Human rights groups withdraw government complaint against Ukrainian oligarch after its accuracy is challenged

A coalition of human rights groups has recalled a complaint asking the United States to sanction Ukrainian oligarch Dmitry Firtash after questions surfaced about the accuracy of their allegations against the businessman. 

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Firtash was one of 15 people accused of human rights violations by the groups under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.

The 23 groups, led by Washington-based Human Rights First, are standing by the request for sanctions against the 14 other people.

The Magnitsky Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Obama in 2015 in honor of a Moscow lawyer named Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Russian prison after blowing the whistle on alleged corruption inside his country.

The law, despised by Vladimir Putin and his defenders, allows a U.S. president to impose property sanctions on human rights offenders and prohibit their entry to the United States.

The coalition’s letter in September was the human rights community’s first major effort to get people punished under the law.

Rob Berschinski, the senior vice president for policy at Human Rights First, confirmed to The Hill that the coalition of groups pulled back their letter late last month after a complaint from Lanny Davis, the well-known Washington lawyer representing Firtash.

“What we decided to do was pull the letter down,” Berschinski said, declining to say what the coalition’s next steps might be.

Davis, a former Clinton White House counsel, confirmed he complained about the veracity of allegations in the group’s September letter and applauded the recent decision to withdraw those allegations for the time being.

“We appreciate the decision of the group of NGOs to suspend, pending further review, their recommendation that Dmitry Firtash be investigated under the Magnitsky Act,” Davis said.

It's not clear what allegations were made by the groups.

Davis couldn’t elaborate beyond his statement due to an agreement settled between him and Human Rights First.

According to sources involved in the discussions, Davis sent an email to Human Rights First in early November giving the coalition a week to withdraw its recommendation against Firtash.

“Before we go public with this serious violation of human rights by human rights organizations, we extend to you the opportunity to withdraw your endorsement of this 'recommendation' of 'alleged' misconduct by Mr. Firtash,” Mr. Davis wrote in an email to the groups that was obtained by The Hill.

Davis’s concerns drew the attention of attorney Jared Genser, the founder of Freedom Now, a nonprofit that works to release prisoners of conscious. Genser sent an email letter to Human Rights First’s Berschinski urging him to withdraw the complaint until the groups could address the accuracy questions, according to sources familiar with the episode.

Genser declined to comment for this story.

Initially, Human Rights First attempted to amend the paragraph of information concerning Firtash to address the questions raised by Davis, a source that asked to remain anonymous disclosed to The Hill. But then the groups decided together to withdraw the complaint until further research could be conducted.

Mary Elizabeth Margolis, a spokeswoman for Human Rights First, acknowledged the coalition amended the paragraph on Firtash.

“Regarding the Firtash paragraph, I believe that what you are referring to relates to the fact that when we were first approached with new information on Firtash we took an immediate step to clarify some of the language in the case description while further investigating claims,” Margolis said.

A lawyer representing Human Rights First contacted Davis on Nov. 8 to notify him that revisions to the paragraph on Dmitry Firtash were submitted, The Hill confirmed.

The State and Treasury departments are still looking at the complaint and did not comment for this story.

Berschinski told The Hill that each organization within the coalition was responsible for the individuals they put forth as recommendations, but he declined to identify which group provided the Firtash information.

“Each individual, if it brought the case publicly in its individual capacity, would have relied on its own fact-checking and reporting criteria, so there was common understanding that that’s how we move forward,” he said.

Firtash, a billionaire businessman who supported Russia-backed former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, is currently living in Vienna, Austria, where he is facing an extradition request from the United States for allegedly attempting to bribe India for mining contracts. Firtash’s lawyers have argued that his prosecution is unreasonable.

Firtash also has ties to President Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, with whom he reportedly discussed buying the Plaza Hotel, according to a report in The Daily Beast.

Firtash also worked with the Party of Regions in Ukraine, for which Manafort consulted.

Members of the coalition agree that more oversight needs to occur the next time they take on a project of this magnitude.

“I think that you learn from cases like this that you have to do that,” said Karl Altau of the Joint Baltic American National Committee. “You have to cross T's and dot I’s.”

Casey Kelso of Transparency International echoed the notion that more oversight is needed going forward.  

“In the Firtash example, it was pointed out that diligence was not as good as it should have been," Kelso said.

Financier Bill Browder, who partnered with the late Magnitsky to expose Russian corruption, declined to speculate on what kind of impact this first attempt to use the Magnitsky Act would have on future cases. But he expressed his full support for the coalition’s efforts.

“My hope is that the government uses this tool liberally and broadly to punish human rights violators around the world.”

Human Rights First contends that the coalition remains committed to its mission to see human rights violators answer for their crimes.

“We learned some lessons,” Berschinski said. “We’re going to move forward on the basis of those lessons learned in the months and years to come, but, all these groups still very much support the initiative and we’re planning on working together and trying to do this moving forward.”