Pitted against the rough justice of Vladimir Putin's Kremlin, few Russians would think of reaching across the Atlantic for a lawyer who doesn't even speak their language. But when billionaire oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky faced trial for tax evasion and fraud in 2003 -- charges many considered politically motivated -- he wanted someone to take his case to the world. So Khodorkovsky tapped Robert R. Amsterdam, a Bronx-born litigator now based in Canada, who has built his career defending clients such as Four Seasons Hotels Inc. (FS) in political hot spots from Nigeria to Venezuela.
After a highly publicized trial, stoked in part by Amsterdam's bellicose comments on behalf of his client, Khodorkovsky was found guilty in May, 2005, and sentenced to eight years in a Siberian prison camp. The assets of his company, Yukos, were largely absorbed into Rosneft, a state-owned oil giant that's due to go public on July 14. Amsterdam's visa was revoked, and he was booted from Russia immediately after the oligarch's appeal was denied last September -- though the Canadian lawyer did stage a press conference before stepping on the plane.
That's not exactly what most would call a success. But for Amsterdam the case is far from closed. He's involved in litigation worldwide related to Khodorkovsky and rails against the treatment of his client, who has since had his face slashed by a fellow inmate and spent several stints in solitary confinement. He has also been crisscrossing the planet as one of the loudest voices opposing the Rosneft flotation. Although Khodorkovsky still pays him, Amsterdam seems to be on a personal mission to spring his client from jail. Some critics such as Eric Kraus, manager of the Nikitsky Russia Fund, say Amsterdam has now "abandoned his role as a lawyer to become a PR agent."
"POWER OF LIFE AND DEATH"
It's an easy accusation to lob at the brash, kinetic lawyer. Wherever Amsterdam goes these days, a spotlight is sure to follow. He lobbies the European Union to press for new hearings, speaks at conferences, writes legal papers, and pitches himself to the media. To some, his publicity push is what has kept Khodorkovsky alive. But Amsterdam, 50, knows his strategy carries risks. "We're walking a fine line in angering those who have the power of life and death over [Khodorkovsky]." That doesn't stop him from dubbing Rosneft's acquisition of Yukos' core assets as "state theft" and the IPO as a "syndication of the gulag."
Rosneft supporters obviously dispute that view. Many in Russia argue that Khodorkovsky essentially stole state assets when he acquired Yukos cheaply through a controversial privatization in the mid-1990s. But even relatively neutral bystanders echo some of Amsterdam's concerns. George Soros has said he won't touch the offer for ethical reasons, and emerging-markets guru Mark Mobius is staying away because of legal concerns. Yukos shareholders have already started to sue to recoup their losses. And on June 21, Yukos -- now a much smaller company run by a London-based CEO -- filed a letter with Britain's Financial Services Authority asking that it prevent Rosneft's listing on the London Stock Exchange. "We start from the premise that this asset was stolen," says Yukos spokeswoman Claire Davidson, noting that the case has received priority status from the European Court of Human Rights. "How can you sell something back to investors that has already been stolen?" Rosneft declined to comment, but finance chief Peter O'Brien recently told an investment conference in Moscow that the company is confident about the outcome of future litigation.
Amsterdam doesn't expect to derail the offering. Even at half the initial planned float, it's expected to raise about $10 billion. With the company valued at anywhere from $60 billion to $80 billion, Amsterdam concedes the prize is too big for investors to pass up. His goal is to put pressure on participants, including banks such as Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein and Morgan Stanley (MS), and use the offer to "highlight the deplorable state of human rights and rule of law in Russia." With enough public pressure, he hopes, the Kremlin might release his client. At the very least, he hopes to see the man once said to be Russia's richest citizen moved from Siberia to Moscow.
To Amsterdam, few things feel more natural than taking on a politically charged case. When he represented Four Seasons against an owner of its former hotel in Caracas, Venezuela, he managed to have key aspects of the case moved to the U.S., where a court ruled in his client's favor. "He uses the law but brings many other things to bear on the problem," says Randy Weisz, Four Seasons' general counsel. Amsterdam is fighting an even tougher battle in Guatemala, representing entrepreneur Juan Arturo Gutierrez in a civil case against well-connected opponents. That case caught the eye of Khodorkovsky and Guatemala litigators like Walter Robles, who calls Amsterdam "someone who fights the assumption that governments can act with impunity."
He certainly hasn't shown much deference to Russian authorities. Although Russian law doesn't let foreign lawyers argue cases in the courtroom, Amsterdam helped select local attorneys, consulted with Khodorkovsky, and directed the strategy for presenting his case to the outside world. Khodorkovsky's chief defense counsel, Yuri Schmidt, praised Amsterdam's ability to trumpet the cause. "What he said sounded entirely magnificent," says Schmidt, who relied on translators to get Amsterdam's meaning but appreciated his style. Public relations is clearly a key Amsterdam tactic. In a BBC documentary on the trial, he paces, swears, and pontificates while checking his BlackBerry.
INSTINCT FOR FIGHTING
His activist roots date back to boyhood. After his father died when Amsterdam was six months old, his mother remarried, and the family moved from the Bronx to Ottawa in 1967, when he was 12. The young New Yorker poured his energy into the issues of the day and began traveling through Eastern Europe on trips to accompany his asthmatic mother for treatment. When he got bored with high school, he dropped out, but his stepfather managed to talk Ottawa's Carleton University into accepting him without a diploma. He went on to study at Queen's University law school but spent so little time there that the graduating class gave him a postcard inscribed "wish you were here" at graduation. He then set up shop with classmate Dean A. Peroff in Toronto. The prosperous two-man firm built an expertise in trade disputes and international litigation, with clients ranging from PricewaterhouseCoopers to investors in Nigeria.
If subtlety is part of Amsterdam's arsenal, he hides it well. But he argues that silence rarely achieves results when going up against an authoritarian regime. With his client in Siberia and the Rosneft IPO pushing ahead, his instinct is to fight -- loudly. "It's watching impunity that makes you retch," he says. "One of the things I have is a forensic sense. If there's a political fraud, an economic fraud, I will tell you who is screwing who."
By Diane Brady, with Jason Bush in Moscow