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JEWISH WORLD

ROBERT AMSTERDAM: ‘First


and foremost I’m a lawyer’

COURTESY ROBERT AMSTERDAM


Tilting at Governments
International lawyer Robert Amsterdam doesn’t shy away tained campaigns of delegitimization aimed at
antagonistic regimes domestically and abroad,
from using verbal heavy artillery in his battles on behalf Amsterdam employs clever blitzkriegs of sub-
of prominent clients versive media content to challenge ruling gov-
ernments’ versions of events. He issues in-
The Jerusalem Report, seething with indigna- depth white papers, dashes off Op-Ed pieces in
Tibor Krausz Bangkok tion at the charge leveled at him by detractors newspapers like The Wall Street Journal, and
that he’s an unscrupulous media-savvy apolo- blogs indefatigably.

H
E’S BEEN CALLED “A gist for clients with questionable reputations. His award-winning blog on Russian poli-
dirty Yid,” a “shyster” and – “What are you supposed to do in countries tics, available in five languages, reaps up to
this needles him most – “a PR with no rule of law, knowing you’re getting 50,000 daily visits, making the Canadian
hack.” For Robert Amsterdam, railroaded?” he elucidates. “Are you supposed lawyer’s eponymous website one of the most
derogatory epithets dished out to stay quiet when your client gets thrown in read Internet publications on the country’s
at him in state-controlled media from Russia to jail on trumped-up charges in show trials? No, affairs. Amsterdam’s new 80-page white paper
Venezuela to Thailand come with the territory. sir! Call me a PR hack, but if you’re gonna on Thailand, meanwhile, lets fly at the current
Embroiled in high-profile legal tussles on screw with my client, I’m gonna go out there military-backed government by highlighting
behalf of prominent clients like jailed Russian and scream from the mountaintops.” its alleged illegitimacy and systematic human
oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Thaksin And so he does. rights abuses after four turbulent years, which
Shinawatra, the ousted prime minister of Denied entry to Russia and Thailand and began in September 2006, with an army coup
Thailand, Amsterdam wages unrelenting wars reportedly on the hit list of paramilitaries in against Amsterdam’s client, democratically
of words through the media with the govern- Venezuela, Amsterdam is barred from arguing elected prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra,
ments of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Venezuela’s his cases in local courts (which are hopelessly and culminated last May in the murder of more
Hugo Chavez and incumbent Thai premier prejudiced against his clients anyway, he than 90 of Thaksin’s supporters on the streets
Abhisit Vejjajiva. believes); but he continues to advocate for of Bangkok.
“Sure I go to the press,” Amsterdam tells them in the court of public opinion. In sus- Despite Thai authorities’ sweeping suppres-

26 THE JERUSALEM REPORT OCTOBER 11, 2010


sion of opposition views, Amsterdam has no decries Amsterdam as a brazen fantasist in a of the incumbent Thai regime. He was plotting
trouble getting his message into Thailand far screed replete with anti-Jewish innuendo. legal strategies and working to set up an inde-
and wide. He’s the kind of fellow, after all, who “Amsterdam is more of a lobbyist than a pendent investigation into the May bloodshed.
got around blanket censorship in Guatemala by lawyer,” a pro-Kremlin newspaper in Serbia The lawyer was also drafting a notice to inter-
airdropping his own magazines into the coun- concurs, dismissing the Canadian litigator as a national arms manufacturers to warn them that
try to advocate his position on behalf of his grandstanding self-promoter less interested in their weapon sales to Thailand will make them
clients, two men engaged in a protracted legal the quotidian drudgery of legal paperwork than complicit in “the murder of civilians in cold
battle with some of Central America’s most providing sound bytes in a Manichean render- blood.” “The Thai military has been best
powerful corporate kingpins. ing of complex issues. “Old friends of deployed by the elite against [Thailand’s] own
Amsterdam remember him as a fonfer, a citizens,” Amsterdam insists. “This is an army

A
FOUNDING PARTNER OF THE Yiddish term for one who talks through his that every 10 or 15 years goes into the streets
international law firm Amsterdam & nose,” the newspaper Borba wrote. and murders citizens.”
Peroff with offices in Toronto, “The anti-Semitism in Russia I expected. I Seemingly indefatigable and driven to the
Washington and London, the Jewish lawyer never said a word about it,” Amsterdam point of obsession, Amsterdam is an adroit
has recently been retained by Thailand’s fugi- observes stoically. “But the anti-Semitism in multitasker. The several interviews he gave to
tive prime minister, who is wanted at home on Thailand I didn’t. Within a certain segment of The Jerusalem Report were interspersed with
corruption and “terrorism” charges. the Thai elite, it’s very strong, very pro- beeps, tinkles and chimes from a variety of
Amsterdam now represents Thaksin’s belea- nounced.” He adds: “But I’ve developed thick electronic devices vying for his attention as
guered supporters, a movement of mostly rural skin and I really couldn’t care less.” local contacts kept him up to speed with the lat-
and urban poor calling themselves the “Red est on his firm’s various cases in Thailand, the

