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Biden Does Putin’s Dirty Work in Guatemala – Mary Anastasia O’Grady/WSJ

  • The U.S. is protecting former prosecutors who illegally jailed Kremlin targets.
President Joe Biden boarding Air Force One at Dover Air Force Base, Del., June 19. Photo: Susan Walsh/Associated Press
President Joe Biden boarding Air Force One at Dover Air Force Base, Del., June 19. Photo: Susan Walsh/Associated Press

By Mary Anastasia O’Grady

After Vladimir Putin sent henchmen to Guatemala a decade ago to have a Russian businessman and his family jailed, hedge-fund manager William Browder helped expose the Kremlin’s malfeasance.

Mr. Browder’s April 2018 testimony before the Helsinki Commission in Washington outlined how Igor Bitkov and his wife, Irina, were victims of attempted extortion by Mr. Putin and had fled Russia with their daughter, Anastasia. Mr. Browder said that when he learned what happened to the Bitkovs in Guatemala, he recognized Mr. Putin’s trademark vengeance, which he had experienced as a successful investor in Russia.

More than eight years after the Bitkovs’ arrest, the fraudulent case against them has fallen apart. The family is out of prison. But they are still under domestic detention and remain tied up in the byzantine Guatemalan legal system. Worse, their Guatemalan tormentors, who took up Team Putin’s request to prosecute them as criminals, have a chance at a comeback if presidential candidate Bernardo Arévalo wins the Aug. 20 runoff election against populist Sandra Torres.

The Biden administration is enthusiastic about Mr. Arévalo and his coterie of social-justice warriors. The official talking point is that an Arévalo presidency would fight corruption and champion democracy. This is ideology trumping real life.

Forget about the forged signatures and identities of dead people that Mr. Arévalo’s party, Semilla, was found to have used to register with the electoral body. Or that Semilla counts some slimy business elites as supporters. The campaign is flush with political figures who endorsed, and still endorse, the state terror used against the Bitkovs and many innocent Guatemalans.

Guatemala brought CICIG—the U.N.’s International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala—into the country in 2007 to help local judicial authorities dismantle clandestine security groups. But when Colombian leftist Iván Velásquez got the job of CICIG commissioner in 2013, he recognized the body’s absolute power and weaponized it for political purposes.

Mr. Velásquez’s fellow travelers in Guatemala applauded the denial of due process and ugly police-state tactics as necessary steps toward fighting corruption. Suspects were dragged from their homes, held for days in cages to ensure plenty of public ridicule, and imprisoned for years without a conviction. U.S. Ambassador Todd Robinson, an activist foreign-service officer, was often photographed with the inquisitors: Mr. Velásquez, Attorney General Thelma Aldana and special prosecutor Juan Francisco Sandoval.

But “justice” was selective. When Oxfam International Chairman Juan Alberto Fuentes Knight, a former Guatemalan finance minister, was arrested on corruption allegations in 2018, he was released in less than a month on $66,000 bail.

CICIG’s mandate expired in 2019—and Mr. Velásquez is now defense minister in the Colombian government of former M-19 terrorist Gustavo Petro.

When Ms. Aldana lost CICIG protection, she fled to the U.S. Mr. Sandoval soon followed. The new attorney general, Consuelo Porras, received scores of criminal complaints against the two and launched lawful investigations. Her office has since put out arrest warrants for both former officials, and Guatemala has requested their extradition from the U.S.

The Biden administration refuses to extradite them, and the attorney general’s office says that asking for a reason is “like talking to a wall.” Meantime, the U.S. accuses Ms. Porras of corruption—without evidence. Her visa has been revoked. Nevertheless, the by-the-book Guatemalan prosecutor continues to comply with Washington’s extradition requests. The Justice Department says Ms. Porras’s office has been instrumental in its fight against transnational criminal organizations.

Ms. Aldana and Mr. Sandoval, co-conspirators in the effort to ruin the Bitkov family, are icons of the Arévalo campaign’s anticorruption narrative. But their obsession to destroy the family has never been explained.

As Mr. Browder testified in 2018, a Putin surrogate from Russian state-owned VTB Bank went to Guatemala and tried, without proof, to frame the family for fraud. The charge couldn’t be sustained, so the Kremlin rep persuaded CICIG and local prosecutors to “go after” the Bitkovs for migration violations.

The family had picked up their papers at the migration office in Guatemala, which had led them to believe they were legal. But the Bitkovs had been defrauded by human traffickers inside the migration office. Under international law this made them victims. But Ms. Aldana and Mr. Sandoval refused to grant the protection they were due and instead convicted them as part of the trafficking network. The law firm that duped them was never investigated. Ms. Aldana recruited the migration official who signed Anastasia’s fraudulent papers.

The Bitkovs got the CICIG “cage” treatment for public consumption, and Igor and Irina’s 3-year-old Guatemalan-born son was thrown into an orphanage. Anastasia was a minor at the time of the document issuance, but all three received prison sentences of 14 years or more.

Joe Biden says he’s taking on Mr. Putin. But don’t ask him to choose between the truth about CICIG and his dream of more socialism for Latin America.

Write to O’Grady@wsj.com.

____________________________________________

Mary Anastasia O’Grady is an Opinion Columnist, writes “The Americas,” a weekly column on politics, economics and business in Latin America and Canada that appears every Monday in the Journal. Ms. O’Grady joined the paper in August 1995 and became a senior editorial page writer in December 1999. She was appointed an editorial board member in November 2005. She is also a member of the board of directors of the Indianapolis­-based Liberty Fund. Energiesnet.com does not necessarily share these views.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally on the WSJ in the August 13, 2023, print edition as ‘That’s Smoke, Not Climate Change’. All comments posted and published on EnergiesNet or Petroleumworld, do not reflect either for or against the opinion expressed in the comment as an endorsement of EnergiesNet or Petroleumworld.

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