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Running on empty: former energy executive remains in prison on scant evidence

Aug 04 2021

Karina Tsurkan, a former executive at an energy holding company, remains in prison on dubious charges of espionage. Originally from Moldova, Tsurkan began working in the Chisinau office of the state-owned company Inter RAO in 2005. She later moved to Moscow to work in the main office in 2007, and obtained Russian citizenship in 2016. In 2018, she was arrested under article 276 of the penal code of the Russian Federation. She was subsequently sentenced to 15 years in prison. After being released for less than a month in 2020, she was forced to return to prison, and has remained there ever since. Tsurkan maintains her innocence. The human rights organization Memorial has recognized her as a political prisoner.

Personal and Professional Background

Karina Valierevna Tsurkan was born in Chisinau, Moldovan SSR, in 1974. Her mother, Irina Aganesova, an energy engineer, describes Tsurkan as a curious person who always enjoyed a challenge. She was keenly interested in energy, law, and foreign languages. As a child, she took an interest in her mother’s work and began learning about the energy sector. After high school, she enrolled in a degree program that was conducted primarily in Romanian, despite not being fluent in the language at that time. She graduated from the International University of Moldova with a law degree in 1995. She subsequently obtained an MBA from a university in Spain. Due to her diverse educational background, Tsurkan is fluent in Russian, Romanian, and Spanish.

After completing her education, Tsurkan founded a law firm with her then-husband, Alexander. The couple, who have one son, divorced in 2002. Around this time, Tsurkan changed careers and took a job at Gas Natural Fenosa, the largest energy company in Moldova. In 2005, she took a job at the Chisinau offices of Inter RAO, the Russian state-owned energy company and the country’s fourth-largest producer of power, which has offices in multiple countries throughout the former Soviet Union. In 2007, she was promoted and moved to Moscow to work in the main office. At Inter RAO, she was employed as the head of the company’s trading division. In that capacity, she oversaw electrical power trade between Ukraine, Romania, and Moldova. This included the breakaway regions of Transnistria, in Moldova, and the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, in Ukraine.

In 2016, Tsurkan became a Russian citizen. She maintains that she renounced her Moldovan citizenship at that time and holds no other passport.

Current Case: 2018—Present

In 2018, Tsurkan was arrested on ambiguous charges. Although the precise essence of these charges varies from source to source, she stands accused of having shared classified information with an unidentified business contact. This individual is said to be of either Moldovan or Romanian nationality, and to have ties to the intelligence community in one or both of those countries. Tsurkan is accused to have shared the classified information with this individual in 2015. Because she still had Moldovan citizenship at that time, she was charged under article 276 (espionage) of the penal code, where a Russian national would have been charged under article 275 (treason). The prosecution sought to have Tsurkan imprisoned for eighteen years; she was sentenced to fifteen.

In connection with this case, the Russian Embassy in Romania has asserted that Tsurkan took Romanian citizenship in 2014, a charge which she denies. There have also been unsubstantiated rumors about Tsurkan’s personal relationships and the relevance they might bear to the charges.

Tsurkan maintains her innocence. In a 2018 interview with Meduza, she stated that she “would comment on the charges, if [she] understood them.” She willingly surrendered her computer, phone, and passwords to investigators, saying that she had nothing to hide. She stated that no law enforcement official had told her the name of the individual to whom she supposedly supplied classified information. She believes that she may have become a target because she “oversaw the implementation of corporate assignments in several complicated regions.”

Boris Kovalchuk, the son of Yuri Kovalchuk, a friend of Vladimir Putin, and the chairman of the board of Inter RAO, testified in Tsurkan’s favor at her trial. He said that he believed she had been framed by associates of Evgeny Shevchuk, the former self-proclaimed president of Transnistria (he now lives in Russia), who had objected to the presence of an Inter RAO power plant in the breakaway republic, and who is believed to have ties to intelligence agencies.

Tsurkan has said that conditions in the prison are poor and that the rights of prisoners are not respected. For example, while prisoners are legally entitled to unlimited contact with their lawyers, there is not sufficient space in the prison to facilitate these meetings. During her initial stay in prison, Tsurkan filled her time by studying Latin, German, and iconography. She told Meduza that she was worried about her mother and son, who were present in her apartment on the morning that she was arrested, and whom she had not been able to see since.

On January 16, 2020, Tsurkan was briefly released from prison. Twenty-three days later, she was forced to return. She has remained there ever since.

Political Prisoner Status

The human rights organization Memorial has recognized Tsurkan as a political prisoner on the grounds that she was denied her constitutional right to a fair trial, and was subsequently convicted on dubious evidence.

Tsurkan is not a typical political prisoner: she worked for a state-owned company and was not involved with any opposition movement. Her case demonstrates that it can happen to someone who does not fit the usual profile.

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