I
Shirts” after their trademark attire. N THE ANIMATED THRONG OF Czech Republic, Nigeria and elsewhere. Now
Hundreds of members of the United Front protesters chanting slogans and rattling and then, Amsterdam’s long-suffering wife,
for Democracy against Dictatorship, as the their trademark foot-shape clappers, there Elaine, tried to squeeze a quiet word in apropos
grouping is officially known, have been lan- she stood – a little girl in her little red shirt. a pending dinner arrangement. The lawyer
guishing under arrest since May, after bands of Solemn and subdued, she was clutching a large happened to be on summer holiday with his
protesters torched several high-value buildings laminated picture of a dead man in a morgue family. “Don’t ask a junkie how he gets his
in retaliation for the military’s iron-fisted dis- with a bullet hole in his forehead. fix,” Amsterdam, who is voluble and articulate,
persal of their encampment in central Bangkok The girl’s dad, a Red Shirt protester, had notes with a laugh.
following a raucous two-month standoff that been shot dead, most likely by army snipers, An autodidact and bookworm with tottering
had paralyzed parts of the Thai capital. during the Thai military’s bloody crackdown piles of academic volumes by his bedside –
Last May, Amsterdam flew to Bangkok to on raucous anti-government demonstrators last currently including titles like “Ordering Power:
advise Red Shirt leaders during failed negotia- May. Now on September 19, the date marking Contentious Politics and Authoritarian
tions with the government before the impend- the fourth anniversary of a military coup that Leviathans in Southeast Asia” and “Truth on
ing military crackdown. “You just have to have ousted Thaksin Shinawatra, the girl and her Trial in Thailand” – Amsterdam is equally at
been in Bangkok to feel threatened by the mother were here to seek justice. Defying a home discussing the enduring legacies of mis-
[army’s] brutality and militarization,” the strict state of emergency decree still in place guided US foreign policy during the Cold War
lawyer recalls. A friend of his, a foreign jour- four months on, thousands of Red Shirts gath- and the stifling social burdens of Thailand’s
nalist, was shot and injured, Amsterdam says. ered in Bangkok’s posh commercial heart to feudal hierarchy. “One of the things I’ve found
“To be walking around Bangkok representing mourn their movement’s martyrs. They lit in places like Russia and Thailand,” he
Thaksin in those circumstances was a bit out votive candles at impromptu sidewalk shrines, observes, “is that a lack of legitimacy [by an
there,” he adds, “but I was caught up by the released red balloons with question marks autocratic government] goes hand in hand with
grotesque persecution of these people – elderly (“Where’s Justice?”) into an afternoon sky of a tremendous deficit in competence.”
men and women, couples with children.” brooding monsoon clouds, and grabbed onto a

T
Amsterdam is no longer welcome to the giant spider web of sai sin sacred thread, dyed HE NEW YORK-BORN JEW, WHO
self-styled Land of Smiles, but he remains in red, passed around in defiant camaraderie. grew up in Ottawa, Canada, cut his teeth
full adversarial mode by remote control. “[The Just days before, the Thai Royal Police’s in the international legal arena in 1997,
authorities] have barred me personally, but they Department of Special Investigations when he signed on to represent Juan Arturo and
haven’t prevented us from presenting our point announced that its inquest into the deaths of the Juan Guillermo Gutiérrez, a father and son
of view,” he says. “The Internet gives us a 90-some protesters gunned down last May had engaged in a drawn-out legal tug-of-war with
voice. We write an op-ed [on his blog] on stalled for lack of evidence – even though Latin American oligarchs in a “state capture”
Monday and by Tuesday it’s being [dissemi- videos of Thai soldiers shooting unarmed civil- case in Guatemala involving allegations of
nated] across Thailand.” His pro-Red Shirt ians, including foreign journalists, are widely massive tax fraud and money laundering – and
point of view has earned him prominent ill- available on YouTube. “the impunity of power,” as Amsterdam puts it.
wishers among Bangkok’s royalist elite, who “It’s a whitewash and a cover-up,” In what would become one of the biggest
views Thaksin as an enemy of the state. In a Amsterdam fumes. “This case cries out for jus- civil cases ever tried in Central America,
recent article “Don’t Shoot the Shyster!” pub- tice and we will bring it to foreign courts.” Amsterdam filed motions in multiple jurisdic-
lished by the country’s English-language On the day of the protest in Bangkok he was tions across the region. Besides dogged litiga-
Nation newspaper, a Thai-American novelist in London meeting with prominent opponents tion, he also honed his skills of political advo-

