Евгений Рыжов оказался в розыске Интерпола. Фото из личного архива Рыжова.

How a Russian Lawyer Sought Asylum in the United States and Was Arrested in Miami on a Kremlin Tip

Evgeny Ryzhov was put on the Interpol’s wanted list. Photo from Ryzhov’s personal files.

As a lawyer, Evgeny Ryzhov represented a client in a high-profile lawsuit involving a property in the center of Moscow, for which they made enemies among the authorities. Ryzhov said was abducted by the police from his home, held in the Aquamarine Hotel in Moscow, from which he escaped. He fled to Serbia and then to the United States. In Russia, Ryzhov has been charged with fraud.

In the United States, he continued to seek justice for his client, and himself, but the Russian authorities placed him on the Interpol’s wanted list. In Miami, he was arrested by ICE and ended up in an immigration detention center.

Ryzhov’s case is similar to those of two other Russian lawyers who fled to the United States. Asylum was granted to the human rights defender Andrei Stolbunov in 2017 (here is his first-hand account in Russian), and in 2008, to Boris Kuznetsov, who stood for the families of the sailors who had died in the Kursk submarine and relatives of the killed journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Like Rhyzhov, both had been put on the Interpol wanted list.

Here is Rhyzhov’s first-person account.

In December 2007, a good friend of mine, businessman Mikhail Chernov, sold a building premises in the center of Moscow to people who were close to Yuri Chaika, the prosecutor general of the Russian Federation. It is an office unit opposite the Cathedral of Christ the Savior (3 Gogolevskiy Bulvar, not far from the Kremlin), with a total area of about 1,000 square meters and a market value of $7 million to $10 million. However, Chernov was not paid, so he went to court. The judge returned the premises to him, since the buyers had not pay for it.

After that, Chernov was put in prison on robbery charges, but it turned out he had been abroad on the day of the alleged crime. The investigators had to correct their blunder urgently, so the charge was changed to fraud. On these ridiculous charges, he was imprisoned in May 2012.

I joined his defense. We began to win cases; the courts started taking our side. Naturally, this did not please the high-ranking buyers, and they began to threaten me, demanding that I cease to protect the businessman; otherwise it would end badly for me, too.

Abduction and Arrest

Ryzhov with his wife, kids and mother. Photo from Ryzhov’s personal files.

On June 3, 2015, the police broke into my apartment in Nizhny Novgorod and began a search. Things from wardrobes were thrown to the floor; everything was turned upside down. It looked more like a raid than a search. Some of my working papers were confiscated, some were scattered; the same fate befell my children’s toys. It should be noted that, according to the laws of the Russian Federation, attorneys’ homes may be searched only in extreme, exceptional circumstances, which was definitely not the case there. During the search, the police officers said time and again, “Look how many police colonels came to this attorney’s search! See how great attention the authorities are paying him!”

After the search, threatening to use force before my family’s eyes, they put me into a Land Cruiser 200 with darkly tinted windows and took me to Moscow, allegedly for questioning about my clients. All the while, the policemen understood that it was illegal. Of course, I was not going to violate the attorney’s oath and talk about my clients. “We’ll find how to resolve this problem,” the police officers assured me. “Everyone starts talking and you’ll talk!”

As a result, at midnight I was brought not for interrogation, but to the Aquamarine Hotel at 26 Ozerkovskaya Embankment in Moscow.

On June 3, 2015, the police broke into my apartment in Nizhny Novgorod and began a search. Things from wardrobes were thrown to the floor; everything was turned upside down. It looked more like a raid than a search. Some of my working papers were confiscated, some were scattered; the same fate befell my children’s toys. It should be noted that, according to the laws of the Russian Federation, attorneys’ homes may be searched only in extreme, exceptional circumstances, which was definitely not the case there. During the search, the police officers said time and again, “Look how many police colonels came to this attorney’s search! See how great attention the authorities are paying him!”

