Exclusive Interview with Jamison Firestone: “I would be a fool not to leave”

firestone021810.jpgOver the years on this blog we have dedicated considerable coverage to what we perceive as a war against lawyers occurring in Russia, ranging from Boris Kuznetsov, to the jailing of Svetlana Bakhmina, the medical blackmail of Vasily Aleksanyan, the shooting of Stanislav Markelov (who used to be a guest contributor here), the murder by torture of Sergei Magnitsky, and several other instances.

The most recent individual to be featured in the news as he was forced to flee the country for his own safety is 44-year-old Jamison Firestone, a founding partner of Firestone Duncan, a law firm active in Russia since 1991.  Firestone Duncan was the law firm where Sergei Magnitsky had been employed prior to his arrest, torture, and death in prison as related to the multi-million dollar fraud thefts against their clients. So although the murder of Magnitsky seized the world’s attention and outraged many Russian citizens, Firestone’s requests for justice went unanswered, and after publishing numerous materials alleging those responsible for these thefts and acts of violence, the machinery of the corrupt police turned against him, stealing the corporate charters and stamps, and seeking to get another unprecedented tax rebate in the name of a company he directs – the same methodology used against Hermitage.

I had the opportunity to catch up with Mr. Firestone by telephone today for a quick interview.  What follows is a rough transcript of our conversation.

Robert Amsterdam: Do you plan to return to Russia in the future, or are you considering a permanent relocation to London following this serious attack against your law practice?

Jamison Firestone:  It had become apparent five months ago when nothing was done, and even more so when a second, more serious attempt was made to steal $21 million from the state budget and using my name to do it, that I would be a fool to sit in Russia any longer when the police could show up at my door and arrest me. I think the police are behind this, and I want to resolve this issue for safety, and then go back to my practice.

RA: Medvedev has ordered mass firings of prison officials and other gestures, yet you are literally back in the same position as before the death of Magnitsky. What are we to take away from this in terms of the position of the Kremlin on these issues?

JF: Well I can’t tell you what’s going on inside the Kremlin, but I can talk about what’s going on inside the Prosecutor General’s Office. I can specifically confirm that there are individuals within the Prosecutor General’s Office, such as Andrei Pechegin, who have obstructed the investigations into the Hermitage cases and the Magnitsky case and the attacks against me at every single turn. I think that Medvedev has a genuine interest in at least Magnitsky’s death, but any real attempt to investigate the MVD officers who were behind the theft of Hermitage companies and the theft of state budget, as well as those responsible for the arrest, torture, and eventual killing of Magnitsky has been completely obstructed. So what Medvedev did is fire a bunch of prison officials are tangentially responsible for the welfare of all prisoners, but he completely missed the MVD officers who had orchestrated all of this.

RA: And why is that?

JF:  From what I can see right now is that there is a gentlemen in the Prosecutor General’s Office who is making it impossible to investigate this case. Pechegin is responsible for determining what cases are investigated and who investigates them, and what he has done in effect is that whenever somebody complains about Magnitsky, and asks them to re-investigate and look into the details of the case based on the totality of the situation, the complaints are divided.

For example, the fact that the arresting officers who took the Hermitage materials that were used to commit a crime were holding those materials at the time the crime was committed; the fact that suspect whom the officers caught for committing the crime had previously been accused of kidnapping people along with the same officer; the fact that when Magnitsky testified against the same officers, a direct subordinate of that person arrested him; the fact that an attempt was made against the company I manage to steal money in the exact same way which had been perpetrated against Hermitage – if you take any of these single instances separately you might miss the big picture, but taken all together, it’s clear who’s involved and what’s going on.

