pathetic that western leaders don’t have courage / moral strength to deal with him properly

So where does Russia’s opposition go from here?

This is not a short term but a long term fight – we have to support Magnitsky type bills in western legislature that allow for individual sanctions of those people in Russia who so pervert the justice system that they steal assets and jail heroes like Magnitsky who was murdered in his cell due to lack of medical attention.

How did you come to meet Khordokovsky?

He had heard of work I had done in Latin America some years before – I was the only lawyer he personally hired. He interviewed me when I was in Washington.

Him and Putin aren’t sworn enemies from Khordokovsky’s side. Mr Putin – as you can tell from his botox – is a wildly insecure individual. And that’s why he can’t face opponents and that’s why he stabbed in the back Dimitri Medvedev.

This man in modern history created one of the biggest political mistakes by openly castrating Medvedev. By standing up and making Medvedev nominate him and then saying there had been a prior deal and embarrassing Barak Obama and the western world. And everyone who had supported Medvedev.

I’m saying that when a few months ago Medvedev had to stand up and essentially nominate Putin – and then Putin said “we had a deal all along.- the stuff about constitution (wink wink) didn’t matter; Medvedev decided we were going to switch roles”

Didn’t we always know that?

The chancellor of Germany and President of the United States didn’t actually think that – spent a lot of political capital trying to work with Medvedev. Many people think for first few years at least up to Georgian war – he tried.

But the type of mafia state that Russia is cant work like that.

Aren’t you concerned with speaking like this? Given that some of the harshest critics don’t live anymore?

I spoke like this in Moscow – to engage with these things you have to have courage say what you think

The problem is – and we have seen this with wikileaks – we’ve been taught that diplomacy is the art of lying. We need more transparency from people.

Personally I have nothing against him from that standpoint.

He has to be outed for what he is. And we have this presumption of regularity – we believe that because they have a government what they call a government – we assume it behaves like ours. It doesn’t. Its run by a small group of kleptocrats who are robbing the country blind.

People say Khordokovsky cheated his way to his wealth in first place – wasn’t he just part of the system?

There can be a long and lengthy discussion as to how he got his wealth. I find it interesting comment from many people when you look at the fact he reinvested his wealth in Russia – he set up the first pension plan for employees and was one of the first men to allow Russian employees to retire with pension.

What amazes me is that his tenure and ability to deal with circumstances in having being illegally and arbitrarily jailed and he can speak out.

I no longer represent the man but my belief in him hasn’t faltered one iota.

What’s interesting I think that I do these kind of cases in many countries – and Russia is not uniquely ill in terms of what’s going on there sadly this type of autocratic behaviour is a virus is expanding and expanding.

The profound sadness is that us in the west – what hurts me much more than what happens in Russia is the opportunism of our politicians, the depravity of some of our corporations, the ability of countries like Germany and Italy to put their economic interests over basic human rights – other countries as well but particularly leaders like Berlosconi and Schroder who sold out their own people to take positions or do deals with the Russian government.

I’ve met many of the people who opposed him and are no longer with us so my views of him are coloured by my memories of Kolokovsky and Marcello.

Should businesses not be doing business in Russia ?

Well in a world focused on massive investigation for corruption – British bribery act and American FCPA, the new Canadian legislation – it is incredibly dangerous for Canadian companies.

It is almost impossible now to do business in Russia without engaging with corruption and if you are going to try to take a principled stance like IKEA – you need to be very well advised.

What is corporate foreign policy?

Essentially understanding that this idea that corporations should be neutral if they are engaged in work in autocratic states just simply doesn’t work anymore – we have new principles adopted by the UN called the Ruggie guidelines and these guidelines make it very clear that it is incumbent upon corporations to protect and respect human rights in countries in which they are acting.

There has been a tectonic shift.

I think it will change the way corporations act.

I work in Africa and Asia and corporations often get into serious problems in these countries because their lawyers here hire lawyers there that look and act like we do and they don’t really understand the countries they are in and get in to tremendous problems because if you back an autocrat and that autocrat is overthrown then you have a Libyan situation and as the Chinese have found you can lose a lot of assets very quickly.

Businesses unwittingly get into problems thinking they don’t have to conform.

I am a business lawyer and have spent a lot of time advising corporates on this issue.

I gave a speech last week about this.

The first thing you should do if you are going into Russia is hire an old Russian criminal lawyer and make sure he DOESN’T speak English. Stop looking for someone who you can talk to easily. What you need to do is hire people who know that system. Hire people that can give you a call before your client gets arrested – that’s the kind of information you need.

Corporations can be and often are promoters of human rights simply by demanding rule of law in countries.

I have been heavily involved in acting for a Canadian company in Venezuela – it heroically decided to fight it out with Chavez. I had to walk into the Venezuelan supreme court as I couldn’t find anyone willing to take it on.

Another case in Guatemala – a heroic Canadian who had taken on entire Guatemalan establishment – seeing his belief in due process and Christian values – I think he did a tremendous job in breaking up oligarchy in Guatemala.