After the search, threatening to use force before my family’s eyes, they put me into a Land Cruiser 200 with darkly tinted windows and took me to Moscow, allegedly for questioning about my clients. All the while, the policemen understood that it was illegal. Of course, I was not going to violate the attorney’s oath and talk about my clients. “We’ll find how to resolve this problem,” the police officers assured me. “Everyone starts talking and you’ll talk!”

As a result, at midnight I was brought not for interrogation, but to the Aquamarine Hotel at 26 Ozerkovskaya Embankment in Moscow.

But in fact I was simply abducted and imprisoned.

The policemen locked me in the room and waited for some important person. The officers snapped to attention when talking to him on the phone.

I understood that they were detaining me to force me to sign documents on the transfer of my client’s expensive asset to some proxy of the authorities, since I had power of attorney and it would be technically a legal transaction. Likely, I would be released if I signed the documents.

But I could not do that. It would be tantamount to betraying my friend Chernov, who was put in prison for his own property, was tortured and became an invalid.

The policemen set a guard on my room, taking turns. I saw through the peephole that at about 1 a.m. they decided that I was asleep and went to their room for a drink. The idea of escape flashed instantly, although why call it escape? I am a free person — not detained, not arrested, not under investigation.

I looked out the window. Sixth floor, no emergency staircases, no balconies. Going down is not an option. There is the corridor, but there I’m likely to run into policemen.

Cautiously, I opened the door. Nobody was to be seen. Going down in the elevator was dangerous, as there might be other detectives downstairs.

At the other end of the corridor, the emergency exit sign burned in an emerald light. In no time I got to it and ran down, jumping over steps.

The floors seemed to fly past. Fourth, second, ground floor, and here is the door to the street. I push the handle, but the door does not open.
The emergency exit was deadbolted! Now then, Russia, our beloved country!

I turned around. But apparently God did not forget me that day! Suddenly, the door was opened from the other side. My heart sank. I expected to see a policeman’s shining face and hear, “And where might we be going?”

But the door was opened by the hotel security guard, who was on duty in the courtyard and opened the door, hearing me knock on it. He examined me with interest. I asked, “Can I go outside here?” And, not waiting for his answer, I stepped through the open door past him and then on to the embankment, toward the pedestrian bridge. I decided to go to the airport, but how?

It’s 2 a.m. in Moscow, I didn’t have my phone, nobody passed by, and how silly would it look if a sturdy fellow asked for a phone to make a call at night? They would think I intended to steal the thing.

I saw a cyclist entering the yard and decided to try my luck. The little man, frightened, said he didn’t have a phone with him and pointed to a nearby mini-hotel. There, no one opened.

Fortunately, a taxi stopped nearby and dropped off passengers. I ran to it and asked to be driven to the airport.

While being taken away from home, I managed to quietly bring my passport with me. What’s more, I was allowed to take some necessities. Colonel Merzlyakov, who detained me, even made a joke: “Take them, take them. You may be lucky to spend a dozen of years in prison.”

By taxi, I got to the airport, and the question arose: where to fly? I remembered that my childhood friend had long been inviting me to stay with him in Montenegro. Well, this was a good reason.

I chose Air Serbia, since it is a foreign airline and it’s not quite so easy to get information about its passengers.

So, a flight from Moscow to Belgrade, departure at 4:20 a.m. Moscow time. I was already at the airport, and it was 2 a.m. The ticket seller’s computer did not respond for a while; the printer didn’t work, and he was not able to issue my ticket for 25 minutes! Given my position, I saw an ambush everywhere.

At that moment, time seemed to stop. Unending customs examination, registration and even boarding. Finally I got on the plane; it took off. The last row of seats became my bed for the next two hours. I was free, but my sleep was not sound. The feeling of tension was still present. Occasionally, I managed to fall asleep.

Serbia

Mikhail Chernov, Ryzhov’s client, who is in prison because of a dispute over real estate in the center of Moscow.
Photo from Ryzhov’s personal files.

Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, greeted me with sunshine and warm weather. I decided to go to the railway station, which was located in the city center.

