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Russian doping lab whistleblower accused of being recruited in Canada to spy

A deeper dive into the day's most notable stories with The National newsletter's Jonathon Gatehouse.

Newsletter: A deeper dive into the day's most notable stories

At Russia's national drug-testing laboratory, former director Grigory Rodchenkov conducted pioneering research into steroids at the same time as he says he was giving Russian athletes a 'cocktail' of banned substances. (Pavel Golovkin/The Associated Press)

Welcome to The National Today newsletter, which takes a closer look at what's happening around some of the day's most notable stories. Sign up here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox Monday to Friday.


  • Russian Olympic official says Grigory Rodchenkov, the whistle-blowing former head of Moscow's anti-doping lab, was a spy recruited in Canada
  • Questions continue to swirl around the weekend death of Kavous Seyed-Emami, an Iranian-Canadian academic, in a notorious Tehran prison
  • Police investigation has determined there is "sufficient evidence" to charge Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in two separate bribery cases

A Canadian-based 'conspiracy'

Top Russian Olympic officials have found a new scapegoat in their attempts to explain away a state-sponsored cheating program.

Grigory Rodchenkov, the whistle-blowing former head of Moscow's anti-doping laboratory, was a spy recruited and trained in Canada, says the president of Russia's Cross-Country Skiing Federation.

Grigory Rodchenkov, seen in this 2007 photo, was head of Russia's anti-doping lab in Moscow. He's now in witness protection in the U.S. (EPA/Reuters)
Yelena Valbe made the allegation Tuesday in an interview with the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda.

Much of her time during the interview was spent trying to paint the 59-year-old doctor — who is now living in the United States under witness protection — as unhinged and untrustworthy.

"I have known Grigory for many years. He is mentally unhealthy," said Valbe. "The fact that he tried to commit suicide and stabbed himself with a knife speaks a lot about his mental capacity."

Yelena Valbe, right, at the medal ceremony for the 15 kilometre cross country ski event at the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, is now president of Russia's Cross-Country Skiing Federation. Valbe says she thinks Rodchenkov was recruited as a spy when he worked in Canada. (Allsport UK/Getty Images)
The World Anti-Doping Authority kept him in place for a reason, she added, because he had been "compromised" by foreign agents.

"I think Rodchenkov was turned when he worked in Canada, as one person cannot mastermind such a plan. He allegedly kept diaries for many years," Valbe said.

An English language version of the interview, published by the state-run RT television network, says that Rodchenkov worked at a Calgary anti-doping lab for a year in the late 1990s. It appears to be the first such mention of an alleged Canadian connection in the doping scandal.

The Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, which manages Canada's anti-doping program, told CBC News it is looking into the report, but was unable to respond with a statement by press time.

In December, Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested that Rodchenkov was being influenced by the FBI, who have him in witness protection in the U.S. (Alexey Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images)
This is not the first occasion that Russia has claimed that Rodchenkov was under the influence of a foreign power.

At a late December press conference, Vladimir Putin suggested that American police and intelligence agencies might be behind the WADA reports.

"Is [Rodchenkov] an honest person? He is also under the control of the FBI, protected by the FBI. Everything is laid out in his diaries - how do you know he is honest? He says himself that money is the main thing," the Russian president said.  

"Being under the control of the FBI is not necessarily an advantage, he works under their guidance. What are they doing to him over there? [We don't know] what substances they are providing him with, for him to say what they want [him to say]."

Employees at Russia's national drug-testing laboratory in Moscow in May 2016. Rodchenkov, the former director of Russia's anti-doping lab, has come under criminal investigation since fleeing the country in 2015. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press)
Rodchenkov has also come under criminal investigation since fleeing the country in 2015, and has been charged in absentia for trafficking in illegal substances.

Russian authorities have also issued an arrest warrant for "abuse of powers," and indicated that they would be seeking his extradition from the United States.

The Cross Country Federation's Valbe, a three-time Olympic gold winner, has emerged as one of Rodchenkov's most outspoken critics.

WADA's Oswald report, which was based on the doctor's testimony, identified a half-dozen of Valbe's athletes who benefitted from the doping and sample-swap conspiracy in Sochi.

Alexander Legkov won a silver and a gold. Maxim Vylegzhanin took home three silvers.

Follow all the Winter Games results and get a full broadcast schedule at CBC's online Olympic hub

The National can be found at its regular time on CBC News Network, as well as streamed on YouTube and Facebook, for the duration of the Games.

Iran's deadly fixation on 'foreign spies'

Questions continue to swirl around the death of an Iranian-Canadian academic in a notorious Tehran prison this past weekend.

Kavous Seyed-Emami, a 63-year-old professor of sociology and an environmental activist, was taken into custody in late January and accused of espionage.

