What Justice If Crooked Judges Above the Law?

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Every day seems to bring more evidence that court rulings in Russia depend on the size of the bribe paid. "Our judges have fixed prices," a law enforcement official in Rostov told me. "If you want to cut a year off your sentence, it's $1,000. If you want your case closed, or you want a suspended sentence, it'll cost you $1,500 for every year you would have served. If you're in for anything involving a corpse, you're looking at five figures. The most profitable cases are rape cases, because the judge can milk the attacker as well as the victim."

To see how this works, consider the case of Vladimir Dubrovin, accused of rape by a certain Vera Karkushina (not her real name). Karkushina, married with one child, claimed that at 5 o'clock one June afternoon she had met Dubrovin, a 30-year-old man, also married with a child, and that Dubrovin raped her in her car.

The two had known each other since 1996, when Dubrovin, who worked for an agency coordinating United Nations programs in the Rostov region, helped her land a good job. On the day in question, Karkushina wanted to find work for a relative. She picked Dubrovin up in her Volkswagen and drove to the embankment. It was there, in full view of the fishermen and pedestrians on the river bank, that the UN employee allegedly forced Karkushina to engage in intercourse against her will. Any cries from the car would have been heard by the fishermen standing 3 meters away, but for some reason they took no action.

Dubrovin's friend, Yevgeny Rakhmanov, said he knew of the affair. "Volodya finally realized that he had to choose, and he chose his family. He broke up with Vera. Later on, during an argument with her husband, she apparently told him about the affair. The husband beat her up; then he got the idea of cashing in on the situation. He told Dubrovin that he knew everything, and demanded $5,000 to compensate his emotional distress. Dubrovin refused to pay, so Karkushin went to the prosecutor to press charges. He had no evidence, of course. That was faked."

Dubrovin's father, Leonid, had this to say: "I became convinced that the judge was biased when he ordered my son to be taken into custody just because he had failed to turn up for a scheduled hearing. What could I do? I talked with people who had dealt with this judge in the past. They told me that it was well known that money decided everything with this judge. So I made him an offer."

Dubrovin Sr. told the judge he would pay for his son's release until the trial. The judge stepped out for a minute, and when he came back said that everything had been taken care of. "How much?" Dubrovin asked. "15,000 rubles."

"I was floored by the amount," Leonid Dubrovin said. "I'm retired, my wife is a school teacher. I had to borrow from friends. I put the money in a big envelope. When I entered his office he was sitting at his typewriter. 'I'll just be a minute,' he said. He went out, spoke with his secretary and came back with the order for my son's release. I handed him the envelope. He took it, walked over to his desk and put it in the drawer without even opening it."

Dubrovin Sr. then decided to find out how much it would cost to secure an acquittal. "Four thousand." "Dollars?" Dubrovin asked. The judge nodded. Dubrovin was stunned. "But my son's not guilty!" "That's what you say," the judge replied. "The detective in charge of the case has a different opinion." Dubrovin realized if he didn't pay, the judge would put his son behind bars. He had no choice but to sell the apartment.

"I'd been warned that the judge was known to pull a fast one," Leonid Dubrovin said. "By chance I found out that he was planning to go on vacation, but he was pressing me for the next installment. I got to thinking: 'What if I give him the money and the case is handed to another judge while he's away. Who knows how the new judge would operate. And my son's innocent, after all.'" Figuring that Karkushin had offered the judge a larger bribe, Dubrovin wrote a detailed letter to the prosecutor's office listing when and from whom he had borrowed money for the bribe. When the investigation of his complaint stalled, he started calling the local newspapers. Articles appeared, and the judge wasted no time in striking back. At the next hearing he read out a court order for Vladimir Dubrovin's immediate arrest. As he walked past Leonid Dubrovin, the judge joked: "What are you going to do now? File for damages?"

I first saw the judge as he read Dubrovin his sentence. He mumbled quickly as he read, slowing only to enunciate the phrase: "incarceration for a period of 4 1/2 years." After the trial ended, the judge consented to an on-the-record interview. I asked why he had not recused himself as required by the Criminal Code in cases where the judge can no longer rule objectively. He had been publicly accused of accepting bribes, after all. He blithely said: "There's no telling who might accuse me of something. Am I supposed to recuse myself every time?"

Back in Moscow I asked a detective friend if judges could be caught in a sting operation. "Investigation of judges is forbidden," my friend explained. "We can't tap their phones or even have them tailed. All we can do is submit a request to the kvalifikatsionnaya kollegia, or peer review board. Only the board, which is made up mostly of judges, can authorize an investigation, but more often than not they don't." "Why's that?" I asked. "They decide that our charges aren't based on reliable information. To verify the information we'd have to conduct an investigation, of course. It's a closed circle."

"Has there never been a case where a Russian judge was convicted for taking bribes?" I asked.

"There was one," he told me.

His name was Sergei Akhmetshin, a judge in Gus-Khrustalny, a town in the Vladimir region. Akhmetshin was arrested by FSB agents for taking bribes, releasing indictees from police custody and issuing unfounded acquittals. He was caught for stealing some three dozen case files from the court archives and destroying them. The Supreme Court sentenced him to four years in prison. I know of no other case in which a judge has been prosecuted for taking bribes, even though the practice is now commonplace.

Looking for answers, I spoke with Alexander Yakovlev, rector of the New Law Institute. "Equality before the law, established by Article 19 of the Russian Constitution, is a basic democratic principle," he said. "But our Constitution also establishes immunity from prosecution for the president and members of both houses of parliament. Federal law extends immunity to judges as well. A judge can only be stripped of his immunity by a peer review board. This board handles matters pertaining to judges' professional qualifications, but the question of a judge's legal liability is another matter. No one knows better than judges that they must recuse themselves when they or their colleagues are on trial. This points to a possible conflict between Article 19 of the Constitution and the law on the status of judges, which provides for their immunity from prosecution."

All the lawyers I spoke to said this problem should be corrected in the course of the ongoing reform of Russia's judicial system. When that might happen is unclear. Meanwhile, back in Rostov, Dubrovin's sentence was overturned, and he is now a free man. The judge who convicted him is still on the bench. He was never proven guilty of accepting bribes because no witnesses could be found.

Igor Gamayunov, a columnist for Literaturnaya Gazeta, contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.