Fraudster or victim? The case of Russian fugitive Torubarov

Alexei Torubarov in Hungary
Image caption Alexei Torubarov: A fugitive from Russian justice entangled in a murky business dispute

Alexei Torubarov believes the Kremlin is out to destroy him.

As a successful businessman in Volgograd, a city of one million people formerly known as Stalingrad, he once owned 10 restaurants.

There the stories diverge. According to his own account, he took a stand against the clientelism and corruption he says is endemic in Vladimir Putin's Russia.

He joined an opposition party, Right Cause, befriended its co-founder Boris Nemtsov - assassinated in February last year - and led an association of entrepreneurs.

In response, the Russian state turned its heavy guns on him, he says. His businesses were stolen from him by a cartel which included a senior officer of the Federal Security Service (FSB), he alleges.

He was put on trial for fraud and blackmail - crimes which he says he is the victim of. He fled Russia twice.

He has endured one unsuccessful assassination attempt, two years in prison, and long years separated from his wife and sons.

Since December 2013, Mr Torubarov has been in Hungary, seeking political asylum. His request has been rejected twice by the immigration authorities, most recently in January this year, citing unspecified "national security reasons". He is appealing against that.

Ominously the Russian MP and former FSB agent Andrei Lugovoi - wanted by British police over the murder of anti-Putin activist Alexander Litvinenko - has taken a personal interest in his case. Litvinenko, another former FSB agent, died of radioactive poisoning in London in 2006.

The official Russian version of the Torubarov affair, contained in the international warrant for his arrest, totally contradicts his own story.

Image copyright Nick Thorpe - screenshot
Image caption The Hungarian Immigration Office rejected Mr Torubarov's asylum bid and said it was safe to send him back to Russia
Image copyright Nick Thorpe - screenshot
Image caption A Vienna court said Mr Torubarov must not be extradited, citing concerns about political interference in Russia's judiciary
Image copyright Nick Thorpe - screenshot
Image caption A letter to Volgograd police from Mr Lugovoi details the fraud accusation against Mr Torubarov

Mr Torubarov is accused of defrauding his business partners of $900,000 (£630,660) from 2006 to 2008. He should return to Russia to face trial, where he could face up to 10 years in prison.

He now lives in a small town in Hungary. With the help of his lawyers, I arranged to meet him in a restaurant in Budapest.

As he told his story, I regretted choosing a table by the window.

"After what I've been through, all the suffering, and then an attempt to murder me while I was in custody in Austria, I cannot feel really safe anywhere."

He was referring to an incident in the yard of a Viennese prison in July 2010, when a fellow inmate came up behind him with a knife, and tried to cut his throat, as he was preparing to pray. "Two things saved me. My own strength, and the fact that the assassin, in his excitement, used the blunt edge of the knife," he said drily.

Alexei Torubarov's strange odyssey

Image copyright Nick Thorpe
Image caption While Mr Torubarov keeps a low profile in Hungary his wife Svetlana remains in Prague

1998-2006: Builds "Elvis Plus" business empire in Volgograd

2006: Attempt to buy out co-owners of several restaurants goes wrong

2008-2010: First trial hearings against him for serious fraud in Volgograd

2010: Flees Russia and settles with his wife and younger son in Prague

2011: Arrested at Czech-Austrian border on international warrant issued by Russia. Assassination attempt in jail near Vienna. Austria refuses to extradite him to Russia. Returns to his family in Czech Republic

2012: Arrested in Czech Republic, again on Russian warrant

2013: Extradited from Czech Republic to Russia. Imprisoned for two months in inhumane conditions. Flees Russia again, via Belarus and Ukraine. Applies for political asylum in Hungary

2014: Czech Constitutional Court rules that extradition to Russia was illegal. Hungarian Immigration Office (OIN) refuses to grant him asylum

2015: Hungarian court rules that OIN must reconsider his case

2016: OIN rejects his asylum request again. His lawyers appeal

His calvary - his enemies would say "deceit" - goes back to 2006.

As the main stakeholder in a business empire called Elvis Plus, his businesses became the target of mafia-type gangs, allegedly linked to the FSB.

Around the same time, he joined the semi-oppositional party Right Cause. He took part in an auction to buy a restaurant he had been leasing, but was tricked out of the money, he alleges.

His business partners - in collusion with a part of the FSB, he believes - then accused him of being the perpetrator, rather than victim of the transaction, and brought the full weight of the Russian judicial system down on his head.

He was extradited to Russia in May 2013 from the Czech Republic. That was despite a last-minute attempt to block his Aeroflot flight, when the then Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg ordered a cargo plane to park in front of his plane.

But Mr Torubarov fled Russia again, to Hungary through Belarus and Ukraine, in December 2013.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption As a Russian MP Andrei Lugovoi - wanted by UK police - has immunity from prosecution

"Alexei Torubarov faces politically-motivated criminal charges," says Aniko Bakonyi of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a prominent human rights group which has been organising his legal support.

"He badly needs international protection. We are especially concerned that, in order to maintain cosy relations with [President] Vladimir Putin, the Hungarian government is refusing him sanctuary."

The Hungarian Immigration Office concluded that it would be safe to send Mr Torubarov back because "Russia has guaranteed that it will respect the human rights grounded in international treaties".

Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs told the BBC: "We do not comment on specific cases or on the rulings or decisions of the Immigration Office."

More on this story