I had little money, so, not wasting it, I went to the center of Belgrade by bus. Landscapes were similar to Russian; the language and the layout were almost like those at home. Everything was unkempt, crumpled; people were dressed more poorly and drove cheaper cars. I spent the night in the station hotel and took the morning train to Montenegro.

There was no way to tell to my family where I was, as my wife’s and mother’s cell numbers, which I knew by heart, did not respond, and all the other numbers were on the phone that had been taken away from me during the search.

Belgrade station. A pretty woman behind the ticket window apologized at length for the train consisting only of second- class cars. She didn’t ask to see my passport before selling the ticket. It cost 20 euros.

The train was shabby, covered with grafitti, but inside, the car was not as miserable as it was outside. I went into the second compartment from the entrance, where a gray-haired man was sitting. He turned out to be a scientist, and we talked about life and death. En route, two women in their 50s entered our compartment, and I helped them to put their suitcases on the upper shelves.

At 20:40 the train arrived at the railway station in Bar. My school friend Constantine was there in a noisy mass of greeters and taxi drivers. Konstantin and I spent the evening drinking as old friends, reminiscing about our school years.

In the morning I needed to contact my family, as I was very worried about them. My wife had not been able to contact me since I was taken from home. She wept, hadn’t slept those two nights and, being in a shock, didn’t even notice that her phone wasn’t charged. That’s why I couldn’t get through to her.

Colonel Merzlyakov visited her, issued threats, and suggested that I surrender and turn myself in. My wife was frightened. She asked me, “Wouldn’t you surrender?” I replied that it was Colonel Merzlyakov who should surrender, that his turn would come, that the policemen usually don’t even need to be made to talk, as they cooperate willingly with the investigation and “sing” nicely, and that they are all bound to be imprisoned very soon.

My wife calmed down a bit and began to calm me down. I instructed her to contact my colleagues, lawyers, so they would begin taking active steps to build defense.

At that time, I did not yet understand the full depth of the problems the authorities would create for me.

Through my colleagues, Chernov requested me to fly to the U.S. and hold several meetings concerning his affairs. I thought the trip would take a couple of weeks at most, but life decided otherwise.

Interpol is searching for me as an international criminal, yet I am registered with the consulate

Evgeny Ryzhov sought asylum in the USA. Photo from Ryzhov’s personal files.

At Chernov’s request, I met with a Russian official who had held a high-ranking position in the government for a long time and now lives in Miami. Because of attorney-client privilege, I cannot name him, so let him be N. This person, whom I also told about what happened to me in the summer of 2015, answered, “There is no way back for you! This is the end!”

Meanwhile, it was necessary to continue my legal work in Russia. But the criminal justice authorities began to intimidate all attorneys who took up the defense of Chernov and me.

It seemed that 1937 was back. People were dragged to interrogations; their offices were searched.

The courts were forbidden to consider my complaints. For example, I tried to complain about the search. After all, attorneys cannot be searched, according to the law, but my case was thrown out of court because the judges said they could not be sure the complaint was signed by me.

Such a response from the authorities sounds silly.

I went to the notary. I went to the Consulate of the Russian Federation, where my identity was verified. I signed power of attorney, registered and received residence certificates. I sent all this to the Russian Federation and got an answer: “We do not believe you!!!”

At the same time, I’m on the Interpol wanted list. (Read here Rubic’s explanation of how the Kremlin uses loopholes in the Interpol procedures to persecute personae non gratae.) And while all this was happening, I maintained constant communication with employees of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Prosecutor’s Office, the Investigative Committee, courts of all levels; they wrote back to me in Miami, made phone calls, but the search didn’t stop. That’s weird. How can you possibly carry on a correspondence with someone and be searching for him at the same time?

The immigration police came after me

After his wife’s visit, Ryzhov was arrested. Photo from Ryzhov’s personal files

In December 2015, I filed a request for asylum in the United States. It seems to me that any country should be ashamed when its lawyers are seeking asylum in another country, but apparently in the Russian Federation everybody has long forgotten what shame is.

