My travel agent saved my life.Really.


By Robert AmsterdamSeptember 13, 2017

In these hyperconnected times, where anything from a latte to a mortgage is available on your smartphone, it might seem extravagant to have a personal travel agent. I disagree.

Whether I am making a last-minute booking out of Hong Kong or I need to string together planes, trains and cars to get me from the delta of Nigeria to rural New Zealand (departing immediately), I know exactly whom to call, and I can rest assured that phone will always be answered.

For many international executives, this level of service is not just a convenience but a competitive advantage. A travel agent can make a huge difference -- in my case, a lifesaving difference.

Twelve years ago, in the fall of 2005, I was working on a major case in Moscow on behalf of the oil executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the founder of the Yukos Oil Co. and, at the time, one of Russia's wealthiest businessmen, with a net worth valued by Forbes at some $15 billion.

Khodorkovsky had risen swiftly in the ranks of Russia's chaotic post-Soviet private sector and was one of the first to embrace transparency, Western-style operational standards and philanthropic activity dedicated to developing Russian civil society and the rule of law.

He was also one of the few business leaders willing to publicly call out President Vladimir Putin on the corruption plaguing the country, which resulted in his imprisonment and the illegal seizure of Yukos Oil by the Russian government.

I had been in and out of Russia many times dating back to my student trips in the 1970s, and I returned, visiting regularly in 2004 and 2005 for what would turn out to be Khodorkovsky's first trial.

His legal team was facing a Kafkaesque situation. It is difficult to overemphasize the level of tension and drama surrounding that trial. In addition to the daily media circus, protesters faced barbed wire barricades, dozens of armed guards and police dogs. We had lost count of the number of threats, both implied and less-than-subtle, that were made to us. Physical security measures became paramount.

It was clear to the legal team that Russia was playing a political game with our client's life. No amount of evidence or facts presented in court would matter, and our basic rights to due process were routinely ignored. When Khodorkovsky was convicted, University of Hamburg law professor Otto Luchterhandt described the outcome as an "extraordinary scandal of justice," where accomplices of an all-powerful presidential administration, the Prosecutor General's Office and the courts fabricated a criminal case. The basic principles of legality were systematically and cynically violated.

Understanding that this was a politically driven case, we decided we had to fight politically, as well. During the appeal process, I had begun speaking out more frequently to the news media to condemn the Russian government's outrageous conduct. We were intent on making it very clear to the world that the appeal would become symbolic of the very future direction of the country.

It was also becoming very clear that I was wearing thin my welcome in Russia.

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I was first introduced to my travel agent, Michael Beagelman, CEO of MB Private Clients, by mutual colleagues on the Khodorkovsky case. They trusted him with sensitive travel arrangements as well as security and exfiltration protocols to protect data. 

Beagelman, who is London-based and works in partnership with Altour, had originally gotten into the travel business handling global concert tours for famous rock bands the likes of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and AC/DC.

He understood well in advance the risks we were taking by speaking out at Khodorkovsky's appeal hearing. Just a year earlier, another of his clients, Stephen Curtis, had been killed in a mysterious helicopter accident that some believed was related to his work with Yukos.

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Anticipating a high threat level while I was working in Russia on the Khodorkovsky case, Beagelman had arranged a number of key local security contacts to provide advance intelligence on any direct threats. One of these contacts delivered a coded message to him, even before the hearing concluded, indicating he had good intelligence that it was no longer safe for me to remain in Moscow. He immediately relayed the information to me.

As I left the hearing, I flagged a taxi to take me to the Domodedovo Airport, intent on getting out immediately. But within five minutes, I realized I couldn't leave Russia, given the heroism Khodorkovsky had shown. It would be turned into propaganda that I was running out on him. I knew I had to stay. I directed the driver to turn around and return to the courtroom, not knowing what fate awaited me.

I did not have to wait very long for the inevitable. At about 2 a.m. on Sept. 24, 2005, Beagelman called to let me know that a team of 12 Russian Federal Security Service officers were on their way to my hotel room to arrest me. He advised me to throw on a bathrobe and claim I was just getting out of the shower in order to buy time.

I kept the line open with him and managed to make three critically important calls before the pounding on my door began. After delaying as long as I could, I opened the door and allowed the officers into the room. The delay clearly displeased them.

They asked me to leave the hotel room and join them at the police station. I knew this was an illegal arrest; since Stalin's time, Russian police have been banned from late night knocks on the door with respect to anything other than emergency situations.

I told them I would not go willingly; they would need to carry me out of the building, at which point they seized my passport. I informed them to whom I had just spoken on the phone -- among them, a very well-known and high-level official in Bush's White House. They conferred, and left with my passport, so that I was essentially detained at the hotel, unable to leave without my travel documents.

As this was an extrajudicial arrest, I can only imagine what might have happened to me if I had gone with them in the middle of the night. Putin is not above making people who stand in his way disappear, regardless of their nationality. (I was a Canadian citizen at the time and now hold U.S. citizenship, as well.)