And so Mr. Pechegin has consistently not allowed any new investigations into the Magnitsky matter, and consistently made sure that the Prosecutor General’s Office never investigates these cases together, but rather sends them piecemeal all around Moscow to all these different investigatory bodies where they can’t see the whole picture, so the cases basically die.  That’s what’s going on right now, and that’s why I left: the organization that is supposed to be protecting me, the Prosecutor General’s Office, is dysfunctional, or perhaps I should say crippled internally right now. And if it can’t protect me right now, and if it can’t protect the Russian state budget from another theft of $21 million, which is what is in process right now, then I would be a fool to just sit there because they also failed to protect Magnitsky, who was arrested and then killed.

RA: While you are identifying this one individual, in fairness, isn’t this situation systemic? If you weren’t Firestone, but rather a regular Russian businessman, isn’t the bottom line that you would still be in a similar situation across the board, that this is daily life for business in Moscow?

JF:  Yes, you are right about that, and in fact I will share something else. What is really crazy here is that while nobody cared about the $230 million theft from the budget, the only real reason why anybody is listening to anything we say anymore is because the arrest of Magnitsky was so egregious, and the torture of Magnitsky was so egregious, that they [took notice]. Let me put it his way: people are arrested all the time by police, without trial, held, pressured, and some of them die. But what was unprecedented with Magnitsky was that here was a guy, a lawyer, who was documenting it every single step of the way. So for the first time we were able to see every single step, how the police abused their power and tortured somebody – so that’s the difference, but if you are asking if this happens all the time, yes, it happens all the time.

RA:  From the broader political perspective, how do you see these enormous problems of rule of law in terms of the U.S. decision to pursue the “reset” policy? From your perspective and harrowing experience in Russian business, do you believe that this focus on resetting relations while the rule of law languishes beneath the surface, makes sense?

JF:  I think that the U.S. has to juggle a lot of different things, such as cooperating on terrorism, cooperating on nuclear disarmament, and human trafficking or whatever, so rule of law often gets left out. The problem with rule of law in Russia is that it is so broken down, that it’s not even clear to anybody that there is such a thing as the Russian state anymore, it seems that there are a bunch of fiefdoms that constantly fight, and one wonders whether those fiefdoms can really control anything.

I mean, you make a deal with one fiefdom over drug trafficking, and then there is someone else in the Russian government who is making all their money off of drug trafficking, or you make a deal on nuclear proliferation with one group but that doesn’t mean that there are others in the state who are interested in making money by selling uranium to North Korea or Iran. So really rule of law is critical to making that reset effort work, but I don’t know if you can make it contingent upon that. You can ‘reset’ the relations but you aren’t going to achieve anything real, because rule of law is so out of control, that even if you agreed on something I don’t think that the Kremlin can control it anymore.

RA: President Medvedev has certainly made a lot of speeches and comments about addressing reform, corruption, and legal nihilism concerns. Is it all hot air, or do you actually see him doing something?

JF: Look, I think that Medvedev actually wants to do what he says, but I also think that he is hemmed in. Nobody really knows how much power he really has, and even if he is fully in control of the situation, the system is so out of control – everybody is dirty, everybody has got something on everybody. I think that as a human being and as a lawyer he is outraged by what happened to Magnitsky, how could he not be? He says he wants to fight corruption, well sure that’s great. But on the other hand if you really fight corruption and you make the courts independent and make the legal system work, then the Kremlin can’t call down and say ‘hey, we need this one result‘ in this or that case, and that’s a hard power to give up. It’s got to be one way or the other – you can’t have it both ways.

RA:  Before Magnitsky’s death, just how hard was it to operate your law firm in Russia in the face of such deep corruption?

JF:  It’s funny you know, but being a lawyer in Russia you have to be one part lawyer, one part PR, and one part lobbyist, and in a sense, our job has been that when we get a case where you are running into corruption, you have to make the public and the authorities aware of it to the point where the corruption has to stop because it has been brought into broad daylight. And we had been pretty successful at that, but we had never hit anything of this size. I mean, these people stole $230 million when the hijacked the Hermitage companies, and they stole $200 million before that when they stole the other companies – and we’re talking half a billion dollars, so when you have people who are that connected and that powerful, it’s just a whole other level – law doesn’t have much to do with it.