There are many businesses and business people who are heroes and unfortunately human rights groups have gone far upside in firing salvo after salvo at the business community and violating some of our most important principles attempting to attack groups by class but rather to understand how these groups really operate.

NGO and businesses need dialogue and not just to shut off because of the genesis of the individual you speak to.

If you do business in a place where government is questionable you are walking into something that could leave you in position – because taking no side is taking a side?

Absolutely – there is no such thing as neutrality. When you invest in countries like Uzbekistan where the leader has burned and boiled opponents alive.

In Venezuela – reputable former banker – a brave individual who was illegally jailed by Chavez and put in a dungeon and working with a group of Venezuelan lawyers and another Canadian lawyer – Peter Sahlas – brilliant guy – helped us get to UN working group on arbitrary detention. We got an order to free him and my Venezuelen Colleagues got him freed and essentially the judge in minutes was arrested by Chavez and is still in jail – judge Afuni. Sedenyo knew there was literally a bounty on his life.

He climbed a high mountain – he jumped off with a hang glider – he made it to an island, got a fisherman to take him to Curazao where we had a plane waiting and got him to the US and then he could seek asylum. It was an amazing case to be part of.

He knew if he turned himself in he would have been killed. The violence was almost as bad as Baghdad in its worst days.

You’ve been as critical of Venezuelan President as you have been of Putin?

I disagree – I am able to say that for all of his terrible faults – he has done something to include in Venezuelan society – at least in first years – some aspects in society that had never been dealt with before. But after the coup he changed – he may have had a breakdown and is essentially now not the same person. Today he runs an incredibly autocratic machine that has nothing to do with democracy or due process.

Henrique Radonski Capriles – is an individual who is now nominated – someone who has strong democratic legacy.

Other countries – The Red shirts – in Thailand  – what were you hired to do?

Initially hired to negotiate the surrender of tens of thousands of red shirts who were taken over the centre of Bangkok. I went there as Thaksin Shinawatra’s lawyer. It was incredibly eye opening. Red shirts were fighting a real battle to get back the democracy of Thailand. As the government that had been there was established from a coup.

I realized having broken in to the encampment which was illegal to go in to. Trying to negotiate that the government of that day under man called Abasit was not intent on negotiating – but were intent on murder and in fact within a day of my departing the encampment there was a slaughter. Dozens were killed by Abasit and we brought – attempted to bring – Abasit to the International Criminal Court, even though Thailand is not a member of that court. We found that Abasit was a dual citizen of the UK – we wrote a 300 page complaint can downloaded from our website.

We had informers from the military and could access plans that the government had to murder Red Shirt leaders.

You are hired by powerful people – wealthy people.  Not your classic underdogs but they are underdogs?

That’s absolutely right. The thing with representing many politically involved people; you have to look past the black campaigns that governments launch.

One of the incredibly important things to understand is how powerful governments are when they indict someone or charge someone there is such a presumption of guilt when someone is charged that we have in this country let alone in countries like Thailand that we rarely take the time to study the situation and that’s what I tell people – in the Thaksin Shinawatra case – he’s often written up in western press as having been convicted of certain levels of corruption but those trials were held in front of courts where people who were specifically enemies of Thaksin Shinawatra were there to judge him guilty. There was no possibility of due process. No one mentions that he took 25% of the Thai population out of poverty and that he gave Thailand universal healthcare and that’s why people in Thailand have been willing to lay down their lives to try to bring him back and to try to being democracy back.

Why do you do it?

Well I found it meaningful. We all have a limited time on this earth and we might as well do things that matter. I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to do things that matter and to have lived in a country like Canada and to have worked with tremendous lawyers who were my mentors – one of them Gene Macfarlane – some others who I managed to work under. They were tremendous pillars of ethics, values and principles. I believe Canada has a legal system – the best in the world and it was a blessing to share time with those people and when you are working in emerging markets in countries that are difficult, you try to do your best to allow others to share those kinds of benefit.

Was there a moment when you realized those kind of people who look like they can take care of themselves – they needed the kind of legal help you can provide?

I don’t think there is anything new about any of this and many lawyers do this kind of work. I think its just that certainly in my case, it was having the privilege of working for certain people. This mixture of legal work and political advocacy really came to the forefront with Guatemala.

What’s next?

We’ve just been retained in a major matter in Africa. We finished a trial – we did a case in Kenya last year against the UN because they had fired/brutally treated one of the heads of OCHA – an emergency organization in Zimbabwe and we keep active in many fronts.

We have also been hired by one of the leaders of Nigeria – a governor there – Godswill Akpabio. A gifted leader – I call him the Jack Kennedy of Nigeria. I’ve been involved with Nigeria almost all my life. I am a huge Nigeria booster – there are very few of us around. I feel that Nigeria has a terrific future – all of us who are in countries like Canada need to spend time and invest and work in countries like Nigeria and assist our brothers and sisters in Syria who are being murdered wildly every moment as we speak here today.