WASHINGTON -- A well-known Russian attorney who has accused powerful regional officials of corruption is seeking asylum in the United States, saying he fears being imprisoned in Russia on "trumped-up charges."
Andrei Stolbunov, whose clients have included a muckraking journalist who was beaten nearly to death in a case that sparked international outrage, said he applied for U.S. asylum earlier this year because Russian authorities intend to prosecute him on "fabricated" extortion allegations.
"It's absolutely clear that they can put me in prison for a long time on trumped-up charges," Stolbunov, 41, told RFE/RL in a telephone interview from Miami.
Stolbunov is accused of colluding with his associates to extort $22.5 million from Pyotr Katsyv, the wealthy former minister of transportation in the Moscow region, according to a copy of a September 16 document outlining the charges against him and purportedly signed by a senior Russian Investigative Committee official.
The authenticity of the document, which was seen by RFE/RL, could not be immediately confirmed.
Other alleged victims in the list of charges include Katsyv's son, Denis Katsyv, whom U.S. prosecutors accuse of benefiting from an elaborate scheme to steal $230 million from Russian state coffers that was revealed by Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.
Stolbunov, head of the nongovernmental organization Spravedlivost (Justice), is accused in the alleged extortion plot of spreading "false" information about the elder Katsyv's purported illegal role in the takeover of a factory, according to the document.
He says the group's investigations into Katsyv's dealings, which he published on the Spravedlivost website, were accurate and aimed at exposing malfeasance in the government of the Moscow region, a federal subject that surrounds but does not include the Russian capital.
"[Extortion requires] objective evidence that people were doing this in order to get something," he said. "How can we be trying to get something if we're writing complaints to the Federal Security Service, to the Interior Ministry, to prosecutors, saying: 'Investigate this. Here are the facts."
Several of Stolbunov's alleged conspirators have been found guilty in connection with the same allegations, including Dmitry Baranovsky, who was sentenced to 12 years in prison in 2012 after being convicted of trying to extort money from Katsyv and a Russian banker.
Stolbunov claims the charges against his convicted associates, like those he could face, are part of a campaign of retribution in response to his organization's "anticorruption" investigations.
Stolbunov's most famous client was Mikhail Beketov, a journalist and environmental activist who claimed to have uncovered massive corruption in the construction of a controversial Moscow-St. Petersburg highway.
In 2008, Beketov was savagely beaten in his hometown of Khimki, outside Moscow. The attack left him with severe brain damage, and he died on April 8, 2013. No one has been charged in the assault.
Beketov, who never regained his ability to speak, was convicted two years after his attack of slandering Khimki Mayor Vladimir Strelchenko in the newspaper he edited, "Khimkinskaya pravda."
Stolbunov appealed the verdict, and the conviction of the incapacitated activist was overturned shortly thereafter.
When Beketov later received an award from Vladimir Putin, then Russia's prime minister, in 2012, Stolbunov accompanied him to the reception (see below).
Stolbunov says he left Russia in September 2013 and arrived in the United States a few months later, following a stopover in Greece.
He left the country a month after he was fined 800,000 rubles ($19,500) for failing to carry out a court order to publish a retraction of a 2008 article about Katsyv published on the Spravedlivost website. Stolbunov claims the retraction he ran on the website was sufficient, and the case is still under appeal.
The move to the United States has brought Stolbunov closer to the epicenter of a legal battle between U.S. federal prosecutors in New York and Denis Katsyv, the son of the former Moscow region transportation official named in the Russian charges against Stolbunov.
Prosecutors say Katsyv's Cyprus-based real estate corporation, Prevezon Holdings, was one of the companies that benefited from an elaborate scheme to steal $230 million from the Russian budget that was uncovered by Magnitsky.
Katsyv has said he is innocent of any involvement in the fraud scheme.
Magnitsky died in 2009 in pretrial detention after being repeatedly denied medical care. Supporters say his death was punishment for his whistle-blowing.
Katsyv's lawyer suggested in the Russian media that Stolbunov was working with U.S. prosecutors and investor William Browder, whose company's assets were targeted in the Magnitsky affair and who lobbied tirelessly for a U.S. law sanctioning those accused of involvement in the attorney's death.
Stolbunov "is portraying himself, like Browder, as a victim of a corrupt Russian regime," the attorney, Natalya Veselnitskaya, was quoted by the Kremlin-loyal newspaper "Izvestia" as saying.
Stolbunov calls the claims that he is working with Browder and U.S. prosecutors "largely dreamt up" but declined to elaborate. Browder did not respond to e-mailed inquiries seeking comment, and his office said on October 21 that he was unavailable for an interview.
In the meantime, Stolbunov says he is based in New Jersey while continuing to consult with his clients abroad remotely via the Internet, improve his English, and study international law.
He said the Investigative Committee has informed him of the charges against him in Russia through his lawyer, and that going back right now is not an option. "I understand now that there's no way I can expect justice from the government, unfortunately," Stolbunov said.