When Vladimir Putin met President Trump in Helsinki last July, the Russian president had a special request: Turn over BangorMaine native Kyle Parker and at least eight other U.S. officials for interrogation by Russian prosecutors.
Since then, Parker, 43, who grew up in Old Town and graduated in 1999 from the University of Maine, has had to think twice about where he travels overseas, for fear of being detained on a request from Moscow. His offense: being one of the key players behind the Magnitsky Act, a set of sanctions against Russians accused of gross human rights violations passed by Congress in 2012 in response to the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Russian prison. Parker is the chief of staff of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, a congressional agency that monitors human rights abuses.
At some point, he says, a Russian court will likely convict him and the others, making it all but impossible for him to return to a country he’s spent most of his adult life interacting with, and whose language is the mother tongue of his eight children.
“I don’t want to say that I’m not concerned, but there’s such a liberating feeling in saying, ‘I’m not going to worry about this,’ ” he told the Press Herald last week after delivering a speech in Northport to the Midcoast Forum on Foreign Relations. “I have the great fortune of doing meaningful work, rubbing shoulders with people from these countries who are heroes in every sense of the word, who have survived poisonings and assassination attempts, and their freedom and courage is infectious.”
Take the all-female Russian art-collective-cum-protest group Pussy Riot, three of whose members spent a harrowing year in prison for “hooliganism” after staging a protest of Putin’s regime. Two members came to Washington in May 2014 specifically to lobby Congress to add additional Russian officials to the list of individuals sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act. Parker was tasked with escorting them to the White House Correspondents Association dinner, fielding requests from attendees to have their pictures taken with the women.
During the visit, they appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., asked them if the act’s sanctions were effective. Nadeshda Tolokonnikova didn’t skip a beat, Parker recalls. “She looked at him and said: ‘They’re effective at keeping the conversation alive.’ ”
That, Parker says, is the true value of the legislation he helped shepherd through Congress. “These targets that we’ve gone after have been held to account in their own countries,” he told the Northport audience. “This can’t be swept under the rug.”
Putin tried to sweep Sergei Magnitsky under the rug.
‘Kyle Parker’s War’
A Russian tax attorney working for a U.S. law firm, Magnitsky discovered in 2009 that hundreds of millions of dollars had been stolen from the Russian treasury and laundered through Western banks. “Magnitsky didn’t uncover the loss of his client but, in fact, a massive fraud perpetrated against his own people,” Parker said. “He was a patriot” and one who made the mistake of taking his government at its word when it said it wanted to take on corruption.
“For that he was taken as a healthy 36-year-old, disappeared into Moscow’s notorious pretrial detention system, made sick, refused medical care, and in his final hour or two he is transported to a prison in Moscow that has a medical bay,” Parker said. “But instead of being given help, he’s taken to an isolation cell, he’s chained to a bed, he’s beaten by eight riot guards until he dies. And he’s found in a puddle of his own blood and urine in his jail cell.”
Parker, who was then the staffer responsible for Russia at the U.S. Helsinki Commission., told GQ magazine that he cried when he read Magnitsky had died, and decided to help the dead lawyer’s client, Bill Browder, lobby Congress to retaliate.
Browder, a financier who was active in Russia until being banned from entry in 2005 and is also on Putin’s interrogation wish list, has said the act wouldn’t have passed without Parker’s quarterbacking. If a movie were ever made about it, he’s said, it should be called “Kyle Parker’s War,” a title mirroring “Charlie Wilson’s War,” the 2007 film about a member of Congress persuading his country to respond to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan by arming the Taliban.
The act initially barred the officials implicated in the dead lawyer’s research from entering the United States or accessing our banking system, which effectively denies them access to most Western banks. A bipartisan group of senators in October asked Trump to sanction Saudi Arabian officials believed to have been involved in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi under a related law passed in 2016, the Global Magnitsky Act.
“The Magnitsky Act is a public naming and shaming,” Parker said. “It puts their names in lights, which is actually fair to the targets because they can actually say ‘you’re wrong’ and they can litigate it with us, if not in the courts then on the pages of the newspaper.”
Maine to Magnitsky
Parker told the audience how a summer term encounter with foreign exchange students at the University of Maine in Orono caused him to drop his chemistry major in favor of liberal arts. “I ended up meeting some Russian girls, and that awakened in me an interest I didn’t know I had in Russian culture and language and all things Russian,” he said.
Other factors for a kid growing up in Old Town in the 1980s: the example of Samantha Smith, the Maine schoolgirl who was invited to Moscow by Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, and the inclusion of Limestone’s Loring Air Force Base as a key nuclear target in the 1983 movie “War Games.”
Parker later spent two years as an exchange student himself, one in Kharkiv, Ukraine – where his wife is from – and another at the American University of Bulgaria, which was co-founded by the University of Maine. His eight children, ages 2 to 17, speak Russian at home.
He bought his first sports jacket and tie in Bangor in preparation for an interview with Sen. Olympia Snowe’s chief of staff (and future Maine Senate President) Kevin Raye, as part of a successful application to take part in a summer internship for University of Maine students. His time there led to friendships that landed him his first jobs in foreign policy, and he hasn’t looked back since.
“Some 20 years later, I’m still in Washington,” he said. “But I spend a lot of time and days thinking about Maine and planning my next vacation to come up and visit my home state.”