In September 2007, Bellevue businessman Arkadi Gontmakher was imprisoned in Moscow and accused by the Russian government of involvement in a criminal ring that poached massive amounts of king crab from waters off the Kamchatka Peninsula. More than two years later, Gontmakher, an American citizen from Ukraine, has yet to be brought to trial in...
In September 2007, Bellevue businessman Arkadi Gontmakher was imprisoned in Moscow and accused by the Russian government of involvement in a criminal ring that poached massive amounts of king crab from waters off the Kamchatka Peninsula.
More than two years later, Gontmakher, an American citizen from Ukraine, has yet to be brought to trial in a case that has drawn international scrutiny.
Gontmakher’s continued detention triggered a diplomatic note from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to the Russian government, and letters of concern from U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, the Republican whose 8th District includes Bellevue.
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This year, Gontmakher, who says he is innocent of all charges, faces more uncertainty. His case has been moved from Moscow to Petropavlovsk, Kamchatka, and Gontmakher could be transported across Russia to a prison there.
“We don’t know why he has been detained for so long without trial, but what is certain is that his civil rights under Russian law have been violated,” said Joseph Brand, an attorney representing Gontmakher’s family.
Gontmakher is the founder of Bellevue-based Global Fishing, which in 2007 was the largest importer of Russian king crab sold in groceries across the United States. Russian prosecutors accuse Gontmakher of money laundering and conspiring with others to poach millions of pounds of crab.
Brand says Russian legal codes call for the case to be tried within 18 months of detention, and Gontmakher already has been imprisoned for more than 27 months. This was the issue that drew attention last summer from Reichert, who wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and from Murray, who wrote to President Obama.
“Like any Russian citizen, Mr. Gontmakher deserves access to the fair and timely administration of justice,” Murray wrote in a letter sent to the president in July. “I therefore request that you raise the issue of Mr. Gontmakher’s continued detention with the government of Russia.”
Richard Verma, a State Department official who responded to Murray, said the U.S. Embassy in Moscow had sent a diplomatic note to Russian authorities urging that the matter be brought to trial.
Brand, who is based in Washington, D.C., says that negotiations are under way to try to obtain Gontmakher’s release on the grounds that he is being illegally detained.
Officials at the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., could not be reached for comment.
Gontmakher’s case is a high-profile event in the Russian legal system and has been the subject of articles in the Russian media and numerous court hearings.
In the United States, Gontmakher lived in high style. He drove a Bentley and built a red-brick mansion in Bellevue. His company, founded in 1999, gained a reputation as a fiercely competitive operation that marketed Russian crab to major retailers such as Costco.
The company also has had some setbacks.
• In 2002, Global Fishing was involved in an extended legal battle over more than 144,000 pounds of Russian king crab seized by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) fishery agents in Blaine, because it was allegedly caught and transported in violation of Russian law.
Global Fishing had a security interest in the crab and unsuccessfully fought to have the crab released from federal custody.
• In August 2008, nearly a year after Gontmakher was detained in Russia, NOAA fishery agents conducted a search of Global Fishing’s Bellevue office. At that time, Brian Gorman, a spokesman for NOAA Fisheries, said the search was part of a pending federal investigation.
• In December 2009, Global Fishing was hit with a lawsuit from Simar Shipping, which claimed it was never paid for $5.8 million in Russian king crab, according to Charles Moure, a Seattle attorney who filed the lawsuit.
Russian prosecutors, in outlining their case against Gontmakher, say his company contracted with Russian crab skippers who had legitimate quotas, and then vastly exceeded those quotas to deliver illegal crab to Global Fishing, according to an Aug. 21 article in Seafood.com News, which has tracked the progress of the case in Russia.
In a statement released in 2007 to The Seattle Times, Global Fishing said it “has always sought to operate in a legal and ethical manner.” The company said its crab had full documentation to the point of purchase and had been inspected and cleared by Russian and U.S. agencies.
Gontmakher’s supporters have created the Save Arkady Gontmakher Web site to publicize his case: www.arkadygontmakher.com.
Seattle Times researcher David Turim contributed to this article.
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or firstname.lastname@example.org