What Happens When the Bandits Are the Cops

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This was something new for the Russian court system: a case with shots fired and blood shed, but no conviction. The accused were acquitted. Here's how it came down.

Twenty-four Saratov plainclothes policemen drove the 120 kilometers to Volsk in six unmarked cars. They proceeded to shoot up the jeep of a local flour mill director, Pyotr Parashchukov. Badly wounded and bleeding, Parashchukov and his two drivers were thrown to the ground, kicked, searched and sent on crutches to the local prison hospital. Doctors removed two bullets from Parashchukov, 40, four from Oleg Mazyanov, 25, and seven from Vitaly Dyupin, 27, who also suffered a broken arm.

The 24 policemen, members of the Privolzhskoye regional anti-organized crime department, or RUBOP, walked away without a scratch.

Parashchukov and his drivers were subsequently put on trial for the attempted murder of the 24 RUBOP officers. They faced the possibility of life in prison, even the death penalty. A remarkable scene greeted the court. The plaintiffs were 24 hale, confident cops, while in the defendants' cage sat three emaciated, wounded men. The state's case began to unravel immediately, and a verdict of not guilty was handed down, as I wrote in The Moscow Times on Aug. 9, 2000.

But the story didn't end there. The Saratov region prosecutor's office filed an appeal, and the Supreme Court voided the verdict. A new trial was held. A second acquittal. The Saratov prosecutor again appealed and was again upheld. A third trial produced the same chain of events.

When the case went to trial for a fourth time, I was in attendance. The court once more acquitted Parashchukov and his two drivers.

All four trials begged one main question: Why did 24 RUBOP officers riddle innocent people with bullets in broad daylight?

On that early November morning at RUBOP headquarters, Lieutenant-Colonel Vdovichenko briefed his squad. He showed them a photograph of Parashchukov, whom he identified as the head of a major criminal organization. Then he gave the officers their assignment: to arrest the suspect with guns and narcotics. The squad drove to Volsk and took up positions in the woods on the edge of town, sending some part-timers in a beat-up Opel to flush Parashchukov out of his office and give him a scare.

The part-timers showed up in the offices of the flour mill. Not stinting on the obscenities, they instructed Parashchukov to report to a nearby gas station at 4 p.m. "They want to ask you some questions." Just who wanted to ask they didn't say.

The plan was simple. Even if Parashchukov didn't turn up at the gas station, he would definitely get hold of some guns after a scare like that, and if ambushed he would probably start to shoot. As it turned out, Parashchukov kept a fully licensed pump-action Mosberg shotgun in the car. Dyupin, his driver, carried a Saiga rifle.

Indeed, Parashchukov wasn't terribly surprised by the encounter. Ever since the flour mill hit peak production, young men from Saratov began to pay him regular visits, offering to buy his controlling stake. Parashchukov sent them all packing, even though they introduced themselves as representatives of affiliates of a major regional corporation.

Parashchukov drove to the local police station to report the incident. After all, he had been shot at twice in the past five years. Someone was not pleased with his success. The RUBOP officers, stewing in the woods, were following Parashchukov's movements by radio. And finally they got the order to move in.

Parashchukov's jeep was corralled at the corner of Saratovskaya and Krasnogvardeiskaya streets. The bullets started flying. Parashchukov, who was driving, ducked down behind the dash without even grabbing his shotgun. The jeep's doors were pulled open in a hail of obscenities. The organizers of the operation had clearly expected the victims to die in the cannonade. But a RUBOP video camera was already humming, documenting the "search and seizure operation." The trusty kontrolny vystrel, or shot to the back of the head, was not an option.

Everything that followed I saw with myself, when the videotape shot by the RUBOP cameraman was shown at the fourth trial. At first, we saw people milling around -- none of them in uniform; a heap of wrecked cars -- none with flashing lights; filthy language and shouts of, "Grease 'em!" And a second later: "That's enough, guys. Back off."

The jeep was visible behind a man in a jacket looming in the foreground. Through the jeep's open doors you could make out an indistinct figure. It appeared three times, just for a second. Under normal conditions, you'd never have seen it at all. But when the tape was shown in slow motion, you could see that on three occasions, someone threw something into the cab of the jeep. When the camera was trained on the jeep's interior, to "record" its contents, we saw what had been planted: rusty sawn-off shotguns tied up with duct tape and a white bag with two grams of heroin -- typical props for this sort of police cinematography.

At all four trials, a public prosecutor named Shuvalov presented the state's case. He demonstrated amazing persistence, filing the appeals to overturn all of the verdicts in an attempt to protect the police. It had become known, for instance, that Vdovichenko had left the site of the shootout and gone immediately to confiscate crucial documents from the mill's offices. He then sent inquiries to the arbitration court on local police letterhead.

Why? Did he hope to become a co-owner of the mill? A certain large corporation's vital interests in the flour mill were also well-known. And anyone who helped break Parashchukov's will would, of course, be rewarded.

In the end, the young prosecutor saw that everything was turned on its head, that executioners were passing for victims, and the real victims were locked in a cage. But to put things right would mean dropping the charges against Parashchukov and his drivers and filing a charge of attempted murder and conspiracy against the leaders of the Volsk operation. So, he doggedly continued to repeat what he had been instructed to say.

All of this leads to one conclusion: The bloody shootout in Volsk, and the prosecutor's shameful yearlong attempt to cover up the crimes of the Privolzhskoye RUBOP, make clear that these two institutions cannot defend the rights and freedoms of Russian citizens. That is probably why the first thing that Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov did upon assuming office was to place all RUBOP agencies under the direct control of regional law enforcement authorities. Previously they had reported directly to the interior minister himself, and under that arrangement, many of these regional organized-crime task forces became affiliates of the criminal organizations they were formed to combat.

Igor Gamayunov writes for Literaturnaya Gazeta. He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.