Kavous Seyed-Emami, an Iranian-Canadian professor, is seen in this undated photo. He died in prison in Iran on the weekend, after being arrested last month on suspicion of espionage. (CP/HO, Samid Lotfi, Center for Human Rights in Iran)
Iranian authorities claim he took his own life, but his family are calling for an independent autopsy.

The jailing of dual nationals in Iran, mostly on flimsy allegations of spying, has become an established trend over the past two years.

No one is certain of just how many visitors have been caught up in the net — many families and foreign governments chose not to publicize the detentions — but this past November a Reuters investigation documented at least 30 such cases.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, an Iranian-British aid worker employed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, has perhaps the highest profile, with the British government routinely protesting her now 22-month incarceration.

A supporter holds a photo of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe during a vigil outside the Iranian Embassy in London in January 2017. (Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
Today, her husband appealed to the United Nations to intervene. He says her treatment in jail, which has included long periods of solitary confinement, has been tantamount to torture.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe was tried on charges of running an "online journalism course" for the BBC and plotting the overthrow of Iran's clerics. But her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, says her five-year sentence is simply a "tool of pressure in wider diplomatic affairs."

Richard Ratcliffe, husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, holds a '#Free Nazanin' sign and candle outside London's Iranian Embassy in January 2017. On Wednesday, he appealed to the UN to intervene and free her. (Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
Others have come to similar conclusions about many of the other dual-national detentions.

The Reuters investigation pointed out that 19 of the 30 prisoners they were able to identify were European citizens. Family members and their lawyers allege that they are being used as bargaining chips. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard has many business interests, they note, and appears to be using the detainees as leverage in its negotiations with foreign governments and companies.

A guard watches a corridor in Tehran's Evin prison in this 2006 photo. (Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters)
It's not clear how Kavous Seyed-Emami's arrest might fit into such a pattern. The U.S.-trained academic and managing director of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation was arrested along with several other environmentalists.

Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi, Tehran's Public and Revolution Courts Prosecutor, told reporters that the men were spies for the United States and Israel.

"The detainees … were gathering intelligence from sensitive and vital sites of the country, including the country's missile bases, according to the CIA and Mossad intelligence officers' guidelines," he said yesterday.

It doesn't take much to arouse suspicions in Iran.

Late last month, an American-Iranian dual citizen was sentenced to 27 years in jail, and his wife handed a 16 year term, for "espionage" and "attempts to overthrow the regime." The couple, who owned a Tehran art gallery, were originally accused of hosting parties for foreign diplomats in their home and serving alcohol.

In a new statement Wednesday, Seyed Emami's son, Ramin, says he will continue to press for an independent investigation into his father's death.

Kavous Seyed-Emami, (right), is seen in this undated photo with his son, Mehran, and wife, Maryam. (Family photo)
He met with officials in Tehran today, who showed him video footage from Evin prison that they say supports their suicide claim -- something Seyed Emami disputes.

"I won't speak of the pain of seeing this video, but I will say that nothing in it is conclusive," Ramim writes.

"The actual death is not recorded. All I could see is that my dad is nervous and restless. He is not himself. He paces the cell to and fro. I can say the man in the video (my dad) who goes into a different room, which we were told was the 'bathroom,' by himself, is not in a sound psychological condition. Seven hours later a body is carried out of that room."

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Netanyahu corruption probe

A lengthy police investigation has determined that there is "sufficient evidence" to charge Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in two separate bribery cases.

The police recommendations, made public yesterday, surround two gifts-for-favours scandals involving boldface names and alleged abuses of power.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem on Sunday. Police said Tuesday there is 'sufficient evidence' to charge him in two separate bribery cases. (Ronen Zvulun/Pool via AP)
Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing, and in a televised speech last night he angrily rejected the accusations.

"I will continue to lead the state of Israel responsibly and loyally as long as you, the citizens of Israel, choose me to lead you," he said. "I am sure that the truth will come to light."

In the first investigation, known as Case 1000, Netanyahu and his wife Sara are accused of having sought and received 1 million shekels ($356,000 CDN) worth of luxury items — such as pink champagne, fine cigars, clothes and jewelry — from Hollywood mogul Arnon Milchan, and Australian billionaire James Packer.

Israeli-American movie producer Arnon Milchan, left, with Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference announcing a university donation in March 2005. Milchan is a longtime friend of the Netanyahus. (David Silverman/Getty Images)
Milchan, an Israeli-American who has produced such films as 12 Years a Slave, Birdman, and Alvin and The Chipmunks: Roadchip, is a longtime friend of the Netanyahus who was seeking to return to Israel after years of living abroad.

Police allege that the Prime Minister helped institute a tax break for returnees that saved the filmmaker hundreds of thousands of dollars, and that his government performed several other favours, including propping up a failing television channel in which Milchan was an investor.

