As It Happens

Russian family released from Guatemala prison seeks asylum in Canada

A Russian family that's been released from Guatemala prison on charges they say were orchestrated by the Kremlin are asking the Canadian government for help.

The Bitkovs fled persecution in Russia only to be arrested in Guatemala for alleged passport violations

From left to right, Irina Bitkova, Igor Bitkov Vladimir Bitkov, and Anastasia Bitkova. The Russian family is seeking help from Ottawa after being released from a Guatemalan prison on what they are allege are charges trumped up by the Kremlin. (Submitted by Gary Caroline/Caroline Law)

A Russian family under house arrest in Guatemala on charges they say were trumped up by the Kremlin are pleading with the Canadian government to help them. 

Anastasia Bitkova, 27, and her parents Igor Bitkov and Irina Bitkova, are asking the Canadian government to grant them travel permits so they can make their way to Canada and claim asylum. 

The family, who allege they've been the target of a decade-long campaign of persecution by the Russian government, have been released from Guatemalan prison and placed under house arrest while they wait for that country's highest court to decide their fate. 

They are accused of buying and using false documents to obtain residency. 

 The Canadian government is not corrupt, transparent and very strong — strong enough to protect our family.- Anastasia  Bitkova , would-be asylum-seeker 

"We're still trying to make it from one day to the other, all of us alive and safe and well together, and it is a challenge," Anastasia Bitkova told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland's office said in email they are "aware of the case and monitoring developments." As It Happens has also reached out to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada for comment.

"We're pretty confident that the Bitkovs will be released [and] the charges will be dropped against them in the near future," the Bitkovs' Canadian lawyer Gary Caroline told Off.

"If they remain in Guatemala after the court proceedings are concluded, they still face imminent danger from those who want to cause harm to them."

Refusing a Russian takeover 

The family's ordeals began in 2005, when they obtained a $158-million US loan from the Russian state bank VTB to renovate their pulp and paper factories. 

They allege that a VTB chairman asked Igor Bitkov to sell him a controlling share of the family's business, the North-West Timber Company, at a fraction its value. 

He refused, Caroline said, and "that was the beginning of all the problems that followed."

From left to right Anastasia Bitkova, Irina Bitkova and Igor Bitkov await a court hearing in Guatemala. (Submitted by Gary Caroline/Caroline Law)

In 2007, Anastasia, then 16, was allegedly kidnapped, drugged and repeatedly raped for three days in St. Petersburg.

"I wasn't sure what was going on. Nothing was explained to me at all. I didn't know why I was kidnapped," she said. 

Her parents forked over $200,000 US for her release. They suspect the kidnapping was orchestrated by the Putin government. 

Arrested in a corruption sweep 

Soon after, they fled the country for Latvia and then Turkey, where Anastasia said they found a law firm that offered them passage to Guatemala in 2009 at a cost of $50,000 US per person.

The family maintains they believed the process was above board.

But in 2015, they were swept up in an investigation by the International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG) in Guatemala, a United Nations-funded agency created to fight corruption in the country. 

They were among 39 people charged in connection with a criminal network operating in Guatemala's immigration agency and national registry of persons.

Last year, Igor Bitkov was sentenced to 19 years in prison, and Irina and Anastasia Bitkova were each sentenced to 14 years.

In prison, they were separated from the youngest member of their family — Anastasia's brother Vladimir — who was born in Guatemala and is now six.

Anastasia Bitkova, left, has been reunited with her father, Igor Bitkov and Irina Bitkova, after three years in prison. (Victoria Sandoval )

In March, Guatemala's Constitutional Court issued an injunction in their case, arguing the charges should be overturned and that the Bitkovs were the victims of a crime, not the perpetrators of one. 

That injunction is now being challenged and the country's top court will decide whether to uphold it.

"Now we have a chance to actually see the justice in this fight," Anastasia said. 

The Bitkovs allege their original conviction was orchestrated by the Kremlin in conjunction with Guatemalan officials. 

In an opinion column for the Washington Post, Guatemalan entrepreneur Estuardo Porras Zadik and lawyer Pedro Pablo Marroquin Perez criticized Western media for accepting the Bitkovs' claims of Russian interference.

"The Bitkovs have been treated fairly. They were represented by lawyers of their choice and have had access to available procedural and appeal remedies," they wrote.

A hand-written letter to Trudeau 

If Guatemala's Supreme Court upholds the injunction, the Bitkovs will be acquitted. But they no longer have Russian or Guatemalan passports.

"We exist only to be accused of something, but legally we don't exist in any country," Anastasia said. 

That's why they're reaching out to Canada.

From behind bars, Anastasia Bitkova penned a seven-page, handwritten letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asking for "immediate protection."

This is how Anastasia Bitkova began her seven-page handwritten letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. (Submitted by Gary Caroline/Caroline Law)

She said she hopes the Canadian government is listening.

"As we know, the Canadian government is not corrupt, transparent and very strong — strong enough to protect our family," she said.

"It would be an immense relief if we could be somewhere where we can just go to sleep at night calmly, you know, knowing that nothing bad is going to happen tomorrow, at least not on account of the local police force, the local justice system or local government."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Associated Press. Interview with Anastasia Bitkova and Gary Caroline produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes.

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