By Giorgi Chaduneli
Editor’s note: iFact.ge is publishing this story and documents so readers can see an example of the often misunderstood process of extradition between countries.
Exactly at 5 pm on February 18, Judge Miranda Eremadze took her seat on the bench in Tbilisi Appeals Court. A Russian citizen had already taken his seat alongside a public defender. A representative of the Migration Department of the Georgia Ministry of Internal Affairs was present. Everyone waited for a translator.
The translator was for Aleksey Likhachov, who seeks refugee status in Georgia. He ran away from 7 years of imprisonment in a strict regime prison in Russian Federation, 20 million rubles (800,000 GEL, $US 300,000) fine, and a three-year ban on working as an attorney. The charge was attempted bribery.
But he was unable to stay out of prison outside Russia. The 63-year-old man has been living in Georgia for almost two and a half years. Nine months were spent in Gldani Prison in Tbilisi.
Ministry of Internal Affairs officers detained Lichchachov, who was wanted by Interpol, on January 4, 2018 in Batumi. The local court sentenced him to three-month extradition imprisonment.
On April 4, 2018, Likhachov challenged a decision by the Migration Department of the Georgia Ministry of Internal Affairs not to grant him refugee status. He failed in city court and then in November 2018 he filed an appeal at Tbilisi Appeal Court.
IFact,ge learned about Aleksei Likhachov when he was in Gldani Prison. While working on another story, one of our subjects spoke about a Russian citizen with whom he shared the same prison cell for awhile: “He has some problem. Maybe it will be interesting for you. Just write him a letter.”
We reached Likhachov in the prison by Georgia Post. No prison interview was ever arranged, but at the beginning of October 2018, Lickhavov called and said he was free. He agreed to interviews and sharing his legal documents from both Russia and Georgia.
On January 29, 2018, Russian Deputy Prosecutor General Saak Karapetian sent a letter to Georgia Deputy of Chief Prosecutor Giorgi Gogadze asking for the extradition of Likhachov. Karapetyan wrote that the demand is not intended to persecute a person on political, racial, national, religious or other grounds.
Along with the letter are 112 pages describing Likhachov’s crime, his court decisions, witness testimonies and transcripts of recordings made by law enforcers.
According to the Russian legal papers, on August 13, 2015, Sochi Central District Court judge Nikolai P. Vashenko was hearing a case of financial crimes allegedly committed by Elena B. Rudenko. Vashenko threatened several times to put Rudenko in jail for disrupting the courtroom.
Two days later, Likhachov became involved in the case: “She (Rudenko) had her own lawyer, who refused to defend her. I do not know the reason. So Rudenko asked someone else to find her an attorney.”
Likhachov has worked as a lawyer in Sochi for over 30 years. Both he and Rudenko, who worked in real estate, knew Judge Vashenko.
“I was asked by another judge to approach Judge Vashenko, who was hearing Rudenko’s criminal case, and help defend her,” Likhachov said.
“When I met Rudenko, she told me she had a hearing the next day. I asked for time to get to know the materials, but it was refused. So the violations started from the very beginning.
“Yes, she was guilty. I listened to the witnesses, who accused her of taking millions to register a land plot, or a house — there were several.”
On August 15, 2015, the accused told Likhachov that during a meeting in Vashenko’s chambers, the judge demanded a 10 million ruble bribe ($US150,000) bribe to give her a sentence of only probation instead of any prison time. Rudenko asked Likhachov to tell the judge that she denied the charges against her — and was unable to collect so much money.
On August 28, Likhachov informed Rudenko in front of the Sochi Central District Court building that after negotiations with Judge Vashenko in office N20 of that same building, the bribe was reduced to 2 million rubles. ($US30,000). That is how Likhachov became part of the process that would eventually lead him to prison in Tbilisi.
“Before my involvement, Rudenko’s case had been underway for a couple months. It turned out that Rudenko and Judge Vashenko knew each other for 15 years, and their families were friends,” Likhachov said.
