New York resident and lawyer Emanuel Zeltser woke up on a private plane headed for a KGB-monitored detention center in Belarus last March. His last memory before waking was drinking coffee at a London cafe. Since then, he's been held at three separate prison facilities in the former Soviet Union country. Zeltser, 55, has been deprived of his diabetes, heart and arthritis medications, physically tortured and mentally abused. Today, he is languishing in a KGB penal colony outside of the eastern Belarusian city of Mogilev.
It sounds like a nightmare, but these are the details laid out in the complaint filed by two Washington, D.C., Patton Boggs lawyers late last month (pdf) with the United Nations Human Rights Committee. Patton Boggs was scheduled to file another complaint Thursday with the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture.
Last July, four months after his capture, Zeltser was formally convicted in Belarus in a closed-door trial on charges of economic espionage, using false official documents and possession of illegal drugs. He was sentenced to three years in prison. According to the complaint filed with the Human Rights Committee, the drug charge references Zeltser's doctor-prescribed medications. The U.S. State Department and U.S. Embassy in Belarus were denied access to the trial, and Zeltser and his attorneys have been denied access to the formal criminal complaint and conviction against him.
"I wouldn't have thought in the 21st century we'd be doing a James Bond movie like this," says Patton Boggs partner Joseph Brand, who leads Zeltser's representation to the United Nations and calls the case "Kafkaesque," adding, "This is the Soviet Union at its worst."
The matter landed on Brand's desk last August, after Zeltser's brother got in touch with Patton Boggs name partner Thomas Boggs Jr. Brand specializes in international law and has handled legal work in more than 90 countries, according to his firm biography. Associate Kristen Johnson is assisting him.
Russian-born Zeltser is a U.S. citizen, and an outspoken expert on money laundering and organized crime. In the 1990s, he sued the Bank of New York during its Russian money-laundering scandal and testified before the House Banking Committee on the matter, but Brand says he does not believe the Russian government is involved in Zeltser's detention. He says the basis of the charges against Zeltser are unexplained, and that Zeltser had never previously set foot in Belarus.
Mark Zeltser, Emanuel's brother, says reports of his brother's worsening health are "very frightening." He likens the withholding of his brother's prescriptions to torture. "This is how they manipulate people there." Mark Zeltser has been barred from any communication with his brother since the detention.
Brand says the State Department has been "all over" the matter, and Amnesty International is advocating for Zeltser. Patton Boggs lawyers also recruited a dozen U.S. congressmen to sign a letter urging the Belarusian government to release Zeltser, says Brand. So far, Brand says he has not gotten any response from the Belarusian authorities.
This article first appeared on The BLT: The Blog of Legal Times.