New Law Gets Test Run With Chichvarkin

A law allowing defendants to plea bargain for lighter sentences appears to have been applied for the first time in the high-profile case against fugitive cell phone tycoon Yevgeny Chichvarkin — much to the consternation of its co-author, Alexander Lebedev.

“It’s like a scalpel,” former State Duma Deputy Lebedev wrote of the law on his blog Friday. “It can save people from death, but it can also kill them. I’m sorry, Yevgeny.”

Investigators used the law, which was passed in June and designed to fight organized crime, to bolster their case against former Yevroset chief Chichvarkin, who is on the most-wanted lists of both the Russian police and Interpol on charges of kidnapping and extortion.

Sergei Katorgin, one of eight Yevroset employees accused in what seems to be the Kremlin’s latest manhunt for a leading businessman, purportedly made a deal with investigators to supply evidence against Chichvarkin in exchange for having his sentence reduced by a third. Two more suspects, who have not been identified, also have agreed to testify for lighter sentences, Kommersant reported.  

Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin said by telephone that he could not confirm or deny the plea bargains. The committee closed its investigation into the Yevroset case on Friday.

The law on plea bargains was passed amid pledges by Russian authorities to use it to fight organized crime, as is common in Western Europe and the United States.

“This law was needed to bring to light those ordering assassinations, dealing drugs or breeding corruption,” Lebedev wrote on his LiveJournal blog.

Instead, the authorities swiftly applied the law to the Chichvarkin case.

“I never imagined such a precedent for my law,” said Lebedev, a former United Russia member and wealthy businessman who has become a vocal critic of the establishment. His assets include a third of state airline Aeroflot and 90 percent of Novaya Gazeta, the opposition newspaper.

Calls to Lebedev for additional comment went unanswered.

Murad Musayev, a defense lawyer in the case of slain Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya, does not share Lebedev’s worries. “I don’t see anything dangerous in the application of this law in a kidnapping case, even if the suspect is a businessman,” he told The Moscow Times. “It would be a problem if the prosecutors tried to bribe the witness to testify.”

Musayev noted that plea bargain deals had been offered before, only informally. “The fact that they have been legally defined is only positive,” he said.

Chichvarkin, the 34-year-old co-founder of Yevroset, Russia’s largest mobile phone retailer, faces charges that he participated in the 2003 abduction of the firm’s shipping agent, Andrei Vlaskin, who had purportedly stolen large quantities of mobile phones, as well as the extortion of money from him. In July, prosecutors added a charge of lying to investigators. If tried and convicted, Chichvarkin faces up to 20 years in prison.

“I am absolutely innocent, and I will be proving it to the British court,” Chichvarkin told Reuters by telephone Friday.

Former Moscow City Court judge Sergei Pashin, a passionate advocate for judicial reform, said prosecutors needed good publicity for the new law.

“If they offer several good examples of criminals being convicted by evidence granted by their accomplices, the juridical institute [of plea bargains] will thrive,” Pashin told the business news portal.

Pashin cautioned that the law carried a high risk of false testimony.

Chichvarkin’s lawyer Yury Gervis declined to comment on the use of the new law in Chichvarkin’s case, but he said by telephone that the law in general offered nothing positive given the state of the country’s jurisprudence, which he called worrisome.

It is unclear whether this is the first time the law has been used. “It is possible that the law has been used in cases that didn’t make the headlines in the two months since it was adopted,” said Alexei Mukhin, an analyst with the Center for Political Information. “Chichvarkin’s case simply received more media attention.”

In any case, the Chichvarkin saga might turn out to be a showcase for the new law. The authorities in June filed a formal request to extradite Chichvarkin from Britain, where he has lived since fleeing Russia in December.

The Prosecutor General’s Office announced Thursday that a British court had issued an arrest warrant for Chichvarkin.

But a spokesman for the Westminster Magistrates’ Court, which handles extradition requests in Britain, said by telephone Friday that the court could not confirm or deny this until an actual arrest had been made. An unidentified source connected to British law enforcement told Reuters on Thursday that an arrest warrant had been issued but not yet been executed.