OCCRP Weekly News Round Up

OCCRP is brings you its weekly installment of all things happening this week on ‘The Bloc’ –Russia tells the UK, to be more transparent, two Ukrainians find unorthodox ways to plea for release from jail, an anorexic mobster escapes from a hospital, and an Albanian minister may, or may not have been, caught on tape.

Medvedev: “The UK is corrupt, too”

British PM David Cameron this week made his first trip to the Moscow since relations with the Kremlin were strained in 2006 over the death of a former KGB spy-turned UK citizen Alexander Litvinenko.

Cameron, traveling with 24 businessmen in tow, hoped to spark more business ties, like a deal he made for Russia to accept British beef for the first time since the Mad Cow Disease scares of the 1990s. In one day he secured business deals worth over £215 million ($340 million).  Human rights watchdogs implored him not to ignore the still unresolved issue of Litvinenko’s death.  Cameron apparently wasn’t listening.

Prime Minister had in tow British Petroleum’s CEO Robert Dudley, who fled Russia in 2008 after five years running the company’s operations.  BP had been coming under increased scrutiny from the Russian government, including raids on their Moscow headquarters by Russian courts.

After the UK delegation’s visit, a Russian court ruled that bailiffs of the court were not allowed to search BP’s offices in Russia.

Anti-corruption organizations were urging Cameron to take a hard line with Medvedev to push for government transparency.  The PM made overtures about transparency, but business was his primary interest, saying both powers needed to agree to “end the old culture of tit-for-tat and find ways for us to work together to advance our mutual interests.”

The New York Times’ Alan Cowell wrote that the leader’s actions this week in the thaw signified “another kind of burial — political, diplomatic, pragmatic.”  $340 million, he argues, is “hardly a high price for the British offer to step around the central question: could a British citizen be murdered with impunity in Britain at the whim of hostile outsiders?” Cowell says the answer is, after this week’s proceedings, yes.

President Medvedev girded himself from UK criticism, saying that every country, including the United Kingdom, faces corruption.

“It is very difficult to deal with most states on our planet because corruption is a central element that exists everywhere,” he said at a joint press opportunity. “The open secret to you is that corruption exists in the UK as well – it doesn't mean we [are] not prepared to deal with the UK too.”

Medvedev also addressed UK frustration over Russia’s refusal to extradite Andrew Lugovoi, the man allegedly behind Litvinenko’s poisoning.

“'We have questions about how court decisions are come to in the UK but we are not raising these issues,” he said.

While corruption does exist in the UK, equating the two is something like saying Bangladesh and Switzerland both have poverty. The UK, of course, uses the time honored tradition of the West of legalizing much of its political corruption.  Afterall, not every company gets the Prime Minister to go to Russia to help them out.  Could  it be because BP is the largest company in the UK, leaving it a lot of cash to throw around for campaign contributions?

Two recent plane crashes in Russia have brought attention to the country’s corrupt system of regulators, which is costing human lives.  The media has looked at the boards that assess safety regulations.  The political appointees who man these boards often lack the technical expertise needed to do a good job and have often failed to pull dangerous planes.

Only 3 percent of Russians think President Medvedev has done anything to stem the tide of corruption, according to a poll conducted this week by a Russian polling agency.  Russians, however, have a paradoxical view of corruption or they don’t blame Medvedev for corruption because in the same poll, 73 percent of the respondents found no fault in Medvedev at all.


Ukrainians Behind Bars Employ Planes, Blood and Tents for PR

Vadim Vassilenko, a Ukrainian pilot accused of corruption for his alleged involvement in an identity theft ring, and a host of other charges, has been employing unconventional tactics to bring attention to the fact that he has not had a hearing since 2006.

On Monday, a pilot hired by Mr. Vassilenko’s mother flew a banner along the Hudson River that read, “My Son — V. Vassilenko — Jailed 67 Mo — No Trial — Is He Al Capone?” Mr. Vassilenko hired a pilot himself to fly a banner promoting his cause on Aug. 23.

Vassilenko told the New York Times that he had written a plea on his jail cell wall with his blood reading “Judge, be a man — dismiss the case. Where’s my constitutional rights?” (NYT said a Correction Department spokeswoman did not confirm this.)

The Ukrainian has also tried to draw attention to his cause through a personal blog, where he entreats readers to contact him.  “Justice delayed is justice denied,” he writes.

His attorney, the fourth person to represent him in this case, disagrees.  He says that although only a small percentage of cases take this long, it doesn’t mean it is improper.

Prosecutors accuse Mr. Vassilenko, his wife, and another person of masterminding a money-laundering group to launder more than $35 million in money stolen from credit card fraud.

Vassilenko is now just asking to be deported to Ukraine.

But not everyone is faring well in Ukrainian prison.  Yulia Tymoshenko, former Prime Minister and current opposition leader, is still in a pre-trial detention center, where she is undergoing trial for corruption charges that many in the West are deriding as a “show trial.”

The 50-year old is on trial for allegedly abusing her position in a natural gas deal that current president Viktor Yanukovich says damaged Ukrainian interests.

Tymoshenko’s daughter this week gave her first interview since the trial began to the Financial Times, in which she said the trial could have ramifications on Ukraine’s democracy:

“Our team will do everything possible to avoid a politically motivated conviction,” said the British-educated Ms Tymoshenko. But “a conviction would mean that she would be out of the political process and elections. That would mean the end of the strongest and the most popular opposition leader. [And] of course, her physical condition isn’t getting better.”

Activists supporting the jailed opposition leader have set up tents near Maidan square, the site of the 2004 Orange Revolution which swept Tymoshenko to power.  The government has been cracking down on activists, but many remain dedicated to camping out until their cause celebre is freed.

According to a poll released this week by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), over half of Ukrainians distrust their government.  The poll found 49 percent cited corruption as one of the country’s most pressing problems.


Anorexic Mafioso Escapes from Hospital

An Italian mob boss who had served almost three years of his 13 year sentence for organized criminal activity escaped Thursday from a hospital where he was being treated for anorexia.

Antonio Pelle, a member of the Calabrian based ‘Ndrangheta mafia syndicate, isliving proof that not all mobsters are fatcats with a taste for the fine food and wine—not to mention rich Italian foods.  Pelle walked out of the medical facility after staying there for five days, the Italian news agency ANSA reported.  They did not mention whether or not he brought his IV with him.

Pelle, known to his friends, enemies and frenemies as “Mamma,” was released from prison and put under house arrest in April after a court ruled that no prison had the capacity to care for an inmate who weighed under 50 kilograms, according to AKI.

Pelle, 48, was found guilty in October 2008 of being responsible for leading the ‘Ndrangheta-sponsored murder of six people in a pizzeria in Duisburg, Germany in 2007.  Pelle was not present at the murder; but then again it took place in a restaurant.

Albanian Official Caught on Tape…Or Not?

After dismissing testimony from British and American media experts, Albania’s Supreme Court has nominated three local audio/video experts to determine whether or not a video of former Deputy Prime Minister Ilir Meta was doctored.

The video in question shows –or doesn’t show—Meta asking another minister to intervene in a government tender, mentioning a potential €700,000 bribe from a businessman.  When the video was recorded, Meta was serving as both deputy prime minister and foreign minister.

According to Balkan Insight, the official is also heard on the tape boasting about having influenced another Supreme Court Case.

Albanians are notorious for liking America—they even erected a statue of the universally-loathed George Bush this year—yet American experts were not good enough for the court. The court stated their findings that the tape was authentic was inadmissible in court.

This weekly news  roundup brought to you by Valerie Hopkins.