In Russia, I have a wife and children who visit me in the U.S.A. and are not secretive about them seeing me, and me waiting here for an interview. On May 30, 2017, I met them at the Miami airport.

The next day I was going to a meeting and was stopped on the way by two black Fords with flashing lights. I supposed I had exceeded the speed limit. The officers came out of the cars, looked through my papers, made sure no one else was in the car, asked me to stand with my face to the car, then searched and handcuffed me. No movie-like reading of my rights, and no call to an attorney.

This is how I got to know ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) officers.

I was taken to the Krome Detention Center in Miami. I spent three hours in a kind of a waiting room. Then an officer came and explained that I was detained for overstaying my visa. I responded that I had submitted a political asylum case and had not only confirmation from the U.S. authorities that I couls stay here until the case was considered, but also an advance parole, which gave me the right to travel outside the United States and return until my case was decided. I asked to contact my attorney.

I was given some papers stating that I could be released on bail. I offered to provide bail, reasoning that I did not violate U.S. laws and, moreover, did not pose any threat to society. Nobody listened to me. In response, they only asked if I agreed with the administrative charge brought. I said “No, I do not agree.” “Good,” they answered, handcuffed me and transferred me to another unit.

To my endless requests to let me call my attorney, I got only one single answer: “Later.”

The next unit consisted of cells for about 25 or 30 people each, with stone benches and no windows. It was very cold in there. I was given an orange uniform and was placed in an isolation cell, on the pretext that I refused to undergo a medical examination and posed threat to other people. In the cell, in the absence of daylight, you do not understand whether it is day or night outside. Wrapped in a thin blanket, I tried to warm myself and fall asleep. An officer saw all this through one of the video cameras that were installed everywhere. He came to me several times and demanded that I sign some documents. I didn’t want to sign anything in the absence of my attorney, since my Russian experience indicated that a moment of weakness when I sign these strange documents could result in trouble later. I asked to contact my attorney and discuss my further actions with him, but that was repeatedly denied to me. By my refusals to sign these documents, I apparently put them in a temper.

First, one of the officers took the blanket from me and left me cold, saying, “You Russians like the cold.” Then they took away my underwear and left me dressed in thin pants and a T-shirt.

All this time I was waiting for someone to come out and say, “Smile, you’re on Candid Camera!”

An Island Prison, Football and My Cellmate Mohammed

In prison Ryzhov was very cold. Photo from Ryzhov’s personal file

In the morning, I was handcuffed and led to the exit, then put in a barred bus and driven somewhere for a long time. Judging by the direction, it was Miami airport. On the way, I thought, “This is the level of the Russian special services! Not only do they influence the election of the President of the United States, but they can also easily control the local security forces!” Then I pictured being taken to the airport, thrown on an Aeroflot plane and hello, Russia!

But I was taken to a hospital, where they took my blood pressure, an X-ray and a blood sample. A doctor examined me and then returned a verdict: “Healthy. Can do his time.” The officers took me back to the Miami Krome prison and put me in a barracks for 200 people, where I met a guy from Kazakhstan who had been imprisoned for a street fight. At the time of his arrest, he had an expired tourist visa. He had already been in prison for six months. He was surprised by my orange uniform, as most uniforms were blue, and orange ones were given for serious violations. (More details on the ‘”color coding” of prisoners in this article.)

In the barracks there are showers, telephones, TV, board games and bunk beds. They reminded me of Russian soldiers’ barracks, from whichi you march to the canteen or to sports fields. I managed to get through to my attorney, who asked for some time to understand the situation.

That evening, I was let out of the mass cell and got my personal belongings back. I was delighted, deciding that everything had been cleared up and I could go home. Nothing of the sort. Again, I was put in a minibus together with strong Latino guys, all with dark complexions and shaven heads, athletically built, tattooed, dressed in red robes. Next to them I looked like a nerd.