THE JERUSALEM REPORT OCTOBER 11, 2010 27


JEWISH WORLD

cacy. “We litigated like hell and developed while resisting arrest.
an important human rights campaign as “These are people who are a lot braver
part of our work,” he explains. “How to than I am and I’m proud to be able to
get around extensive state censorship and work with them,” Amsterdam notes.
propaganda provided a template for my Already at age 17, Amsterdam says, he
work later on.” was declared persona non grata in
Amsterdam has since built a career out Czechoslovakia. His crime: discussing
of representing clients in repressive politics with dissidents – or perhaps secu-
regimes and political hotspots the world rity agents masquerading as such.
over. In Russia, he represented billionaire He began his career of challenging
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once the coun- authority even before that. In his Toronto
try’s wealthiest oligarchs, sentenced in high school (Amsterdam moved from
2005 to eight years in a Siberian penal New York to Canada at 12 with his moth-
colony for fraud and tax evasion based on er and stepfather), he landed in trouble for
Kremlin-initiated charges generally writing an admiring article about the rad-
regarded as politically motivated. ical Jewish 1960s youth leader Howard
In Venezuela, he’s litigated for Eligio “Abbie” Hoffman for the student newspa-
Cedeno, a prominent banker arrested on per under the title “Seven Ways to [exple-
charges of engaging in illegal dollar trans- tive] the Principal.” Suspended from
actions after becoming involved in opposi- school, he began traveling around Sub-
tion politics against the regime of Hugo Saharan Africa, the Soviet Union, and
Chavez. In Nigeria, Amsterdam has come countries behind the Iron Curtain while
to the defense of Nasir El-Rufai, a promi- accompanying his asthmatic mother seek-

TIBOR KRAUSZ
nent reformist who fell out with the coun- ing treatment at Eastern European spas.
try’s ruling political party and is standing On a beach in Nigeria in 1975,
accused of corruption charges. In Amsterdam says, he chanced upon the
Singapore, he’s signed on to represent Dr. ORPHANED: This girl’s father, a red shirt protester, crucified bodies of the regime’s political
Chee Soon Juan, a much-harassed opposi- had been shot dead in May, most likely by army snipers; opponents.
tion politician. here she demonstrates in Bangkok in September Back then he was a committed
Amsterdam, 54, short and stocky, with Marxist, devouring books on dialectical
babyish pudgy features and thick curly locks, 47s. Prepared for the showdown via a tip-off, materialism. At college in Ottawa, he chose
resembles the stock Hollywood caricature of Amsterdam faced him off with an armed Marxist studies as a major before opting to
the finger-in-every-pie attorney a la Joe Pesci detachment of his own. study law at Queen’s University in Kingston. In
in the movie “My Cousin Vinny.” He rolls with One night in Moscow in 2005, during 1980, Amsterdam set up a legal practice with a
the punches and doesn’t pull his own. After Khodorkovsky’s trial, Amsterdam was woken friend in Toronto, specializing in corporate liti-
Khodorkovsky’s conviction, which he derided by the sound of loud banging on his hotel door. gation in developing countries. Their practice
as “a Kafkaesque show trial,” the Canadian He found himself face to face with six steely- would over the years considerably widen its
lawyer publicly called Russian prosecutors eyed security agents. To avoid a beating or scope, encompassing pro bono legal counsel in
“scum.” In a profile, the journal Canadian worse, the lawyer bluffed. Several journalists human rights cases.
Lawyer called Amsterdam “one of the few were waiting for him in the lobby and US offi- In one such new case Amsterdam is locking
lawyers in the world good at taking on the state cials, too, were coming to meet him, he lied. horns with the United Nations. The institution,
when the state starts acting like a criminal.” A He was left in peace, though not without being he charges, willfully ignored the repeated
senior Thai political analyst agrees, telling The summarily deported. warnings of a UN official in Harare, his client
Report: “[Amsterdam] challenges Thailand’s “As a foreign lawyer I could go on the who is a UN humanitarian coordinator called
culture of impunity, calling the Thai elites out streets of Moscow and call Vladimir Putin a Georges Tadonki, about a deadly cholera out-
on their abuse of the poor and the powerless.” thief. No Russian lawyer could do it and not break in 2008 in Zimbabwe in tacit support for
He certainly doesn’t lack for chutzpa. get murdered,” he tells The Report. “I speak the country’s dictatorial strongman, Robert
Amsterdam travels to hotspots with his own truth to power the best I can and the fact that I Mugabe.
bodyguard and, if need be, changes location am a foreigner means they won’t shoot me.” “[Tadonki] came to us a man broken and
every three hours. While representing Four A writer for Amsterdam’s popular blog on broke just after a heart attack,” says
Seasons in a lawsuit against the owner of the Russian politics, Kremlin critic Magomed Amsterdam, adding he’s working on the case
luxury hotel chain’s property in Caracas, Yevloyev, wasn’t so lucky. In 2008, Yevloyev pro bono. “Some of our best work you won’t
Amsterdam won the case by undoing the was found shot dead at the side of a road in the read about in newspapers,” he insists.
rogue hotelier’s home advantage through suc- volatile Russian republic of Ingushetia, which And that’s why he particularly begrudges
cessfully invoking extraterritorial US legisla- abuts Chechnya, while the journalist was in the the “PR hack” label. “I feel privileged. We
tion. But not before the disgruntled region to report on alleged human rights abus- have a uniquely interesting practice,” he says.
Venezuelan man stormed Amsterdam’s hotel es by Russian authorities. Local police later “But first and foremost I’m a lawyer and I’m
one night with a group of heavies toting AK- claimed Yevloyev had been shot accidentally gonna die a lawyer.” •

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