Penny-Wise Policy Puts Witnesses in Danger

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The history of reprisals against witnesses to crimes in Russia is filled with tales bordering on the fantastic. Take Galina Barysheva of Balashikha, a town in the Moscow region and a witness in a criminal investigation. When she stepped out of her building at 8 a.m. one morning a man rushed at her, shoved a plastic bag into her arms and ran off. The bag exploded, but Barysheva survived. Recovering in the hospital from serious burns, she remembered her attacker's face, and identified him as a man under investigation as an accomplice to murder. Knowing that her testimony could seal his fate, he decided to get rid of the witness rather than wait around for the trial. The plan blew up in his face.

Another dramatic story occurred in Saratov. One fine sunny morning a young businessman was driving out of his courtyard when two contract killers -- without masks -- riddled his car with bullets at point-blank range, killing the businessman and his bodyguard, and seriously wounding his fianc?e, who was rushed to the emergency room. The woman survived, and could have proved a valuable witness at trial, for she had seen the killers' faces up close. But when the police asked her to help them create identikit drawings of the killers, she refused.

I think that this woman, like any normal person in her situation, wanted to see justice done. But she understood that the people behind the murder would hunt her down and kill her. She chose to live. Do you blame her? I don't.

In conversations with Interior Ministry contacts I have tried to figure out if the police are simply incapable of ensuring the safety of their witnesses. After all, the obligation to defend witnesses was written into Russian law back in 1991. The law covering Russia's police states that defense of witnesses shall be provided "in the manner set forth by law." "This is the problem," my contacts say. "Just another declaration of principle with nothing to back it up. They didn't give the police any extra money to cover the added costs." And the results of such short-sighted policy making are there for all to see.

Kirill Okunev lived in a safe apartment provided by the Interior Ministry for the duration of the trial in which he was a witness. When the trial concluded, a number of criminals, members of an elaborate criminal organization in Moscow, were put behind bars. But because the organization was so complex not all of its members had been apprehended. The rest were lying low, as Okunev knew well. No one involved doubted that he would be tracked down and killed.

The police guarded Okunev for about a month after the trial. Then they told him he was on his own. The money earmarked for his protection had been used up. Okunev weighed his options, and opted to hide out for a while. Things change. If he could stay alive for a month or two, tempers might start to flare as the gang members still on the outside carved up the business. And they might just take one another out.

Guided by this thought, Okunev and his wife got jobs as conductors on a train running between Moscow and the Far East. They rode the rails back and forth for a whole year. And their gamble paid off. Feuding between criminal gangs in Moscow heated up that year, sending some to the next world and others up the river.

That story had a happy ending. In Chelyabinsk things didn't turn out quite so happily. The investigation into a contract killing of three top officials of the Chelpiks brewery had dragged on for two years. The three officials had been sitting in their Volga at the brewery gate when they were gunned down. Detectives turned up no leads until a man and wife business team came forward. The pair were not placed in protective custody. Things seemed to have cooled off after two years, and it was assumed that whoever had ordered the hit wouldn't be paying much attention.

But they were paying attention, as it turned out. One day some young men turned up at their building -- typical plumbers with their bags of clanking tools. They rang the bell, and the wife opened the door unsuspectingly. One of the "plumbers" knocked her over the head with a pipe wrench. When she fell, the other "plumber" shot her in the head with a pistol equipped with a silencer. As they went back down the stairs to the exit they ran into the husband on the landing. He was returning home with a young boy -- his nephew, as it turned out. The "plumbers" didn't touch the boy, but they shot the businessman in the abdomen. And they left in no particular hurry. Their car was waiting outside.

The cold-blooded murder of witnesses amounts to nothing less than the murder of Russian justice as a whole. These killers don't wear masks; they are confident that no one will be brave enough to pick them out of a line-up. The police have long called for a federal witness protection program, and for the legislation to make it work. State Duma deputies nod their heads in agreement. They even have a bill in the works. But they always seem to have something "more important" to discuss.

A draft law on witness protection first came up for discussion in the Duma back in the mid-1990s. When the bill finally reached the president's desk in May 1997, it went unsigned. The official explanation was a lack of funds for implementation.

The law contains crucial provisions, such as providing witnesses with a new place to live, a new job, a new name, even a new face. Security would be provided for witnesses and their families. All of this would not come cheap, of course. But the penny-wise are often pound-foolish, as they say.

In the United States, protection of endangered federal witnesses falls to the U.S. Marshals Service. The marshals have protected more than 19,000 witnesses over the last 31 years without losing a single one. Similar programs exist in Canada, Italy, Austria, Britain, France and other countries. Poland adopted a witness protection law five years ago. Such laws are on the books in Ukraine and Moldova.

If the Russian justice system is ever to function normally, it must protect endangered witnesses, who currently number about 5,000 a year. How much would it cost to keep these people alive?

"[Witness protection] would cost more than 3.8 billion rubles," said Kirill Shevchenko of the Interior Ministry's chief legal inspectorate. "On the other hand, the financial impact of criminal activity, and especially organized crime, on the federal budget is incomparably higher."

The Russian equivalent of the saying "penny-wise and pound-foolish" is "the stingy man pays twice." But in the case of witness protection, this rule isn't quite accurate. We have paid far more than twice the price. If you multiply the 3.8 billion ruble annual price tag by five -- the number of years the witness law could have already been in effect if Yeltsin had signed it when it crossed his desk -- you get the total amount we have paid to criminal organizations for the silence of fear-stricken witnesses.

Igor Gamayunov is a columnist for Literaturnaya Gazeta.