When former billionaire Russian dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky was pardoned and released from prison in the waning days of 2013, almost everyone in the country was stunned. Not only was the ex-tycoon, behind bars for fraud and tax evasion since 2003, suddenly freed after serving more than 90 percent of his prison sentence, but he was also able to get a presidential pardon from Vladimir Putin without even having to admit guilt. “Russia is a land of possibilities. Anything is possible here,” Twitter users sarcastically cracked.
The Russian justice system frequently verges on theater of the absurd and the denouement of the Khodorkovsky saga is just one of several bizarre moments in recent months.
Below, a sampling of other cases whose verdicts took a turn for the weird.
The Alexey Navalny trial
Russia’s most famous blogger and anti-corruption fighter Alexey Navalny was sentenced to five years in a prison camp, allegedly for stealing a “forest.” The prosecution insisted the blogger organized an embezzlement scheme and stole 16 million rubles ($500,000) from the lumber industry of the Russian city of Kirov while serving as an advisor to the city governor back in 2008. There was little doubt that the trial was politically motivated and that Navalny wouldn’t be allowed to walk free. Despite the ruling, the blogger was able to participate in Moscow’s mayoral election, scoring an unexpectedly high number of votes.
A month later, the court’s decision was changed from a jail term to a suspended sentence. Everyone was amazed, not the least of whom was Navalny himself. “I have not the faintest idea what is going on [Vladimir Putin's] head,” he said after the ruling.
An ungodly ruling
Pavel Semin, a 26-year old Orthodox priest, was driving his Mercedes in Moscow last year when he crashed into a road construction site, killing two workers and injuring another. Semin’s vehicle then skidded off into the oncoming lane, hit a taxi and injured its driver and passenger. The priest first fled the scene, but then surrendered to authorities. He was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to three years in prison. The court accepted the prosecution’s version of events, which claimed the workers were accidently killed after, and not before, Semin’s Mercedes smashed into the taxi. No witnesses corroborated this scenario, helping further plague the trial with controversy—sloppy police work and an alleged attempt by the defendant to bribe the remaining victim also didn’t help the case’s legitimacy.
The Sergey Magnitsky trial
Even in a country of show trials, this one could easily go down as one of the most sinister and shameful. Sergey Magnitsky, an accountant and lawyer at London-based Hermitage Capital Management, accused Russian officials of stealing $230 million in tax rebates. He was himself subsequently arrested in 2008 and charged with tax evasion. The 37-year old died under suspicious circumstances in a pre-trial detention center a year later. Despite his death, the Moscow court continued the trial posthumously and found Magnitsky guilty in 2013. An angry U.S. Senate reacted by issuing the Magnitsky Act, which imposed travel bans and asset freezes on Russian officials thought to be responsible for the lawyer’s death. The move infuriated Moscow so much that the Russian parliament quickly passed a retaliatory measure banning Americans from adopting Russian children.
The Greenpeace debacle
Russia took on the environmental watchdog after its activists had sailed their ship, the Arctic Sunrise, last summer to the off-shore platform in the Arctic operated by Russian energy giant Gazprom. The environmentalists were protesting oil and gas projects in the area, which scientists say could severely harm local wildlife. Russian authorities didn’t share their views and all 28 activists, along with two freelance photographers, were taken into custody. They were first threatened with charges of piracy—which carries a maximum 15-year jail term—but were eventually charged with the less-painful offense of hooliganism. These charges were later dropped as part of the Kremlin’s effort to clean up its human rights record ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Four years for a “rubber apartment”
A crafty criminal from the city of Kazan got a four-year jail sentence for registering 392 migrant workers in an apartment that he didn’t even own. The workers, who are required by the Russian law to obtain residential registration, paid 34-year-old Ilya Levachkov a fee for the fake document. The practice is widespread in Russia and has led the government to implement a range of measures in an effort to crack down on the so-called “rubber apartments.” Registering 392 people in a two-bedroom apartment is quite a feat, but the record still belongs to a studio apartment in Siberia, where another savvy “entrepreneur” had registered a jaw-dropping 1,080 people.