Late last month, Len Homeniuk’s family vacation in southeast Europe ended abruptly with his arrest and an ongoing, nightmarish fight to keep him out of the crooked courts of Kyrgyzstan.
Homeniuk, a Mesa resident and well-known figure in Santa Barbara, was on a Danube River cruise with his wife and their son when he was detained at the Bulgarian border. Kyrgyz authorities had issued an Interpol Red Notice for Homeniuk for his alleged “involvement in corruption” during a 2004 deal between Kyrgyzstan and a Canadian gold mining company Homeniuk headed at the time.
Since his detainment on July 27, Homeniuk, 68, has been shuffled between a Bulgarian jail, prison, and house arrest in an Airbnb, where he remains. Now, his family and a team of attorneys are on a tireless crusade to clear him of what they say are trumped-up and politically motivated charges and to stop his extradition to Kyrgyzstan, where they fear he won’t receive anything resembling due process.
A number of countries have openly criticized the former Soviet Union republic’s record of human rights violations; a 2012 UN report concluded that the use of torture and “ill-treatment to extract confessions” is widespread, and prisons are often “inhuman and degrading.” Denial of fair trial is common.
“We are working around the clock, doing everything and anything we can,” said Homeniuk’s stepdaughter Madeleine Stephens from her home in Orange County. “I haven’t left my apartment for 48 hours.” Stephens was in Bulgaria at her father’s side until recently and is now in the U.S., working on his case and contacting news outlets to publicize her stepdad’s predicament. Homeniuk’s wife, Marina Stephens, has remained in Bulgaria and is weathering the ordeal “one day at a time.”
When Bulgarian authorities took Homeniuk into custody last month, Marina was left alone at 4:30 a.m. with their luggage and 15-year-old son, a student at Laguna Blanca High School. She spent the next day in 100-degree heat, scrambling without an interpreter to contact U.S. consular services, business connections, friends back home, and anyone else who could help stop her husband from being whisked away to Central Asia. She’s since come down with pneumonia. “It was excruciatingly hard,” she said.
The saga dates back to a 2004 restructure deal of the Kumtor Gold Mine in Kyrgyzstan. In that deal, Canada-based Cameco Corp. and the Kyrgyz government negotiated a new ownership agreement. The mine, the biggest foreign capital investment in the country, represents a huge portion of Kyrgyzstan’s economy — in 2014 it produced 23 percent of the country’s entire industrial output and 7.4 percent of its GDP.
Homeniuk was an executive at Cameco Corp. at the time, and the restructure agreement created an independent company, Centerra Gold, which Homeniuk became president and CEO of. He remained at the helm until he retired 2008. The highly transparent deal was scrutinized by lawyers for both sides, involved a number of international banks, and was approved by the Ontario Securities Commission.
Since then, there has been much social and political upheaval in Kyrgyzstan, including two revolutions. The current powers that be claim the government in 2004 was corrupt and that the country was shortchanged in the restructure. Centerra currently owns the mine, and the Kyrgyz Republic holds just under one-third of Centerra’s shares.
The Kyrgyz government is now locked in talks with Centerra to increase its ownership, and Homeniuk’s supporters think he is being used as a pawn in the negotiations, which have dragged on for two years. Earlier this month, Centerra released a statement denying the corruption charges and condemning Homeniuk’s arrest. “Centerra has repeatedly publicly stated that it is not aware of any valid basis for these allegations, which it believes to be entirely unfounded,” the statement reads. “Centerra is deeply concerned about the detention of Mr. Homeniuk while on a family holiday, and supports his efforts to review the legality of his detention.”
Homeniuk’s stepdaughter Madeleine Stephens, who graduated from Laguna Blanca in 2011, said no one in her family has taken a break from working on the case. “If you do take a break,” she said, “it hits you — how bad it could be, how scary it could be. We’re fighting for our family.” Madeleine helped create a website, FreeLen.org, that details Homeniuk’s case and the events since his arrest.
In legal filings with the Bulgarian court, Homeniuk’s attorneys state why the Santa Barbara resident should not be extradited. Most basically, they argue, no crime was committed. And even if some possible culpability existed, a “10-year limitation of liability” has expired. Also, there is no extradition agreement between Kyrgyzstan and Bulgaria, and the European Court of Human Rights has consistently stated no extraditions should be made to Kyrgyzstan.
Marina and the rest of her family couldn’t be faulted for feeling outright anger toward the political players that appear to be using her husband as leverage. Instead, “We are extremely sad,” she said. The couple lived in Kyrgyzstan for years as Homeniuk helped develop and oversee the Kumtor mine, and they were proud of the modern facility that brought great wealth and jobs to the region.
“There are a lot of really good people there,” said Marina. “But there are certain people within the government that are abusing the system that allows them to be a sovereign state.” What’s especially unfair, she went on, is what impact Homeniuk’s arrest and the diplomatic chaos it sparked will have on foreign investment in the country. Who will want to do business with Kyrgyzstan if they might be prosecuted years later when new leaders don’t like the deal that was made?
Homeniuk’s next court date is September 16, when Kyrgyz prosecutors will argue evidence around their allegations. So far they’ve provided few details supporting an extradition. Marina said that while she has great confidence in their attorneys and the U.S. Embassy’s involvement in their case, she worries how the hearing will go. “We’ve seen enough in Bulgaria to know everything is not on the up-and-up,” she explained. “It worries us.”
As the date nears, Marina also expressed great gratitude for the support Santa Barbarans have thrown behind her husband. “It’s amazing,” she said. “It makes me incredibly happy and proud to be a part of the Santa Barbara community.”
“I have tears in my eyes saying this,” she went on. “We can’t wait to come home.”