Packer, who inherited a family media empire and has since diversified into resorts and gambling, testified in December that he gave the couple around $90,000 in gifts — mostly to help relieve the burden on his friend Milchan — and often at their specific request.

Police have not said what, if any benefits, Packer, who owns a property in Israel that is next door to Netanyahus', is alleged to have received in exchange.

James Packer, left, and Arnon Milchan at the New York premiere of 'Noah' in March 2014. (Jemal Countess/Getty Images)
It has been reported that much of Packer's largess, which took the form of plane tickets and free accommodation at luxury hotels, was focused on Yair, the Netanyahus' eldest son. The reports say the billionaire also provided free tickets for the whole family to a concert by Mariah Carey, Packer's former fiancée.

(Yair Netanyahu has been a steady source of headlines in Israel. Just last month, an Israeli television network broadcast a 2015 recording of the now 26-year-old badgering a friend outside a strip club for money to pay for a prostitute, suggesting he "owed it" to him because the government had given the friend's father, a gas tycoon, a lucrative royalty deal.)

Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and his son Yair visit the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem in March 2015. (Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images)
The second investigation, known as Case 2000, revolves around an alleged arrangement between Netanyahu and Arnon Mozes, the publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth, one of Israel's biggest daily newspapers. Police say the pair struck a verbal agreement in which the paper would tone down its critical coverage of Netanyahu's government in exchange for circulation limits at one of its competitors, Israel Hayom, a free daily.

Netanyahu says the proposal was not serious and simply "a test" of the publisher's standards. But Sheldon Adelson, the American billionaire who owns the giveaway paper, reportedly told investigators that Netanyahu did pressure him to back off on expansion plans.

The bribery allegations have dogged Netanyahu for more than a year, and it is likely to be months still before Israel's attorney general makes a decision on whether or not to proceed with charges. Even then, the Prime Minister would have no legal obligation to resign.

The Israeli public has already lived through several similar sagas:

  • In 2008, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Netanyahu's predecessor, stepped down to fight corruption charges dating back to his time as mayor of Jerusalem. He was eventually convicted at trial and served 16 months in prison before his release last July.
  • In 2010, Moshe Katsav, Israel's former president, was convicted of sexually harassing two women while he was head of state, and raping an aide while he was a cabinet minister in the 1990s. He was freed in December 2016, after serving five years in jail.
  • Shlomo Benizri, a former health and social welfare minister, was sentenced to 18 months for accepting bribes, breach of trust and obstructing justice.
  • Aryeh Deri, the current minister of the interior, returned to cabinet in 2016, 22 years after he was forced to resign over corruption charges. He served three years in prison.

Netanyahu, who has governed for almost 12 years by guiding a fractious coalition, is a proven fighter.

Netanyahu has governed Israel for almost 12 years through a fractious coalition. (Ronen Zvulun/Associated Press)
Just last week, the police commissioner alleged that the prime minister was busy trying to turn the tables on the cops, having hired private investigators to probe their backgrounds.

Netanyahu denied the charge in a Facebook post.

"Any honest person would ask himself how people who say such delusional things about the prime minister can objectively investigate him and honestly give unbiased recommendations," he wrote.

Quote of the moment

"I can't even describe [the pain] right now. My head feels like it's gonna fall off."

- Former NHL enforcer Stephen Peat, on the extreme headaches, memory loss and other symptoms he endures after a playing career that mostly involved trading punches. He is currently living in his truck on the streets of Langley, B.C.

Former NHL enforcer Stephen Peat. (Stephen Peat Facebook)

What The National is reading

  • Trudeau government to create new legal framework for Indigenous people (CBC)
  • How Canada's opaque corporate rules aid offshore financial 'snow washing' (Guardian)
  • Ottawa go-ahead brings drone delivery one step closer (Financial Post)
  • Crypto-currency craze hinders search for alien life (BBC)
  • Indian bank duped out of $1.7 billion — at a single branch (Quartz)
  • Ethiopia frees journalist after 7 years in jail (Africanews)
  • School in London, Ont., infested with bed bugs (CBC)
  • Man who pledged $7.5 million to B.C. hockey team pleads guilty to unrelated fraud (Vancouver Sun)

Today in history

Feb. 14, 1981: Kids explain love on Valentine's Day (radio)

Some of these '80s kids had a fairly sophisticated understanding of romance. "Love is giving and forgiving," says one young girl. But others seem a bit confused about the whole Feb. 14 deal. "We have Valentine's Day because we remember the cards that St. Valentino used to write…"

Canadian children discuss the meaning of love on Valentine's Day in 1981. 4:31

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About the Author

Jonathon Gatehouse

Jonathon Gatehouse

Has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, including seven Olympic Games and a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey.