Hunting for Hares and Missing the Big Game

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If there has been a more absurd criminal case in recent years, I can't think of it. For two months a man sat in Butyrka jail awaiting trial. His crime? When the government failed to pay his salary on time, the man was forced to ride the bus to work without a ticket -- zaitsem as they say in Russian, or "like a hare."

I'm convinced that the case was no accident. It's well known that when law enforcers need to boost their productivity indicators -- usually toward the end of the year -- the number of petty crimes registered by the police goes through the roof.

This is in a country where serious crimes are on the rise, and corruption, burglary and illegal trade in weapons are endemic.

Yury Ivanovich Mineyev, who bought a forged pensioner's ID, obviously posed a clear and present danger to society. He was the man shipped off to a Butyrka cell where he sat for two months waiting for a judge to hear his case.

He was arrested early one November morning at his home. The doorbell rang and someone asked: "Are you Mineyev? Let's go." He was told that he was being taken to the police station for a half-hour or so. Mineyev didn't even bother to wake his father as he left.

In jail Mineyev was tormented by the thought that he had abandoned his 82-year-old father, an invalid who got around on crutches. Mineyev's daughter Natalya learned of his disappearance the next day when she spoke with her grandfather.

The two of them began trying to figure out where he had gone. To visit relatives? No one had seen him. To the dacha? He had been meaning to make some repairs to the house, but why would he leave without telling anyone?

A day later Natalya got a call from an unknown woman who told her in a hoarse voice: "Your father is in the same cell as my Sanka. They take turns sleeping on one bunk. He asked me to tell you to look after his father." What cell? What bunk? Natalya had trouble getting her mind around this unlikely scenario. Her father was in jail for some reason. She had heard about it not from the police, but from the wife of his cellmate who had just visited her husband in jail. The husband had passed on a note from Mineyev with his daughter's telephone number. What nonsense! Is it possible that in this day and age they still haul people off to jail without informing their relatives?

You bet it is. Natalya went to the jail, and then to the Tagansky district court, which had issued the arrest warrant for her father after he failed to appear for a scheduled hearing, judge Svetlana Alexandrova explained. He was to be tried for using a fake pensioner's ID to ride to work for free on the bus. "What do you mean, fake?" Natalya asked. "He's a pensioner." She was told that the incident had occurred two months before he qualified for his pension, meaning that for two months he had been illegally claiming a pensioner's privileges, including the right to ride for free on public transportation. "But do they put people away for that?" Natalya asked. "Maybe you ought to read the Criminal Code," she was told.

Who is this "trapped hare?"

Mineyev is an engineer who worked for 29 years at the Moscow Institute of Wireless Communication. He developed and installed satellite stations. In recent years his salary had never exceeded 350 rubles a month -- just under $11 at the current exchange rate -- and even that pittance had been paid intermittently. Mineyev nevertheless reported to work every day. That's just the kind of person he is. His daily commute from the Moscow suburb of Mitino to the institute and back took three hours. He passed the time by reading.

Mineyev was passionate about his work. He took great pride in his connection to the complex radio systems that allowed scientists "to listen to the cosmos." He never complained, even when the institute stopped paying his miserable salary. He had trouble earning money on the side, even though he could fix just about any machine in existence. Who fixes anything these days? It's easier just to buy a new one.

Natalya sometimes managed to convince her reluctant father to take a little money for himself and her grandfather, but just as often he would refuse, saying that the two would get along just fine on the old man's pension. But getting by became more and more difficult. Household expenses went up, and for six months he didn't get a kopek from the institute.

Finally, two months before he qualified for his pension, a desperate Mineyev did what he had seen so many others do: He paid 50 rubles to someone in a metro station for a fake pensioner's ID. The next day a meticulous inspector noticed the forgery and had him hauled off to the 36th Precinct.

At the station his arrival caused quite a stir. The officers on duty were downright happy to see him. Cases like Mineyev's are a gift. They require no legwork -- just do the paperwork, send it off to the court and write "foiled" in the case log under "crimes." The higher-ups will never ask what sort of crime was "foiled" -- attempted murder, burglary or a terrorist attack. Mineyev was charged with forgery.

Unaware of all the games played by the police, he figured the charge was just a formality and didn't think much about it. His ID was sent off for expert analysis, and then his case file was forwarded to the court.

By the time the investigation was over, Mineyev had reached the legal retirement age and rode for free on all forms of municipal transport. He made two trips to court, but both times his hearing was postponed through no fault of his own. The courts are overloaded. He couldn't attend the third hearing because he had to take his father to the hospital for emergency care, but in all the hustle and bustle he forgot to inform the court. Mineyev never told his relatives about his run-in with the law, because he hoped that it would all end with a fine and a slap on the wrist. Instead he wound up in jail.

Mineyev admits that he should have informed the court after missing his hearing, but he doesn't consider himself so guilty that he deserved to sit in jail. And if Mineyev was incarcerated to ensure that he turn up at the next hearing, why did he have to sit in the overcrowded Butyrka for more than two months? To give the case a higher profile?

I posed these and other questions to Deputy Prosecutor General Alexander Zvyagintsev. "The decision to detain Mineyev was made by the court, and the prosecutor's office has no right to reverse that decision," he said. "The prosecutor's office, however, has adopted a policy of not locking up people who have committed petty crimes. The investigation into Mineyev's case could have been called off immediately. First, because the crime was insignificant, and second, because he had reached the legal retirement age in the meantime. It should also be kept in mind that people who commit such minor violations are usually acting out of extreme necessity. The state itself has driven them into this position by failing to pay their wages, depriving them of money they have legitimately earned."

I watched Mineyev brought into the courtroom -- in handcuffs. The escorting officers slammed the door of the defendant's cage. Mineyev sat down and looked around with tired eyes for his relatives. When he saw them he nodded to them through the bars. The trial was conducted in strict accordance with procedure: examination of the accused, examination of the witnesses and arguments from both sides, the prosecutor and two lawyers. Judge Alexandrova asked her questions in a businesslike monotone. The absurdity of the situation was palpable. A man whom the state had forced to ride a bus without a ticket was being tried as though his actions posed a threat to Russia's national security. Finally the judge pronounced Mineyev guilty and handed down a six-month suspended sentence.

"The whole situation is shameful," said Mineyev's lawyer, Leonid Proshkin. "The state reduced a working man to poverty, drove him to break the law, tormented him for two months in jail, and then convicted him."

You have to keep in mind that while Mineyev was incarcerated, tried and convicted, the news was full of businessmen falling victim to contract killings, rampant corruption in government and widespread wage arrears. In the countryside around Moscow, low-paid government officials somehow continue to build luxury homes, and not one of them has been convicted for stealing from the people they are paid to serve. In this context, hunting "hares" on city buses becomes a very profitable sport. If you catch enough hares, the number of solved crimes registered in your precinct might finally outweigh the unsolved cases still on the books. Surely this is the reason that our jails are increasingly filled with people who have stolen a loaf of bread or taken a free ride on a trolleybus.

The irony of recent efforts to reform the Russian judicial system is that while the reformers circle the globe telling everyone who will listen that the system is more humane than ever, that humanity is bestowed only on thieving bureaucrats. And the system has handed out black robes to a whole class of functionaries who will never deserve to be called judges.

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