RA: Do you believe that the recipients of this money are in the Kremlin?

JF:  I don’t know … I can’t really say … I personally would like to believe no, that I don’t know who the ultimate recipients of the money are. I know that the police officers involved were reported to have received $6 million and that can be measured by the way that they live beyond the means of their salaries, but I really can’t tell you how high this goes. I certainly hope that it doesn’t go that high, but I don’t know.

RA: How do you think your case and others like it inform upon the future of Russian business?

JF:  Well, for one, the problem with Russia is that it is a relatively easy place to make money. What is hard to do is to hold onto whatever is making the money, because the way that the police work there, and the way that the criminals work there – and they are basically the same – is that you have got to invest all the money and all the time to get the investment working, and then the criminals come and steal it. They have got a 100% rate of return with zero risk – they don’t have to invest anything, and just steal what is already working. So people continue to come into Russia and invest, but people aren’t always going to be that stupid. We hear more and more people saying, “Well gee, maybe I don’t need that hassle. I can get a similar rate of return somewhere else and I don’t have to worry about somebody killing me.”

So I think that sooner or later the government isn’t going to be able to keep putting on the happy face and sweeping it under the rug – they’ve got to eventually address rule of law because investors want some stability. They have got to know that if they build it, they can keep it. So I think that a lot depends on that.

RA:  What do you think has made such a situation possible?

What we are dealing with in this particular case is an example of just how impossible it is to protect your own rights even when everything is absolutely clear. This struck me when I wrote a little letter to the editor of Vedomosti the other day, and I reread it, and you can slap yourself on the head: everybody can see this, why isn’t anything getting done? And that’s the crazy thing about Russia. I am a lawyer with almost 20 years of experience, sat on the board of the American Chamber of Commerce for six years, and they can do this to me in broad daylight. Here I am with the U.S. Embassy behind me, with the American Chamber of Commerce behind me, and with the force of law behind me, and in the spotlight because of Magnitsky’s death, and not sure if I can defend myself, and that’s how badly the system is broken. And if I can’t defend myself, who can?

There has to be a point in which Russians see that law is not a joke, when they can clearly see how someone is clearly abusing the systems. Judges will have to decide that no matter how many stamped documents or notarized signatures somebody is bringing before their court, that these people are clearly using the legal system to steal and that they should be rejected and sent out of the courtroom. If people actually start practicing law instead of just going through the motions, we’ll have a much better system in Russia.

RA: Do you believe there is a war on lawyers in Russia?

JF:  As far as protecting lawyers, it’s open hunting season on us right now. It used to be that when you wanted something in Russia, you grabbed the guy who owned it and put him in a terrible position, giving him the choice of freedom for handing over the assets, and he’d usually hand over the assets. Now it has expanded to the legal team. So now they grab the lawyers and say, “alright, we need some bad stuff on your client,” and the lawyer may say “I don’t have any bad stuff on them” or “I have it but I can’t give it to you.” So then they throw you in prison, and tell you that you have to make up some bad stuff, and until you do, you aren’t going to see your family, that you are going to live very badly, and then you are going to die. So it’s an expanding nastiness, and that has to stop.

Lawyers are becoming more than just hostages. In the rest of the world, lawyers cannot be questioned about their clients. In the Russian way of doing things, lawyers should make good witnesses. I know it sounds completely crazy, but if the lawyer says that this is a bad guy, they think “whoa, what a great case.” So they think let’s grab lawyers, let’s get them to say bad things about their clients, and give them the choice between freedom or imprisonment and possibly death.

So despite how often we jokes about lawyers, the amazing thing about them in Russia is that so many of them are in prison or they have fled the country, and that’s because they are heroes. That’s because they made the choice to say no – you can put me in prison and destroy my life, but I am not going to play your dirty game. That’s what Magnitsky did, and it cost him his life.