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October 5, 2011 6:51 PM

Ex-Cleary, Yukos Lawyer's Death in Russia Called 'Murder' by Kremlin Critics

Posted by Brian Baxter

Vasily Aleksanyan, a one-time Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton attorney and former head of the legal department for embattled Russian oil giant Yukos, died this week at 39 from AIDS-related complications, according to Russian publication Pravda.

But Aleksanyan's backers claim the true cause of death was even more insidious. Indeed, according to a report by the Financial Times, the former Cleary lawyer's backers say he is essentially a victim of state-sanctioned murder as a result of the many years he spent incarcerated as a result of his Yukos ties.

A graduate of Harvard Law School, Aleksanyan worked at Cleary from 1992 until 1994. He spent the next two years as the top Russian in-house lawyer for British investment firm Sun Group, which invests in emerging markets.

In 1996, Aleksanyan accepted the in-house post at Yukos, an oil company with more than $100 billion in assets that was seized by the Russian state in 2004 after founder Mikhail Khodorkovksy ran afoul of the Kremlin. (As The American Lawyer's Michael Goldhaber recently reported, Yukos shareholders have promised a lifetime of litigation against the Russian government, which received a mixed ruling in September on property claims from the European Court of Human Rights; Goldhaber also wrote two years ago about Aleksanyan himself and Russia's relationship with the Council of Europe.)

As noted by the FT, Aleksanyan was arrested in April 2006 on charges of tax fraud and embezzlement from several Yukos subsidiaries. Diagnosed with AIDS soon after his arrest, Aleksayan spent more than two years in a Moscow jail, much of it in solitary confinement. His condition gradually deteriorated to the point that he lost his sight, contracted tuberculosis, and eventually cancer of the lymph nodes before prison officials bowed to pressure from the ECHR and released him in February 2008 into the custody of a special clinic for medical treatment. (Drew Holiner of London's Monckton Chambers represented Aleksanyan before the ECHR.)

In January 2009 Aleksanyan was released after a $2 million bond was paid to Russian law enforcement authorities. His supporters—led by Holiner, former Yukos CFO Bruce Misamore, and former outside company counsel Pavel Ivlev—claim that Aleksanyan could have lived much longer had he been spared the years of suffering from diseases left untreated during his confinement.

"It was practically a murder," Russian human rights advocate Valery Borshchev told a Russian radio station, according to The Moscow Times. "[Aleksanyan] could have lived longer if he had not been kept in detention."

Borshchev knows a thing or two about the plight of some Russian lawyers. Two years ago he issued a scathing report on the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a former head of the tax practice at Moscow's Firestone Duncan. Magnitsky had served as counsel to Hermitage Capital, a London-based hedge fund that drew the Kremlin's ire for publicly campaigning against alleged corruption at Russian companies. (Jamison Firestone, an American who cofounded Firestone Duncan, fled Russia last year after receiving threats over his firm's work for Hermitage, whose other lawyers have also been hit with criminal charges.)

Magnitsky and Aleksanyan aren't the only Russian lawyers to run afoul of the Russian state. Aleksanyan supporter Ivlev was a founding partner of Moscow's ALM Feldmans until the firm was shuttered under Kremlin pressure as a result of its role as outside counsel to Yukos. Russian prosecutors charged Ivlev with misappropriating billions of dollars from Yukos, allegations that Ivlev claimed were politically motivated as he promptly fled to New York. Ivlev continues to speak out against what he labels Russian cronyism from the United States, where he is a member—along with Firestone—of the Committee for Russian Economic Freedom.

Another vocal critic of the Kremlin is Khodorkovky's international lawyer, Robert Amsterdam of Amsterdam & Peroff. Amsterdam, who has decried the sale of former Yukos assets, noted on his blog last year that Russian prosecutors dropped their criminal case against Aleksanyan shortly before President Dmitry Medvedev began a much-publicized U.S. visit.

Many Russia watchers had remained hopeful that Medvedev, a lawyer sworn in as president in May 2008, would bring about an end to the country's "legal nihilism."

Unfortunately, Medvedev announced in September that he would be taking a back seat to his predecessor, current prime minister Vladimir Putin, in a presidential election set for next March. Many observers expect Putin to win that election in a landslide.

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