* This article relies on a joint investigation by openDemocracy and Mother Jones

One of Donald Trump’s top legal professionals leads an organisation that has given no less than $3.3 million since 2007 to a Russian evangelical group with ties to Vladimir Putin’s authorities, a brand new investigation from openDemocracy and Mother Jones reveals at the moment.

The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), based in 1990 by right-wing evangelical Pat Robertson, has been sending lots of of 1000’s of {dollars} a 12 months to the Moscow-based Slavic Center of Law and Justice (SCLJ), in response to ACLJ’s US monetary filings. 

The chief counsel for the ACLJ – and its driving pressure – is Jay Sekulow, who famously shepherded Trump’s impeachment defence as one in all his non-public attorneys. Along with Rudy Giuliani, Sekulow will likely be coordinating authorized challenges to the US election outcomes if Trump decides to make any. 

The SCLJ was based by the ACLJ in the Nineties. It is directed by Vladimir Ryakhovsky, an evangelical activist and Russian lawyer who additionally serves on Putin’s controversial human rights council – in addition to Russia’s Putin-funded press complaints fee.

Sekulow’s ACLJ says in its monetary filings that the cash despatched to its Russian department is meant to underwrite “litigation and legal services related to religious freedoms and human rights in Russia”. It doesn’t disclose additional particulars on precisely how this cash has been spent. 

The SCLJ didn’t reply openDemocracy’s questions on whether or not it has different funders, and neither the ACLJ nor the SCLJ responded to questions on how precisely the cash from the US has been spent in Russia.

Sekulow’s teams embrace a Christian fundamentalist view of human rights. In 2013, the SCLJ expressed support for Putin’s controversial ‘homosexual propaganda’ regulation, banning advocacy for LGBTIQ rights. A 12 months earlier, after the punk band Pussy Riot held an anti-Putin protest inside a church, the SCLJ supported a regulation to criminalise such “blasphemous” exercise, in addition to the “dissemination of such information on the internet”.

Earlier this week, openDemocracy revealed that Sekulow’s group has also sent at least $14 million to its European department, which has been concerned in quite a few courtroom instances in opposition to womens and LGBTIQ rights (together with Poland’s landmark anti-abortion ruling final week, condemned by the Council of Europe as a grave “human rights violation”).

It is one in all 28 US Christian proper teams that have collectively spent at least £280 million of dark money world wide since 2007. None of those teams reveals the identities of its donors or particulars what it spends the cash on.

Kremlin loyalists

Vladimir Ryakhovsky, who has directed the Moscow-based SCLJ because the Nineties, has held quite a few posts on Kremlin committees for the previous 20 years. 

In 2018, Putin made him a member of the Presidential Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights, a governmental group that’s supposed to watch assaults on political rights. Another member, Alexander Verkhovsky, says that the president attends the council’s annual conferences.

Last 12 months, Putin overhauled the council, eradicating 4 (of 48) members who had criticised his authorities and changing its head with a former TV host broadly seen as a Kremlin loyalist. Ryakhovsky remained a member.

Vladimir Ryakhovsky (left) at a meeting of the Presidential Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights at the Kremlin, December 2019.
Vladimir Ryakhovsky (left) at a gathering of the Presidential Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights on the Kremlin, December 2019. | Kommersant Photo Agency/SIPA USA/PA Images

The 4 members ousted from the committee had sought to research actions taken by Russian safety forces and courts in opposition to individuals in protests that had challenged the equity of latest elections. The new head of the council said in an interview that he supposed to pay much less consideration to political rights and extra to “social rights” reminiscent of housing and medical care. 

In 2020, Ryakhovsky additionally joined the Public Press Complaints Collegium, a government-funded group that claims it “self-regulates and co-regulates the media”. It describes itself as “an unbiased construction of civil society” however is funded by Putin’s Presidential Grants Fund.

Reporters Without Borders ranked Russia 149 out of 179 nations in its 2020 Press Freedom Index and described its “stifling atmosphere” for journalists.

Cooperation with Putin is ‘easy’

Ryakhovsky’s brother Sergey is maybe the main evangelical Christian in Russia. He is the chief bishop of the Associated Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical-Pentecostal Faith (RUCEF), and he, too, has authorities connections. 

This 12 months, he was reappointed by Putin to the Kremlin’s Civic Chamber, a bunch that screens the federal authorities and parliament and analyses draft laws. His brother Vladimir was additionally a part of the Civic Chamber in the mid-Nineties; Sergey was first appointed in 2006. Since 2002, Sergey has additionally been a member of the Council for Interaction with Religious Associations – an advisory physique, first arrange in the mid-Nineties, that Putin meets with.

Sergey regularly posts photographs of himself with Putin on social media, calling the cooperation with him “easy.” In 2018, he received a letter of gratitude from Putin “for his active participation in the preparation and conduct of Russian presidential elections”. Putin received that 12 months’s elections, with nearly 80% of the vote, however they have been marred by allegations of voting irregularities and fraud. 

“Bishop Sergey Ryakhovsky, and the churches of RUCEF as a whole, support the head of state, as the holy scriptures clearly state [we should]. The Bible records the words of the apostle Paul, in which he asks to ‘perform prayers’ for ‘kings and for all rulers’,” Anton Kruglikov, RUCEF’s press secretary, advised openDemocracy. 

“The pronounced conservative position of Vladimir Putin on the issues of traditional moral values ​​and his pronounced support for the traditional family evoke great sympathy among evangelical believers,” Kruglikov added. “Unfortunately, this position is quite different from ones of certain European leaders and some former US presidents.”