Robert Amsterdam, Canadian attorney for Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, shows his passport with his Russian visa annulled at a news conference in Moscow in September 2005. A group of Russian Federal Security Service officers had arrived at Amsterdam’s hotel room in the middle of the night and taken away his passport, he said. When they returned the passport, his Russian visa had been annulled, and he was ordered to leave the country. Photo Credit: Mikhail Metzel/AP
Robert Amsterdam, Canadian attorney for Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, shows his passport with his Russian visa annulled at a news conference in Moscow in September 2005. A group of Russian Federal Security Service officers had arrived at Amsterdam’s hotel room in the middle of the night and taken away his passport, he said. When they returned the passport, his Russian visa had been annulled, and he was ordered to leave the country. Photo Credit: Mikhail Metzel/AP

At approximately 5 in the morning, the same officers returned, and negotiations ensued. My visa was destroyed, and I was ordered to leave Russia by 5 p.m. that same day or face immediate detention.

Outraged at this conduct, I called a news conference, which was attended by some 200 journalists, where I denounced not only the thuggish conduct against myself but the attack on the Russian lawyers on the defense team, all of whom were threatened with disbarment that same day.

Meanwhile, back in London, it had been a very busy Friday and Saturday for Beagelman and his team. They worked nonstop to make plans for my safe exit, along with numerous redundancies should other threats arise.

They were also relaying urgent facts about my situation to the Canadian Embassy in Moscow as well as to my U.S. colleagues, enabling them to get the word out. Thanks to Beagelman's assistance, the Canadian Embassy sent a representative first thing in the morning to make an official inquiry, while media coverage made it harder for the government to delay me indefinitely.

We didn't exhale until later in the day when we were wheels up on a British Airways flight direct from Moscow to London -- and thankful that we did not have to use a private charter with a flight plan that could have easily been disrupted or delayed.

By staying in Moscow, despite the risks, and fighting the government's unlawful conduct down to the last moment, we were able to shine a light on the fundamental injustice of the Khodorkovsky case and raise international awareness.

It would take many years of effort on behalf of a large and diverse team of supporters, but Khodorkovsky was eventually released in 2013, thanks in large part to the heroic efforts of the Russian lawyers and the intervention of Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the former foreign minister of Germany, ahead of Russia's hosting of the XXII Olympic Winter Games in Sochi.

Still, the situation in Russia has sharply deteriorated over the past decade. Several people involved in the Yukos case have lost their lives, including the company's general counsel, Vasily Alexsanyan, who died in prison due to medical mistreatment.

Lawyers in other cases challenging the Kremlin have also been murdered, including Sergei Magnitsky, who exposed government corruption in a tax-rebate scam aimed against his client, Bill Browder of Hermitage Capital Management. Browder was also ejected from the country.

Russian lawyers, journalists and dissidents who have shown incredible bravery to fight for the future of their country face daily threats.

Since the Khodorkovsky affair, I have been detained, banned and arrested in four other jurisdictions. In each of these situations, I owe thanks to both my travel companion and my trusted travel agent, who seems to keep a candle burning every time the proverbial hits the fan.

In this age of disintermediation, I'm extraordinarily grateful for the travel agent who has my back. Here are some tips that both Beagelman and I would recommend for those thinking of traveling in high-risk travel situations:

1) Always have your phone charged and a back-up battery at the ready. Text messaging during a crisis can save your life. In extreme conditions the web may be inaccessible, but texting is a more dependable communication channel.

Text messaging saved the lives of other clients of Beagelman's firm in 2008 when they were trapped with 40 other guests in the deadly 2008 terrorist attacks at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai, when 164 people were killed and more than 300 wounded by terrorists over the course of four days.

Beagelman was texting his clients non-stop for 36 hours, guiding them on what to do (e.g., "charge your phone") and where to go to be safe. As reported in the New York Times ("A Lesson of Mumbai: Have a Safety Plan," Michelle Higgins, Dec. 9, 2008): "Mr. Beagelman was able to provide [his clients' names] to the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office and tell them where the clients were. Indian soldiers eventually helped them get out."

2) Have your travel monitored by a 24/7 travel management company. It is an essential backup to any potential issues in frontier markets. The ability to change travel plans at the last minute is crucial for keeping you safe and mobile. During a crisis, one call or text message can save your life -- within minutes a car and/or plane can be ready to move you to a safe location.

3) If you are intending to travel to a dangerous region, have an evacuation travel plan in place. As with the Yukos case, the evacuation travel plan was preformulated, as Beagelman anticipated there would be threats to my life.

4) Ensure that your documentation is correct/accurate and that you have an acceptable/valid reason to visit the country to which you're heading. Any error in a visa/passport or other travel documents can cause issues and lend an excuse for a government to hold you without reason.

5) It's always best to have visas pre-issued to avoid being at the mercy of the immigration officer upon arrival.

6) Arrange prescreened drivers for all ground transportation. As with an airplane pilot, your life and the lives of your loved ones are literally in the hands of a driver. When traveling to dangerous areas, always know who is behind the wheel when you are on the ground.

Robert Amsterdam is an international lawyer and founder of Amsterdam & Partners LLP. He is on Twitter at @robertamsterdam.