The Crusader: Canadian lawyer involved in world’s highest profile human rights cases
Bob Amsterdam is the lawyer who has made headlines in the Zambia media. He is representing former President Banda and his son Henry in their cases of corruption. Many people have asked questions about how much the Banda’s have paid to higher this high profile international lawyer. Below is the article which appeared in a Canadian newspaper last January 2012 before he was even representing the Banda’s.
Bob Amsterdam steps from a train and heads for a small cottage in rural England that houses the offices of a local taxi company, where he hires a car — not for him, but for his bag.
It’s a cold night and American guests are coming for Thanksgiving dinner. But before the turkey and the cranberries, Amsterdam, a lawyer, decides it’s time for an invigorating walk, up a hill and down a lane bordered by hedgerows.
He arrives — shortly after his briefcase — at a two-storey home where the windows are bathed in warm, yellow light and his nine-year-old twin daughters are playing upstairs.
It looks like the genteel life of a country burgher. But appearances can be misleading. For starters, Amsterdam, 54, is a Canadian, with a talent for landing in political hot spots, such as the Red Shirt compound in Bangkok last spring, where he attempted to negotiate an end to the deadly conflict between anti-government protestors and the Thai military.
He’s probably the only graduate of an Ontario law school who employs a former British Special Air Services commando as a bodyguard.
“I don’t think any regime likes him, particularly semi-authoritarian ones,” says Peter Solomon, a political scientist at the University of Toronto.
In 2005, Amsterdam was expelled from Moscow after five men came to his hotel room in the middle of the night and confiscated his passport.
At the time, he was a member of the defence team at the first trial of Russian billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was convicted of fraud and tax evasion and banished to a Siberian prison for eight years. (The sentence was increased to 14 years when Khodorkovsky was found guilty at a retrial on Dec. 27.)
Amsterdam’s comments, painting the case an “obscene show trial,” differed little from what most western governments have been saying, but they apparently landed him on the wrong side of President Vladimir Putin.
His list of high-profile clients keeps growing. It now includes Singapore opposition leader Chee Soon Juan and ex-Nigerian cabinet minister Nasir El-Rufai, both facing imprisonment over what many are calling politically motivated prosecutions.
Amsterdam’s specialty is going into developing countries where the rule of law is often non-existent and attempting to hold political leaders accountable for alleged abuses of power — often relying on the power of public relations.
He was named one of 100 “hot” lawyers in the United Kingdom, his home for the past decade. The Times of London has named him lawyer of the week.
But despite his international profile, he remains relatively unknown in Canada.
How did a lawyer who started his career representing Toronto’s limo drivers in licensing battles windup with clients whose enemies carry AK-47s?
Ancient Czechoslovakian spas, Street Legal actress Sonja Smits and a Hungarian sheepdog named Jansci are all part of Amsterdam’s story.
A few years ago, Amsterdam was on an elliptical machine when he got a call from a man named Michael Kapoustin, who said he was phoning from the toilet of a prison in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Kapoustin, who grew up in Toronto, moved to Bulgaria after the fall of Communism and set up several businesses, but apparently ran into trouble with politicians and organized criminals. He was convicted of fraud and embezzlement and sentenced to 17 years behind bars.
His release from prison and return to Canada in 2008 was secured in part through the efforts of Amsterdam’s law firm. Amsterdam gives his partner, Dean Peroff, full credit.
Peroff, Amsterdam’s law school classmate, runs the firm’s Toronto office and Amsterdam works from England, where he lives with his third wife, Mo Harrison, and their three children. Amsterdam also has two grown sons from his first marriage. He doesn’t want where he lives published because he’s afraid it could potentially expose his children to risk.
He keeps an office in London — a “central gateway to access folks” and “a tremendous hub.”
“You can meet people here from every country, very easily.”
It seems he arrived there by following his youthful passions.
The youngest of three children, and the only son, Amsterdam was born in White Plains, N.Y. His father, Alexander Ross, a pioneer in the plastics business who patented a pocket-size chess set, died when Amsterdam was six months old.
His mother remarried a milliner, Sam Amsterdam, who moved the family to Ottawa when he went to work for Freeman’s, an Ontario department store chain. Amsterdam was 12.
In the years that followed, Amsterdam’s mother, Violet, made several trips to Czechoslovakia seeking treatment for severe asthma in country’s mineral spas.
“To be honest with you, we never understood how it worked,” he said. “But it (allowed) someone who was wildly asthmatic (to make) it manageable.”
Amsterdam often went with her and headed off on solo excursions to Hungary and the Soviet Union.
“I was a political sort of nut,” he said, “so it was a great opportunity to spend summers behind the Iron Curtain.”
Something rubbed off. By the time Amsterdam was in Grade 11 at Woodroffe High School in Ottawa, he becoming a political activist, which won him friends and landed him in trouble.
Actress Sonja Smits of Street Legal fame, who now heads the board at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre, was a classmate. She helped Amsterdam organize a protest against the American government’s decision to test nuclear weapons in the waters off Alaska’s Amchitka Island.
Students marched past Parliament Hill to the United States embassy where, of all things, a senior diplomatic official invited them inside for a Coke.
It was a more innocent time.
“We turned down the Coke because we were purists,” Smits recalls. The students went inside and laid out their concerns.
Even as a teenager, Amsterdam was “very smart, well-spoken and serious,” she said. “He was a definite leader and he always had a warmth about him.”
But not everyone was impressed.
Amsterdam was suspended from high school after its newspaper, which he edited, interviewed Abbie Hoffman, the political activist and co-founder of the Youth International (“Yippie”) Party, publishing a front-page story with Hoffman’s tips for undermining the principal.
