In April, I traveled to Guatemala to visit three prisoners: Igor, Irina, and Anastasia Bitkov. Igor and Irina are husband and wife, and Anastasia is their daughter. The Bitkovs also have a son, Vladimir, age six. What has happened to this family is cruel and Kafkaesque. Indeed, it is evil, to reach for the strongest of all words.
I wrote about the Bitkovs and their case here. I would like to give an update — but first, the briefest of reminders:
The Bitkovs were a successful business family in Russia. They had to flee their country, in fear of their lives. They found refuge in Guatemala and lived fairly normally there for several years. Then, they were ensnared in a passport case, facing a bizarre coalition of the Russian state, Guatemalan authorities, and a U.N. agency. To be frank about it, the coalition reeks of corruption. The more you know, the worse the smell is.
Igor was sentenced to 19 years in prison; Irina and Anastasia were sentenced to 14 years each. By comparison, the sentence for rape is eight to twelve years. And murderers almost never get what the Bitkovs got. I could go on.
Now, an update. In late April, the Helsinki Commission in Washington convened a hearing on this case. This rattled the powers-that-be in Guatemala, and there was movement in the case. Igor Bitkov, after undergoing a terrible physical ordeal — a scandal in itself — was released from prison. He is under the kind of arrest that confines him to the country but not to his house. (He has been reunited with his son, who has been in the care of guardians, after a terrible ordeal in an orphanage.) But Irina and Anastasia? They are still in prison. The judges seem to be toying with them. Another hearing on the fate of Irina and Anastasia will be held tomorrow.
Friends of the family are very, very worried about Anastasia’s health. As I said in my piece, she has been unwell for many years. In 2007, when she was 16, she was kidnapped by mafia types in Russia. (They were working hand-in-glove with the FSB, the secret police.) They drugged and raped her for three days. Igor paid a ransom of $200,000, and his daughter was returned.
She emerged with mental problems, as one can well understand. She has been diagnosed as “bipolar” and “borderline.” Several times, she has attempted suicide. Lately, she has been hanging on, very, very bravely. I saw some of this with my own eyes.
Doctors warned Guatemalan officials that imprisonment would exacerbate Anastasia’s problems. They imprisoned her anyway, outrageously. (It would have been outrageous even if Anastasia were completely well. The imprisonment of the three Bitkovs is indefensible. Indeed, one court ruled that they should be subject to a fine, at most, for passport violations.)
In recent weeks, Anastasia has eaten very little, and her condition has deteriorated. A judge has threatened to send her to Federico Mora, a notorious psychiatric hospital. How notorious? The BBC made a documentary on Federico Mora called “The World’s Most Dangerous Hospital.” I have not watched the documentary. I don’t need to. I know what that place is — a hell for girls and women.
Over the years, I have written about many cases of injustice. This is one of the worst. When all the facts come out — whenever that may be — there must be a reckoning for the people who did this to the Bitkovs. I imagine that Irina and Anastasia will be released before long. Then the question is, How to keep them safe? FSB agents pledged to Igor that they would hunt down and kill him and his family, wherever they went. One step at a time, though. The continued incarceration of these women is beyond disgusting.