Russian Justice Summed Up in 5 Cases

Russian Justice Summed Up in 5 Cases

It's a legal system best known for twists and turns and head-scratching verdicts

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

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, center, leaves his glass-walled cage during a court hearing in Kirov, July 19, 2013.
(Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)

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 priest, sported a track jacket instead of holy garb during his trial.

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

Sergei Magnitsky's death and posthumous trial caused widespread public outrage and became a cause celebre domestically and abroad.
(Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters)

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

Greenpeace activists attempt to scale the Gazprom-owned Prirazlomnaya oil platform during a protest in the Pechora Sea September 18, 2013.

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.

Respond Now
  • What, that’s it?  Only five instances of judicial process corruption in a country thought to be highly corrupt?  This is better than I’d have thought … that said, shame is a powerful motivator and keeping pressure to make sure governments play fair with their courts is a must …

  • Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has been in custody for more than ten years for his role in something Washington never wanted investigated. He was waterboarded nearly 200 times – THAT according to the CIA (a CIA lowball number?). The CIA destroyed records of torture (for two other al Qaeda suspects) to keep the records out of the hands of anyone even slightly interested in the humanity and justice of The United States. No CIA person ever faced justice for their role in destroying evidence. Torture, isolation and no trial. Washington even refused to show evidence to avoid a fruitless war in Afghanistan. The Taliban offered to take Bin Laden into custody and put him on trial, even have him put on trial in a third-party country. But that would have required our bringing to court evidence. We chose a decade and more of war and misery.Bin Laden would have been in custody from almost day one but we chose to have him scattered to the wind to play the role of boogy man for other unnecessary and fruitless wars.When we finally killed Bin Laden we refused to show evidence – not just his part in 9/11 – but that we had indeed killed him. The body was thrown overboard Mafia-style. The helmet cameras used during the mission in Abbottabad – “never existed”. The photos of the body have never been released. No one is supposed to be able to interview the SEALS. The DNA samples were handled by the CIA. The head of the CIA Bin Laden team, Michael J. Morell, is the same guy – THE SAME GUY – that coordinated the *evidence* for Colin Powell’s historically shameful and monumentally embarrasing speech before the UN in Feb. 2003 detailing the “evidence” that Saddam had WMD.The same guy. Morell met for several days, personally, with Colin Powell going over the evidence to be used in Powell’s shameful speech. The same guy was the gatekeeper to the Bin Laden DNA samples, the corpse, photos, and helmet videos.We have a Washington administration that REFUSED to have ANY 9/11 investigation. When they finally relented to the pressure from the 9/11 Families they put HENRY KISSINGER!! in charge of a commission. After Henry backed away Karl Rove became the stealth head of the commission who’s final product no obective person has any respect for.People are forced to draw their own conclusions about Bin Laden’s original role in 9/11 based upon Internet Mush. They happily cheer and dance in the streets when the final chapter to Bin Laden’s role is written by Michael J. Morell. And the chief witness to any trial Khalid Sheikh Mohammed may get – if he doesn’t croak first or become a dribbling waterlogged vegetable – the chief witness the government claims to have TAMPERED with in a big big way and a splash to the bottom of the ocean.


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