As It Happens

Daughter of Russian scientist fears mother will be 'silenced forever' if Canada denies her asylum

Elena Musikhina's daughter says that if Canada sends her mother back to Russia she risks falling victim to one of the deadly but deniable sorts of "accidents" that have befallen more than a dozen of her colleagues.

'She is really afraid that something bad might happen if she is forced out of Canada,' says Olesia Sunatori

Russian scientist Elena Musikhina with her son and husband. Musikhina fears that she will be targeted for damning research she worked on if she returns to Russia. (Submitted by Olesia Sunatori)

On Wednesday, Elena Musikhina made an emotional appeal on Parliament Hill asking the government to grant her asylum in Canada.

Musikhina is a Russian scientist who says that she and her husband fled to Canada because their lives are being threatened by elements of the Russian state since Musikhina's research revealed damning information about the environmental impact of industrial projects in Russia's Irkutsk region.

Musikhina was joined on Parliament Hill by Green Party leader Elizabeth May and a pair of former Liberal and Conservative MPs. 

As It Happens host Carol Off spoke to Musikhina's daughter, Olesia Sunatori, about why she fears for her mother's life if she is forced out of Canada. Here is part of their conversation.

Ms. Sunatori, your mother says she is very afraid that if she returns to Russia she might suffer "an accident." What kind of accident is your mother talking about?

For example, I can give you the situation that happened to some people related to the project that she was working on. One of the government representatives that she was working for, when she told him the situation that she discovered, soon after that he got into a helicopter crash while hunting.

And this was the governor of the state, is that right?

Exactly, the governor.

His son also died mysteriously.

Yes. As usual, it's a car accident or something else. But you can never say for sure if it was an accident or if it was made because when you see people related to specific situations, specific data, specific projects, and they start dying one after another one in an accident, then you start wondering then maybe it's not really an accident.

Elena Musikhina and her husband. (Submitted by Olesia Sunatori)

How many people involved in some way with the project your mother was working on as a scientist, how many of them have been harmed or killed?

As far as I know, it's about 20 people that died. And everyone who was working with her on this project, they're all dead.

What was the project your mother was working on?

It was an evaluation of the possible damage to the territory of specifically the Irkutsk region, related to natural or industrial causes, or in terms of if a terrorist attack, for example, happens. So that's what she was estimating — the complex impact on the environment and on the health of the population.

When you mention Irkutsk, there is a giant ancient lake there, isn't there? She was concerned that something was happening there. Animals were dying in that lake.

Yes. It's Lake Baikal. My mom was investigating the real pollution of the waters and the shores, of the soils, of the air around this lake. And her data, it was much worse than even the data in the archive.

There is a seal, the Baikal seal, and it's dying. It just washed up on the shore. And also, there was that little crab that was filtering the water and that one has already disappeared. She was opposing any additional industrial exploration.

Sunatori says her mother's life is at risk after she investigated the levels of pollution in Baikal Lake. (Reuters/Ilya Naymushin)

There are also reports that among the manufacturing, Russia was producing weapons. There was a nuclear waste factory and an institution that was researching and manufacturing biological weapons. Did that have any concerns for her?

Yes, of course. It had concerns for sure because people were not taking seriously the danger of having the nuclear waste, of having the waste from all those productions.

So she came to Canada and made a refugee claim, which was rejected. Did she tell them why she was afraid?

Of course. When they claimed, they received a lawyer from the legal aid because, of course, they came here with no money, with nothing. And unfortunately, he didn't do a good job. For him, everything was already obvious so he was the one who didn't present them well at the hearing. But she did. She was answering all the questions. But we're still hoping that it will be a positive. Because the reasons why they discredited her story — for us, it's ridiculous.

Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin waves aboard a submarine after a dive into the depths of Lake Baikal in 2009. (Alexey Druzhinin/AFP/Getty Images)

There have been a number of high profile mysterious deaths of people associated with the politics and journalism of Russia. Does your mother feel safe, even here?

Well, I cannot say we feel 100 per cent sure. We still sometimes look around. But I can tell her for sure that Canada is, by far, the safest place in the world.

And what chances do you think that you'll be able to get this decision on behalf of the refugee board to get it reversed?

The chances are low and we are pretty much desperate at this point. That is why, even though it's risky to go public, we're still willing to do that because we just don't have a choice really.

Your mother has made an appeal to the prime minister. What would you like to say to Prime Minister Trudeau about your mother?

Well, I can tell him what I fear. That if they will be forced to go somewhere, even if it's not to Russia but some other country, I fear that they might be targeted to be silenced forever. Because, in Canada, it's not so easy to make this type of accident. I'm not even talking about hiring someone to kill someone.

In Russia, most of the time, the best way to get rid of an inconvenient person is just to create an accident so it doesn't look like the person was killed. But I'm really afraid of that and of course she is really afraid that something bad might happen if she is forced out of Canada.

Written by Kevin Robertson and John McGill. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Q & A edited for length and clarity.