“The first amount of 20 million rubles was discussed without me.”
During a September 2 hearing, the judge again threatened to jail Rudenko. On the same day, Likachov met Judge Vashenko again. The judge confirmed the sentence would only be probation in return for the 2 million ruble bribe. The judge suggested Likhachov to be a middle man. Likhachov agreed and told his client.
She asked for three weeks to collect the money. Likhachov went back into the court building and told Judge Vashenko, who said the money should be delivered on September 24.
Two more court hearings were postponed. In the meantime, Rudenko met privately with the judge and agreed on a new time and place. The judge demanded that Likhachov bring the money.
Why did these two people who knew each other 15 years need Likachov to do this?
“I do not know. Maybe they thought it was somehow safer with a middle man,” Likhachov said.
But after all details were agreed, on September 29 the defendant went to the Krasnodar regional department of the Federal Security Service and told them about the bribery plan. Likhaсhov says he still doesn’t know why she did that.
After this, wiretaps were put on telephone conversations between Rudenko, Vashenko and Likhachov. So law enforcement knew the judge should receive money from the lawyer on October 6.
In the Russian prosecutor’s documents, it is reported that Rudenko and Likhachov agreed to meet near the Derevnia Cafe located on Chernomorskaya Street. Before the meeting, Special Services officers gave Rudenko 1,250,000 rubles — plus another 750,000 rubles that were marked banknotes.
According to the documents, “Rudenko arrived in a Mitsubishi Outlander and met Likhachov, who sat down in the front seat. While getting out of the car, Likhachov was arrested by Federal Security Service officers. He had a plastic bag in his hands. When asked what was in the bag, Likhachov answered that it was cash, which he was given by Rudenko to pass to Judge Vashenko.”
In an interview with iFact.ge, Likhachov said he was not planning to meet Rudenko that day.
“I had a case in another court. Rudenko called me just 30 minutes before. She told me she had all the money, but there was car crash and she needed my help.
“It was possible the judge would not take money from her because it had been decided everything should go through me.
“Why did I go? Well, she was my client, and my acquaintance. I was defending her for several months. The hearings were postponed at her own request, because she needed time to collect money.
“When I was arrested … I guess any ordinary person is confused in that situation. Then there was frustration. I was defending her for free because the judge asked me. The judge and I were friends for a long time. What kind of relations Rudenko and the judge had, I can only guess.”
After he was taken to the police department, Likhachov gave written consent to participate in a second police operation. He was given marked ruble banknotes, called Judge Vashenko, and informed him he had received money from Rudenko. They agreed on a time and place. On the way, the lawyer managed to send an SMS to the judge warning him to leave the meeting place. But since Likhachov’s phone was tapped, that SMS message also went to FSB officers.
The Escape and Russia Verdict
Likhachov told this story to the Tbilisi Appeals Court judge. He suggested reasons why law enforcement was angry, and its possible impact on his harsh sentence in Sochi.
“Their grand plan failed. A lawyer and judge have special status, according to the law. In order to get permission to wire them, you need to follow many procedures: Sochi FSB must ask Krasnodar FSB, then Moscow, then the Supreme Court — all the way up the chain.
“My SMS ruined all that. But I think I prevented another crime. I warned the man. This is my belief — I did not commit a crime by warning him. I prevented another crime.”
Rudenko eventually received a four-year sentence from another judge. “From prison, Rudenko was on a conference call about my case, and she said that I was not supposed to bring the money,” Likhachov said. “That was not the plan. But the FSB operatives said there is a possibility Judge Vashenko would not have taken money, because everything was done through a lawyer, and is how I got in this trap.”
Judge Vashenko was never charged in the case. He died in April of 2016 at the age of 57. The cause of death was listed as “long-term illness”.
Likhachov says Rudenko received a four-year sentence even though the minimum sentence should have been six years. He says she is now out of prison.
Lichachov’s court case lasted for several months and concluded on September 9, 2016. The Sochi Court found him guilty of attempted bribery. On January 9, 2017, he was sentenced in absentia to seven years imprisonment in a strict regime jail, a fine of 20 million rubles, and a three-year ban on his work as an attorney.
His Russian lawyer Vitalyi G. Anisimov appealed: “The crime was the result of provocations by Rudenko. The bribe was initiated by her and she informed law enforcement about her intentions. The goal of officers was to convict the judge,” states the appeal. Likhachov’s lawyer also questioned the legitimacy of the operation and investigative procedures.
“No changes were made,” Likhachov said. “The appeal court did not even pay attention to violations mentioned in the appeal. The verdict was simply rewritten word-for-word.” By that time, he had already left Russia for Georgia.
“The judge was ready to announce the sentence. I had the right to say my last words. I asked for time to prepare it. The sentencing was postponed for three days.“
“I felt sick and went to a hospital. A doctor said I should stay. But I went home.
“I began thinking about prison. I decided to leave. I took my car and drove to Georgia through Vladikavkaz.” He arrived on September 10, 2016.
Likhachov was declared wanted in Russia. On February 16, 2017, he was place on the Interpol watch list.
According to its website, Interpol is the world’s largest international police organization, with 194 member countries: “Its role is to enable police around the world to work together to make the world a safer place. Our high-tech infrastructure of technical and operational support helps meet the growing challenges of fighting crime in the 21st century.”
Meanwhile, Likhachov was trying to build a life in Georgia.
“I requested citizenship. I was refused.” He then went to the Migration Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and asked for asylum. He knew he was on the Interpol list when he saw a story about himself on Russian TV.
He tried to start a business. “I rented an office in Tbilisi, bought equipment and furniture, and hired people. I was starting an auto loan business.”
He had been divorced in Russia. In Georgia he married another woman.
Likhachov’s plans in Georgia fell apart during New Year’s celebrations in 2018. He was in Batumi and admits he may have drunk one or two extra glasses of wine during a party being held in an apartment he was renting. His blood pressure rose and he dialed the 112-call center for medical or police emergencies.
“The emergency came, gave me an injection and some pills, and my blood pressure stabilized. So they left.”
He had given emergency personnel his identification. The next day, three policemen came:
“Are you Likhachov?”
“Yes, I am. “
“Do you know you are wanted by Interpol?”
— “I know. ”
— “Then start packing.”
Almost exactly one year after his verdict in Russia, Likhachov was sentenced by Batumi Court to a three-month extradition imprisonment.
Likhachov was transferred to Gldani Prison No. 8 in Tbilisi. The three-month term was extended for another three months and then another three months.
On September 21, he was released. As stated in his court documents: “Paragraph 4 of Article 30 of Georgian Law on International Cooperation, dated July 21, 2010. Extradition imprisonment term may be extended by three months, not more than twice.”
The Tbilisi City Court began considering his application for refugee status on April 4, 2018.
“An asylum seeker, when he is registered, cannot be transferred to another country. This has stopped his extradition to the Russian Federation,” explained Tea Kavtaradze, his Georgian lawyer.
On November 12, 2018, Likhachov filed his appeal with Tbilisi Appeals Court, because he was denied refugee status by Tbilisi city court.
On February 18, 2019, Judge Miranda Eremadze had to issue a verdict, which is not subject to appeal.
According to Likhachov’s lawyer, he requested asylum in Georgia “on the basis that, in case of extradition, he will end up in one of Russia’s strictest prisons, which are mentioned in reports of several international organizations. Consequently, we believe that he may be subjected to degrading and inhuman treatment there. We believe there are the ground for granting him the status of refugee.”
The hearing was over in just 34 minutes. The Russian citizen was refused refugee status.
According to his attorney, Likhachov can try again: “If there are new circumstance, he can go to the MIA’s Department of Migration, present the new circumstances and relevant evidence, and they will review the issue again. Will they take it into consideration or not? Hard to tell.”
Likhachov will apply again. He says the “new circumstances” are that a Sochi prosecutor is pressuring his ex-wife for money.
He is busy collecting new documents.