Moscow Lawyer Seeks U.S. Asylum

Lawyer Boris Kuznetsov, who has defended numerous high-profile clients against government charges and is suspected of divulging state secrets, said Tuesday that he had requested political asylum in the United States.

Kuznetsov, 64, fled the country in July, just days before a city court ruled that he had disclosed state secrets by filing a complaint to the Constitutional Court that the Federal Security Service had illegally wiretapped the telephone of his client, former Senator Levon Chakhmakhchyan.

In a telephone interview from New York on Tuesday, Kuznetsov said he applied for asylum in New Jersey in December after his U.S. visa expired.

The U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services is to issue a decision Feb. 12, Kuznetsov said.

"Many people are saying I applied for asylum due to bad health or money problems," he said. "If that's true, I would have gone to a doctor or a bank. The fact is that the FSB are chasing me for doing my professional duty."

Kuznetsov had been defending Chakhmakhchyan on charges of accepting a $300,000 bribe in a sting operation.

The Tverskoi District Court ruled in July that Kuznetsov had revealed state secrets by telling the Constitutional Court about the wiretap, and city prosecutors subsequently opened a criminal investigation. Kuznetsov insisted that the bugging of Chakhmakhchyan's phone was a violation of the former senator's human rights and could not be considered a state secret. He fled the country before the case against him was opened and has not been formally charged.

Experts commissioned by the Investigative Committee have since concluded that Kuznetsov's complaint did contain state secrets, said Kuznetsov's lawyer, Robert Zinovyev.

Zinovyev claims, however, that the experts were in fact from the FSB, prompting suspicion that the agency itself was after Kuznetsov.

"Everyone knows that once you acquire the status of a suspect, the authorities can do what they like to you," Zinovyev said. "He heard the arrest was coming and decided to take action."

An FSB spokesman declined to comment immediately on the claim and asked for questions in writing. A request for comment faxed to the agency went unanswered as of Tuesday evening.

Reached on his cell phone in the days and weeks after he fled the country, Kuznetsov gave vague descriptions of his whereabouts, often saying he was somewhere in "Eurasia."

He explained Tuesday that shortly before the court's ruling, he drove from Moscow to Kiev, from which he flew to Berlin several days later. Kuznetsov said he remained in Germany until his Schengen visa expired and then flew to the United States on Sept. 30.

Mikhail Ionkin, a spokesman for the Moscow branch of the Prosecutor General's Office's Investigative Committee, which is leading the investigation into Kuznetsov, denied that the case was politicized and said Kuznetsov's fears of arrest were unfounded.

"If he were in Russia, he would probably not be detained because he does not represent a danger to society," Ionkin said.

No court has issued an arrest warrant for Kuznetsov, Ionkin said.

Citing technical violations by investigators, Zinovyev has requested that the Investigative Committee drop the case, which it has refused to do. The Zamoskvoretsky District Court is scheduled to consider the complaint over the refusal Friday, Zinovyev said.

The U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services, under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, is the first point of contact for an individual seeking asylum in the United States, an agency spokesman said Tuesday.

An asylum-seeker must prove beyond reasonable doubt past or future persecution on the grounds of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a social group, he said.

If the agency rejects a request, the asylum-seeker can demand a hearing with an immigration official empowered to reverse earlier decisions, the spokesman said.

The spokesman said he could not comment on Kuznetsov's application because he was forbidden from discussing individual cases.

Kuznetsov said the Chakhmakhchyan case might have been the "last straw" for the authorities.

From 2001 to 2006, Kuznetsov represented the relatives of sailors who died in the Kursk submarine disaster.

His other clients have included Manana Aslamazyan, head of the Educated Media Foundation, Igor Sutyagin, a scientist sentenced by a jury to 15 years in prison for of high treason in 2004, and the family of slain journalist Anna Politkovskaya.