Sergey Ryakhovsky (left) at a ceremony to commemorate the Day of National Unity, 4 November 2018.
Sergey Ryakhovsky (left) at a ceremony to commemorate the Day of National Unity, 4 November 2018. | Dmitry Dukhanin/Kommersant/Sipa USA

On Russia Day – a nationwide vacation thought-about trendy Russia’s ‘Independence Day’ – in 2019, Sergey Ryakhovsky acquired a proper, private congratulation from Putin. It wished him success and invited him to a gala reception on the Kremlin.

Defending the religion

The organisations that the Ryakhovsky brothers lead say they’re centered on defending the rights of religious teams and people. There is definitely a necessity for such work: observers warn that Russia’s human rights document, together with its remedy of religious minorities, has worsened in latest years.

Under the Yarovaya Package, handed in 2016, representatives of church buildings and religious denominations that aren’t a part of the Russian Orthodox church have been subject to fines, arrests and detention, whereas their homes of worship have been demolished or transferred to the state or the Orthodox church.

In this context, Alexander Verkhovsky, who sits with Vladimir Ryakhovsky on Putin’s human rights council and is the director of Sova Center for Information and Analysis, says: “The SCLJ is one of the most active groups fighting for freedom of religion and belief. And they protect not only Pentecostals or Protestants in general, but all other groups, including various Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses and so on”.

Verkhovsky says Sergey Ryakhovsky’s connections to the federal government usually are not stunning. “As all other mainstream religious leaders in Russia, he is loyal to the current political regime,” he says. “But he speaks rather bravely if needed, when Protestants are under pressure (and now they are!).”

On its web site, the SCLJ says it supplies authorized help to religious teams and people and mounts “court cases related to the protection of the rights of citizens and organisations to freedom of conscience and religion”. 

The web site’s court cases part hasn’t been up to date since 2015, nevertheless. The newest case listed on the web page, from 2015, pertains to a dispute over the possession of an evangelical church constructing in Sochi. An earlier case, from 2008, pertains to a religious organisation that bought in bother for lecturing about faith at Sunday college with out a licence.

Kruglikov known as the photographs on social media of Sergey Ryakhovsky and Vladimir Putin “very important” and “a signal to the evangelical community that times have really changed”, as all through the historical past of Russia, evangelical believers “have never been so recognised by the state that the head of state would personally meet with the head of any evangelical association”.

Nikolay Mitrokhin, a researcher at University of Bremen, Germany, says the SCLJ “has been primarily representing the interests of the Protestant community of the Russian Federation and Western Protestant and post-Protestant organisations (for example, Mormons) in relations with the authorities.” 

“Of course, the Ryakhovsky brothers, as lobbyists, have worked closely with the presidential administration of the Russian Federation,” Mitrokhin provides.

Anton Kruglikov, RUCEF press secretary, mentioned the SCLJ and RUCEF “cooperate on issues of freedom of religion. Within the RUCEF there is a legal department, but its main purpose is current and preventive work. When it comes to representing the interests of evangelical believers in superior courts (including the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation), the RUCEF seeks legal assistance from well-qualified SCLJ lawyers.” 

Courting the evangelicals

A number of years in the past, a lawyer for the US president financing a authorized activist tied to the Russian president may need appeared odd. Ahead of the 2016 US elections, Sekulow published a e book that denounced a supposed world conspiracy together with Putin’s Russia, Iran and radical Islam. 

Sekulow claimed this “unholy alliance” was an existential menace to the US and Israel and that the Obama administration on the time was failing to counter the hazard. That 12 months, the ACLJ also vowed on its web site “to monitor this ever-ramifying national security situation”. 

By 2017, Sekulow had turn out to be a high-profile authorized crusader for Trump and echoed the president in calling the FBI investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election “a witch hunt”

Trump and Sekulow have been overtly optimistic about Putin, denied or discounted Moscow’s assault on the 2016 election, and belittled issues in regards to the menace Russia posed to the US.

Bishop Sergey Ryakhovsky “knows Jay Sekulow well and considers him one of the most competent and respected human rights defenders”, mentioned the RUCEF press secretary.

“Their last meeting took place during the World Summit of Christian Leaders in Defense of Persecuted Christians in 2017 (hosted by the Billy Graham Evangelical Association in the US). The summit touched upon ongoing obstacles to church life and ministry in different countries of the world.” 

This summit was held in a Trump resort in Washington DC, at a price of $400,000 paid to the president’s firm. Attendees included Trump’s vice-president Mike Pence and the leaders of many different US Christian proper teams spending cash overseas – together with Alliance Defending Freedom, which has additionally defended the Russian state in opposition to Pussy Riot members.

Financial controversies

Long earlier than he turned well-known for his defence of Trump, Sekulow was a widely known determine on the US proper, the host of his personal radio present and a frequent visitor on conservative media shops. 

There have been quite a few controversies concerning the ACLJ’s funds. In 2005, Legal Times reported that Sekulow, with the ACLJ and a string of interconnected non-profit and for-profit entities, had “built a financial empire that generates millions of dollars a year and supports a lavish lifestyle – complete with multiple homes, chauffeur-driven cars, and a private jet that he once used to ferry Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia”. 

In 2017, The Washington Post revealed that Sekulow’s “charity empire” introduced in almost $230 million in donations from 2011 to 2015 – and $28.5 million of that ended up with members of Sekulow’s household or their corporations.

That 12 months, the non-profit watchdog CharityWatch reported that the household connections and associations among the many varied teams in Sekulow’s charity community (which included the ACLJ) raised a “red flag”.

Sekulow, the ACLJ and SCLJ didn’t reply to requests for remark.

* David Corn of Mother Jones contributed reporting for this text.