When they learned that I was an attorney, they laughed uproariously. That’s how I got to Key West. Yes, it also hosts a branch of the immigration prison.

They put me in a two-person cell. My neighbor turned out to be an elderly Lebanese, a professor of architecture named Mohammed. According to him, more than 30 years ago, when he was a student, he shouted at his neighbor because she had eaten his pizza. This was considered a crime. He spent 30 days in prison, was expelled from the university and banished from the country. Later he managed to return and lived all his life in the United States, but when he was about to receive citizenship, he was asked about his criminal history and denied everything, believing the pizza case to be closed. In the morning, he went out of the house in his pajamas to take out the garbage can and was arrested. Five cars arrived to arrest 60-year-old Mohammed.

We got along well. He was interesting to talk to. Mohammed and I both liked table tennis.

In prison, there are TVs, computers, a library and the Internet; you have access to all U.S. laws and can prepare your defense. You are not deprived of information.

And the Latino prisoners playing soccer! The Russian national team pales in comparison.

This is a striking scene! For some time, the inner prison yard turns into Cornellà El Prat, Barcelona’s best stadium! I asked what they did in everyday life. The answer surprised me, just as much as their football skills. Roofers, the players answered simply.

A Case Was Stuck in Limbo

The presidential candidate Boris Titov tried to help Ryzhov to come home. Photo by TASS

On the 14th day after my arrest, at night, I was taken to a court hearing in Miami by minibus. The journey took about four and a half hours. The purpose of the hearing was for the court to consider releasing me on bail. The prosecutor stated that he had received some materials sent from Russia and needed extra time to translate them. The court did not listen to my attorney and agreed with the prosecutor. I was returned to Key West, where I spent nine more days until the next hearing.

Another sleepless night in a shaky bus with air-conditioning running at full blast. But this time, the hearing was different. The judge read the Russian documents, looked up at the prosecutor and asked, “Do you understand what is written here? Why did you arrest him?” The fact is, it was impossible to find meaning in documents sent from Russia not only in English, but also in Russian. They represented a kind of a chronicle, punctuated by the name of the crime, such as “He was an attorney, represented clients, attended court sessions, entered into contracts, therefore he’s a fraudster.”

The prosecutor answered honestly, “I do not understand, either. Something about fraud.”

The judge and the prosecutor agreed that I should be released. The whole process took about 15 minutes. The decision was to release me on $5,000 bail, which was paid the same day.

But they didn’t let me go right away. Again I was taken to Key West to hand over the prison clothes and collect my possessions. I tried to refuse, but it didn’t work. And again, four and a half hours in one direction and four and a half in the other. But even then, having taken me back to court at night, they didn’t want to let me go without notifying my attorney. I had to wait for the morning of June 22 and get home by Uber.

I still do not understand the reasons for my arrest, but they are likely to be associated with either Interpol or the machinations of the Russian special services.

Without any particular understanding, the immigration police took the Russian documents at face value and mistakenly, hurriedly arrested me, relying only on the fact that my visa had expired.

In July 2017, I received a letter informing me that my asylum case was closed administratively.

I expected my case to proceed to court automatically. But no.

I did not receive the work permit (a prolongation, actually) that I filed for just before the arrest. I made a request to Immigration, and in October 2017 I was told that it could not issue one because my case was closed administratively.

I am willing to admit that a kind of unfortunate procedural error occurred, which I am now trying to figure out. (Read the similar story of a refugee who was arrested during the interview for the asylum because of an expired visa.)

On Feb. 6, 2018, the business ombudsman and presidential candidate Boris Titov included me on the list of people unlawfully prosecuted. This list was handed over to President Putin. And the next day I was urgently arrested in absentia. There was no practical sense in this action, except to create a negative newsworthy event.

It turns out that one branch of power is putting me in prison and another one is trying to save me. As a result, everyone is busy, and it all looks like theater of the absurd.

Kateryna Panova and Mariia Bielai contributed to preparing the text. English-language editing by Diane Nottle.

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