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Of KGB agents, sex trafficking and defending human rights

February 19, 2019

Old Lyme — David Rubino figures after 12 years as an international human rights lawyer in some of the more lawless parts of the world, places where Soviet agents were known to leave smoldering cigarettes in private apartments as calling cards, taking on powerful opponents in Connecticut courts will be a piece of cake.

“I had KGB guys ... showing up at my door with Kalashnikovs (rifles), so I am not easily intimidated,” he said.

The 48-year-old Rubino, who just opened a general law practice above the Hideaway Restaurant here after moving to town last summer to be closer to his wife’s family, said in an interview that he had been working in a large New York City law firm, doing “soulless work” defending multinational corporations, when he got the idea in his mid-30s of forging a different path.

“It was time to do something that felt like it was going to mean something at the end of the day,” he said.

He saw an advertisement from the American Bar Association looking for lawyers to staff an office in Azerbaijan, a former Soviet state that declared its independence in the 1990s. He wound up running an office with 35 human rights lawyers dealing with such issues as land grabs and gender equity in a heavily Muslim country where he had to count on local lawyers to litigate cases because he was not fluent in the local language.

Rubino recounted one case in which a 17-year-old woman from a village far away took six hours to travel by minivan in an effort to escape from an abusive husband — and, as is often the case in Azerbaijan, an equally brutal mother-in-law. Strangely, but not surprisingly as it turned out in a country that had a habit of early and forced marriages, the woman’s family came to plead with Rubino to have her return home, though he instead sent her to a shelter.

He said Azerbaijan also had a bad record of eliciting confessions through torture. It was here that he referred several cases to the European Court on Human Rights, something he couldn’t do during his most recent assignment in Tajikstan because that country is not a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights.

Fighting corruption

In Tajikistan, Rubino said some of his major issues involved sex and labor trafficking. He worked with lawmakers to ensure laws met international standards while also training local lawyers in how to protect victims’ rights.

“Mostly what I have done is work with and train local human rights lawyers on issues such as human trafficking, women’s rights, anti-torture and related human rights issues,” he said.

Along the way, he had to deal with local police corruption that he said could get tedious. He estimates being pulled over three to four times a week at times, as police sought bribes. He refused to pay because, as a human rights lawyer, he couldn’t be seen as going along with the corruption that he was trying to fight.

Instead of paying the bribe, he’d insist on being taken to the station, which he knew would never happen.

“There was a lot of gamesmanship,” he said. “That was just daily life.”

The one exception to refusing payment of bribes was with medical care. In many of the countries that he worked, doctors charge a “service fee,” which is another kind of bribe. Rubino said he couldn’t risk not paying a doctor who was looking after his pregnant wife.

Corruption was rampant in the court systems, as well, and Rubino sometimes felt like he was hitting his head against the wall, as organized crime seemed to have the upper hand due to the willful blindness or complicity of judges.

“You get small victories,” he said. “That’s when you feel like it’s worth something, and then you get to a point where you feel like there’s no hope.”

Rubino said he had to watch his step, especially in Azerbaijan, though the KGB, now known as the National Security Service, were a part of life in Tajikstan, as well.

“Everywhere we went, it was assumed we were being listened to,” he said.

One colleague, he remembered, had put out a critical report on the Azerbaijan elections process and, a few days later, a scandalous sex tape emerged in which the colleague was exposed as a closeted gay man. It left the man with no choice but to pack up and leave the socially conservative country.

“That was normal,” Rubino said.

Life in different worlds

Also normal in his stints in Azerbaijan, Morocco, the Republic of Georgia, Armenia and Tajikistan were the discomforts of daily life.

“Electricity, heat and internet in these countries is spotty at best,” Rubino said. “Potable water is nonexistent.”

Added to these issues in Tajikstan were frequent earthquakes that would come without warning. And, for Rubino, a vegetarian and triathlon athlete, trying to explain his diet in these countries was a bit of a chore.

Rubino noted that he did his work through three different administrations — Bush, Obama and Trump — and saw very few changes in policy along the way.

“Some things are still beyond politics,” he said. “There’s still support for the rule of law and human rights overseas, generally.”

Rubino acknowledged that his ability to work with overseas partners became dicier when the Bush administration showed support for water-boarding and other means of torture, and he said under the Trump administration, European partners have not been as keen on the United States taking the lead on issues.

“There’s been a change in the types of meetings someone like me can get,” he said.

On the other hand, Trump is very popular in many of the strong-man countries that Rubino lived in over the past 12 years. These are the same countries, he added, who see Russia’s President Vladimir Putin as a strong world leader.

In Azerbaijan, Rubino said, he began to record a personal blog. Among his favorite postings was one about dictatorial countries — Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan and North Korea among them — and their penchant for building the tallest flagpoles in the world.

“There’s this weird international competition,” he said.

He tracked the flagpole manufacturer to Houston, Texas, and discovered the company builds each version one meter longer than the next with a promise not to build another one for at least a year.

“It’s been a fun ride and an interesting one,” he said.

At times, a little too interesting.

In Azerbaijan, for instance, the local government sent out periodic “safaris” whose mission was to take rifles onto the street and kill as many stray animals as possible. One night, Rubino’s wife, Alecia, took in a stray dog who had followed her home, intending to send the animal back out in the streets the next day, only to find that the dog’s entire family had been eliminated overnight.

The dog, a docile canine named Pip that looks something like a coyote, now inhabits the Rubinos’ home, along with Pickles, a former Tajikstan alley cat.

Now settled into Old Lyme, the Rubino children, Bea, 7, a student at Lyme Consolidated School, and Frida, 3, who attends the Children’s Tree Montessori School in Old Saybrook, think of Connecticut as exotic, having previously known only Morocco and Tajikstan as home.

“They can easily spend 20 minutes marveling at the Keurig coffee maker in my office,” Rubino said in an email. “Neither can quite believe that mail is delivered to your door and trash is picked up in front of your house.”

l.howard@theday.com

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