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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia's Crooked Judges

Explosions in stairways, offices, on the streets... Hired assassinations of businessmen... All this is becoming the norm for Russia, although it is impossible to get used to it. Fear is demoralizing the country and people are more and more often speaking of some "strong hand" that will come and put things in order. This is how the seeds of dictatorship are sown. Earlier, it was possible to blame the growing wave of crime and terrifying explosions on various criminal groups "arranging things" among themselves. Now things have become clearer: The criminal situation is being made worse by irregularities in the courts. The Interior Ministry has released some sensational statistics on the surprising liberalism of Russia's judges. The mafia leaders who are arrested by the police are generally being released -- either on their own recognizance or on bail -- before coming to trial. And what happens next? Let's look at a few cases. In Ulyanovsk, a judge by the name of Savelyeva released a certain Sheverdin, accused of practicing professional extortion with two of his friends, on 500,000 rubles bail. Soon after, witnesses who had testified against him began to recant. In Belgorod, a judge named Rastorguyev released a certain Babiyev, who had stolen enormous sums from various banks using false letters of credit. Babiyev immediately disappeared and the police were forced to begin another all-out manhunt. Two years ago in Moscow, a soft-hearted judge released, on his own recognizance, a man named Shintel, who was known to be the leader of a criminal group. He disappeared and began to gather a new gang. Shortly thereafter, they attacked the office of a firm called Fram. In the shootout, three people were killed and two were wounded, but Shintel escaped unharmed. For two more years, he hid out here in Moscow, working under a fake name with false documents. He had gotten a job as the head of the security services department of a company called Berkut. Quite recently, he and his gang were finally arrested while attempting to get into the offices of a competing firm in order "to settle accounts." There are many such stories. In the old days, in order to avoid being accused of being soft, judges handed out maximum sentences. No one was ever released on bail although that was always legally possible. What has happened? A few years ago, a law was passed that made them genuinely independent. But can judges -- who for decades were not merely members of the Communist Party, but its slaves -- suddenly acquire, in just two or three years, a sense of true inner virtue and faithfulness to the principles of justice? Most have instead exchanged their dependence on the regional party committee for a dependence on bribes. The Interior Ministry says that such judges receive at least 1.5 million rubles for releasing a prisoner on his own recognizance. Nonetheless, the police are not allowed to investigate judges using such methods as stake-outs and phone taps. These techniques are banned by the law on judicial inviolability. Information from field agents is not considered legal evidence since the law requires that it be confirmed by hard facts. So, it all comes down to this: you cannot disqualify and prosecute judges without evidence, but gathering evidence is against the law. Detectives with the Interior Ministry also say that it is useless to bring information on corruption to the highest judicial authorities or to the special judicial review committee. According to sources in the Interior Ministry, judicial bribe-taking has reached such extremes that even at the highest echelons there may be many judges that have been "bought." Therefore, any police complaints based solely on agent reports will be treated as slander, perhaps .even grounds for a civil suit. Stalemate. An attempt to break this stalemate by publicizing criminal statistics on the handiwork of those criminals released before trial has provoked a unique reaction in judicial circles. The police have been accused of trying to limit the independence of Russia's judiciary. They want, it is said, to return our judicial structures to the past when judges helped the police, handing out unjust verdicts that simply repeated the flimsy cases supplied by the prosecution in order to avoid spoiling national statistics. There is only one solution. Every case in which an accused person commits a crime after being released on bail should be investigated separately by an independent commission of jurists. This is the only way to determine whether the judge made an unintentional error -- which may itself be an indication that the judge is unqualified -- or whether it is a case of mercenary abuse of authority. However, this has not been done. The Supreme Court of Russia has chosen a different path. It issued a special instruction for all judges in Russia on applying the article in the Russian criminal code concerning gangsterism. The instruction says that the illegal acts committed by a single criminal group should not be separated into individual cases by crime, as has been the practice, since that leads to people being charged with, say, robbery instead of racketeering. As a result, punishments are much lighter and the release of suspects on bond becomes a matter of course. Can it be that Russia's judges are so uninformed that it is necessary to explain the obvious to them? I asked at the Supreme Court's criminal department about the results of this instruction. They told me that it is too early to tell and the situation will not become clear until the second half of the year. So, we will have to wait. Meanwhile, mafia groups continue divvying up territory and power, blowing up offices and cars, murdering businessmen and generally sowing fear and panic. Only a dictatorship can grow out of such a situation. And we have lived through that before. Igor Gamayunov is an investigative reporter for Literaturnaya Gazeta. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.