Amsterdam was on the verge of becoming a dropout. His father, Sam, redirected the student’s love of politics into studying by enrolling him in political science summer classes at Carleton University, including courses in Chinese and Russian communism. Amsterdam thought he might become a political science professor, but it didn’t happen.
His older sisters were “intensively engaged” in planning his life, he says. Judy, a lawyer, signed him up for the law school admission test. Before long, Amsterdam was following in her footsteps, heading to law school at Queen’s University.
Amsterdam arrived at Queen’s in the fall of 1975 with no plan to practise law. He spent so little time on campus that when he graduated, his classmates gave him a postcard of the city of Kingston to show him what he had been missing.
Instead, he spent most of his time running an import-export business to Nigeria, at a time when the country was in economic and political turmoil as a result of falling oil prices and a military coup.
“We were trying to sell anything we thought we could into Nigeria during its wild times,” Amsterdam said. That included ship-to-shore radios and vans outfitted as dental clinics.
Tom Houston, managing partner at Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP in Ottawa, recalls coming home to the four-bedroom house they rented in Kingston’s student ghetto and seeing Amsterdam with a phone to one ear and several half-drunk cups of coffee strewn around the living room.
Sitting on the record player was Jansci, a Hungarian puli with long, tight dreadlocks; the dog belonged to Amsterdam’s parents.
Amsterdam was too distracted to notice the dog hair covering the house.
“Bob was a whirling dervish to live with,” said Houston. “His mind goes a million miles a minute.”
Only after Amsterdam graduated did he realize he needed to earn a living. He began considering a legal career.
He and Peroff opened an office in Toronto, on St. Patrick St. at Village by the Grange, and aspired to a practise that was “international” in scope.
But at the beginning, they did a lot of criminal cases, acted for an Ottawa-based record store chain known as Treble Clef and represented Toronto airport limousine drivers in licensing battles. A cross-border antitrust case took the pair to New York. One contact led to another, with clients sometimes coming to Amsterdam through friends he made in earlier travels.
While their work now takes them around the world, he and Peroff aren’t licensed to practise in most of the countries they go to. But he says they provide legal advice and assistance to clients outside Canada, which include mining companies and other corporations. They also find local lawyers with the expertise to represent them in court or at arbitrations.
Ever the entrepreneur, Amsterdam is also a prolific blogger. He posts daily dispatches on political developments and human rights violations in Russia, Africa and Asia, as well as opinion pieces criticizing the regimes that are prosecuting his clients.
In other words, his court is often the court of public opinion.
Those who have worked with him like Amsterdam and respect him, calling him bright and compassionate, with lots of chutzpah. Detractors in the blogosphere call him a mouthpiece for his clients and question the effectiveness of his advocacy.
After all, Khodorkovsky, once the richest man in Russia, was given eight years in prison after his 2005 trial.
Amsterdam calls those critics “schmucks.”
“If anyone thinks I go into these cases thinking, ‘I will free this person in six months,’ they’re crazy. We go into them knowing there is a political dispute and we’re going to do everything we can to mitigate the situation,” he says.
“And let’s be clear. Mikhail Khodorkovsky is alive. In the United States senate, he’s been called what he is, a hero for the rule of law. We fought a Russia that was determined to paint him as a criminal. To that extent, we have been extremely successful, because people realize he was a victim of a dastardly system.”
Sandy Saunders, a Washington D.C. lawyer who was also on the Khodorkovsky legal team, said no one believed their efforts would lead to a not-guilty verdict. The outcome was predetermined.
The job of the defence was to show the rest of the world there was no merit to the charges, he said.
Saunders helped assemble evidence pointing to Khodorkovsky’s innocence, while the energetic Amsterdam was the voice of the defence.
“I would say he is more of a crusader,” said Saunders. “You wouldn’t see me with a blog.”
But while Amsterdam spends a lot of time lashing out against repression, “it’s very important for me to state bluntly that I’m not a human rights lawyer,” he says, “because I don’t believe in human rights as a religion.”
Too many lawyers say they’re human rights specialists because they’ve been to Strasbourg, France to argue a case before the European Court of Human Rights, he said, but there are only a handful of true human rights lawyers on the planet and they’re on the ground, in places like Haiti.
“I’m just a normal lawyer who earns a living working for businesses and individuals and has a healthy pro bono law practice,” he said.
Amsterdam has conscripted the chef at his local Italian restaurant into cooking Thanksgiving dinner for his family and guests — no small feat in a land unaccustomed to pumpkin pie. The next morning, he’s off to the University of Leeds to speak with a leading expert on Thailand.
Amsterdam’s firm is preparing a complaint for the International Criminal Court on behalf of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship — the Red Shirts — urging the court to investigate Prime Minister Abhisit’s Vejjajiva’s government for alleged crimes against humanity last April and May when it opened fire against demonstrators calling for elections.
Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Thai prime minister who was deposed in a coup in 2006, is contributing towards the legal expenses.
Amsterdam was contacted by Shinawatra last spring and arrangements were made to have the lawyer go to Thailand to help negotiate an end to the standoff.
“What happened was, the government didn’t want to talk,” he says bluntly. “The government’s preference, quite frankly, is to mow people down in the streets.”
That included three nurses gunned down at a temple, Amsterdam notes, saying the memory of snipers firing on unarmed protesters “will haunt me forever.”
There’s little question he often treads into sensitive territory, where there are “all sorts of big egos wandering,” said Solomon.
“There’s obviously risk for him personally,” he added.
And frankly, that adds to the intrigue. Last month, Amsterdam visited U of T at the invitation of some of its political scientists, who wanted to hear first-hand about his cases.
One of the newest is in Kyrgyzstan, but Amsterdam isn’t ready to talk about it.
Except to say there was a bit of trouble late last month. The Kyrgyz government arrested and deported his translator./ TORONTO STAR