Washington, DC, January 12— Patton Boggs has requested a formal investigation by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture into allegations that it believes Belarusian authorities have repeatedly tortured Emanuel Zeltser since the American citizen was mysteriously detained there ten months ago.
The firm filed “an urgent appeal and allegation letter” on Jan. 8 with Manfred Nowak, the special rapporteur on torture at the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights based in Geneva.
The torture allegations come in the wake of a 21-page complaint filed with the United Nations Human Rights Committee in late December, asserting that Belarus has violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by illegally detaining Mr. Zeltser, a 55-year-old New York resident on March 12, 2008.
The 15-page torture allegation letter and accompanying exhibits detail the harrowing tale of what has happened to Mr. Zeltser, director and general counsel of the American Russian Law Institute in New York prior to his detention.
According to reports from his brother, Mark Zeltser, Mr. Zeltser recalls only that on that day, he was sipping coffee at a café in London. His next memory is waking up and finding himself on a private plane bound for a KGB-monitored detention center in Minsk.
“During his imprisonment, the Belarusian authorities have tortured Mr. Zeltser by subjecting him to substandard prison conditions and physical beatings, forcing him to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, and jeopardizing his health and life by depriving him of vital physician-prescribed medications and failing to attend to his critical medical needs,” states the document submitted by Joseph L. Brand and Kristen Jarvis Johnson, part of the Patton Boggs team leading the firm’s legal efforts to free Mr. Zeltser at the request of his brother, Mark.
“This intentional infliction of severe pain and suffering on Mr. Zeltser is leading to his mental and physical deterioration and, as substantiated by physician reports, could result in his death if immediate action is not taken,” the document states.
One outside observer, Oleg Volcheck, a former prosecutor and deputy of the Minsk City Council, reported on the wretched condition of the overcrowded KGB detention centers like the one where Mr. Zeltser was housed.
“It reminds me of stories about jails during the Tsarist times,” Mr. Volcheck wrote in a report by the International Federation for Human Rights. “The top floors of the building had a better “climate” but those in the basement cells had their limbs rotting away and their skin covered in boils.”
On August 11, 2008, Mr. Zeltser was convicted of “using false official documents” and “attempted economic espionage” during a closed-door secret show trial. The records from the trial are secret. Mr. Zeltser’s own court appointed lawyer, Dmitry Goryachko, is silenced by a mandatory confidentiality agreement from discussing the case, so it is not clear what evidence was presented during his trial.
But Mr. Goryachko was able to describe Mr. Zeltser’s deteriorating condition and quality of his care.
“He is under totally inhuman, degrading conditions and is subject to constant humiliation,” Mr. Goryachko said.
Mr. Zeltser is now in dire health in a penal colony near Mogilev, Belarus. Dr. Albert Benchabbat, a Board-certified physician, was allowed to examine Mr. Zeltser as recently as Jan. 6, 2009. He reported that Mr. Zeltser is unlikely to survive in current conditions and deprived of his vital medications. He urged that Mr. Zeltser be released so that he could have urgent heart surgery.
“It is an outrage that an American citizen could be sipping coffee one minute in London only to find himself in the hands of the KGB the next,” Mr. Brand said. “It’s like watching a James Bond movie until it happens to you. Then you realize how quickly your life can be taken, even in London.”
“This situation is exactly the type these U.N. mechanisms aim to address. Wrongful detention, withholding of medications to inflict pain, and turning a blind eye to human rights obligations,” Ms. Johnson said. “We call upon the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture to send a strong message to Belarus that these actions are unacceptable and must be amended.”
The Patton Boggs team, which also includes Darryl D. Nirenberg and Scott C. Thompson, has briefed the State Department and key congressional offices on Mr. Zeltser’s plight.
The State Department and leading members of Congress have repeatedly called for Mr. Zeltser’s prompt release on humanitarian grounds. A dozen lawmakers recently wrote Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko seeking his release. The list of lawmakers signing the letter included: Reps. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., and Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., the chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s subcommittee on Europe; Reps. Alcee L. Hastings, D-Fla., and Christopher H. Smith, R-N.J., the chairman and ranking member of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe; and Reps. James P. McGovern, D-Mass., and Frank R. Wolf, R-Va., chairs of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission.