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  1. Law
October 8, 2010

The Attorney Who Came in from the Cold

By Spear's

Josh Spero meets Robert Amsterdam, the crusading lawyer who cut his teeth on politically explosive cases that John le Carré could have devised

when even the best lawyer hits the limits of the law. While that sounds like an extract from the flyleaf of a new John Grisham novel, it is not a thought which should be ignored. Once someone — a government or military or criminal organisation, usually — has decided that they don’t want to operate within the conventions and restrictions of a legal framework, with extrajudicial hearings or kangaroo proceedings, it is no use being even the biggest spider weaving the tightest tapestry within the web of the law: you need someone who transcends the law, who can invoke politics and play power games. That is where Robert Amsterdam comes in.

The essence of Amsterdam’s philosophy of law is that the law is not always enough. Years spent practising in the field of international trade disputes — his firm Amsterdam & Peroff has represented, inter alia, the Four Seasons Group and PricewaterhouseCoopers — have given him a feeling for the true forces which pull at the world, those operating beyond domestic and even supranational law.

Thus, when faced with a trial whose true motives are political and whose outcome is determined before the first bang of the gavel, Amsterdam knows that you cannot simply fight within the four walls of the courtroom: what point is there in legitimising a charade by participating in it? External pressure must be applied. Political remedies sought. Light thrown on to the case, all kinds of hullabaloo unleashed: if shouting (metaphorically and literally) can embarrass the politicians, then shout.

Amsterdam’s first major political case was that of the Gutiérrez-Strauss family in Guatemala (tax-fraud lawsuits against two men whom he makes out to be shadow presidents), and in the decade he has been fighting it he has been making necessary noise. His team daily posts half a dozen blogs on, and a typical entry on the Guatemalan case is forthright, combative even.

‘It is extraordinarily difficult for me to emphasise the extent of the political influence and raw financial clout of these men, who operate as a parallel power in the country, capturing the critical institutions of the state, and handpicking presidents much like Russia. Our case has been one of David fighting multiple Goliaths.’ Under-selling a case is not selling it at all.

But the name most often associated with Amsterdam — which at some points threatened his life — is Mikhail Khodorkovsky. In 2003, Amsterdam was retained by the oligarch’s company, Yukos, when then-president Vladimir Putin decided Khodorkovsky’s funding of opposition groups and his own potential political ambitions could not be endured any longer. His ownership of a large petroleum company made him strategically significant, too, given how Russia uses its natural resources to toy with and torture the West.

Although Khodorkovsky is now languishing in a Siberian prison, Amsterdam rattled every cage he could find during and since the trial. His tactics, raising the case’s profile internationally, where it could be easily painted as the new tsar dispensing summary justice, were designed to irritate and embarrass Putin; he could not leverage the law for Khodorkovsky, so he used politics and the media instead, turning the magnate into a cause célèbre.

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‘I recognise that calling Vladimir Putin a thief on the streets of Moscow is a very dangerous thing to do,’ he says, now safely ensconced in the Lanesborough, in a dark brown leather wingback chair. His stout, compact frame rarely settles fully into it, as he frequently leans forward to check his phone or an email or a legal document, his arms waving about like Vishnu’s.

‘I wasn’t surprised when I was attacked,’ referring to when security agents tried to arrest him in his Moscow hotel room in 2005, forcing him to flee the country, from which he is now banned. He denies that he is pursuing something akin to a martyrdom, although many more insults to Putin and he may not have to pursue it very hard.

THE PASSION THAT has to drive a vigorous extrajudicial strategy is not in short supply, even to the level of acute personal distress: ‘I think if you watch a man with the genius of Khodorkovsky being led into jail in shackles, it does touch a nerve that I found absolutely, extraordinarily painful. I was never able to treat this as something normal.’

Amsterdam may not have won Khodorkovsky’s freedom — not that this ever seemed possible — but he did win a string of new clients, similarly brought low by oppressive forces involved in what he calls ‘state capture’, where an elite runs the country for their own ends: militarily deposed Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra; recently freed Venezuelan banker Eligio Cedeño; leader of Singapore’s democratic opposition Dr Chee Soon Juan; former Nigerian minister Nasir El-Rufai. To Amsterdam, they all share a Khodorkovskian hue, the halo of the persecuted: ‘What unites many of these people is that they have an important narrative that is unheard.’

He’s not wrong — each has arrayed himself against a powerful and undeniably authoritarian enemy — but in some cases there is more than a little recasting occurring. For Amsterdam’s political strategy to work, his clients must look like saints, making the unpalatable easily digestible. ‘I would say a lot of
what has happened to people is they are made unpalatable by governments and massive PR machines that virtually historically have gone unchallenged — and we do the opposite.’

Take Thaksin, deposed and demonised by corruption charges. ‘Here is a man who brought a quarter of his population out of poverty, who gave universal healthcare to his people, and if you read the Western press, all you read about is that he is corrupt, and that is absurd in light of what he has accomplished.’ But that doesn’t mean he’s not corrupt.

‘No, Thaksin is not corrupt. It is very important to understand that the Thai system has systemic problems. He is a much more transparent politician than any other politician in the history of Thailand.’

Surely Khodorkovsky is just as dubious, an early-Nineties asset-stripper who has now, in some cruel but just cycle, been asset-stripped himself? ‘I find that — you’ll excuse me — a humorous comment. I mean, in the break-up of many countries, there were many people who simply took over state assets. The issue isn’t in my view taking over state assets — it is what you do with them. In Khodorkovsky’s case, he set up a massive public company that generated tremendous wealth.’ The real enemies are the new owners of the assets, who ‘have made the old oligarchs look like Mother Teresa’.

Amsterdam is too clever to be unaware of the questionable morality of this line of argument, an ultimate subjugation of means to end, but if it is effective in redeeming his clients — and in the forgetful, emotion-led West, it is — that is a sufficient result. What he points to, when accounting for (or at least discussing) his clients’ imperfect pasts, is that they did what they had to do to survive, which is the hardest thing.

‘I find it very difficult to act as a judge of anyone in Russia in the Nineties, having been so involved in seeing what happened there. It is this ex post facto morality which isn’t applied in so many countries. Listen, I have worked in horrific countries all my life. I understand well how difficult survival is and I don’t sit in a Western suite and cast judgment on everybody.’ That is a fair point, but one man’s survival is another man’s profiteering.

GIVEN THAT AMSTERDAM & Peroff is now saturated in Realpolitik, its new emphasis on preventative planning for entrepreneurs and high-net-worth families involved in international trade seems like a natural extension. ‘If you are in the mining or agricultural or energy sector, or even technology, you really need decent legal as well as political advice,’ because state-owned companies are now threatening private enterprise and states are expropriating and nationalising them. (His own distinction between legal and political help, both of which he provides, is not unnoticed.)

He is currently representing a group of Czech entrepreneurs whose businesses have been hurt through political means by a powerful individual, ‘who is the kind of — frankly — populist you’d have seen in Juan Peron’s Argentina’. The conclusion we are to draw from this is that even ‘developed’ countries can be bent to the will of the powerful.

The key, he says, is to act before you have a problem and respond hard when you do: ‘Those corporations who want to turn the other cheek, I have yet to see one come out of it OK. Normally the thing that happens is that they get screwed.’

The current approach of other law firms, relying on bilateral investment treaties already agreed between countries (guaranteeing freedom to trade, the safety of investments and similar), doesn’t work, Amsterdam says, because if ‘in many countries you pursue that remedy, you disenfranchise the client and place them as a complete adversary to the government.’

What he does instead is look to local on-the-ground solutions, or even multinational institutions such as human rights tribunals, which reflects his work-around methods. Another credit on Amsterdam & Peroff’s side is that because it is not a law firm with offices in 50 countries it has little to fear from governments: it has no Dubai or Shanghai office to be shut down for its opposition. ‘Hiring our firm has the advantage that people understand they can’t buy us, they can’t threaten us.’

Amsterdam professes a modest career goal — ‘My goal has always been to represent people smarter than myself’ — but when asked to consider what his achievements have been, his summary is simple: ‘We brought to the table all the instruments we could on behalf of our client.’ His armoury gives a new meaning to ‘full-service law firm’.

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