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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Conscience of Russia' Falls Victim to Swindle




Sergei Kovalyov, a champion of human rights often described as the "conscience of Russia," was caught in a notorious street swindle and cheated of more than $2,000.


Kovalyov, 68, now a deputy in the lower house of parliament, was taken in by a game known as lokhotron, or lottery for chumps.


"I just don't understand how such a well-educated man can be lured into something the newspapers have written so much about," Viktor Shubin, senior investigator with the Tekstilshchiki district's police force in southeast Moscow, said Friday.


Kovalyov himself couldn't explain what prompted him to join the game.


"I didn't want to make money, I was driven by other, deeper motives," he said Thursday on Ekho Moskvy radio. Russia's former human rights commissioner admitted, though, that it was "a major, major act of stupidity."


The scam began when Kovalyov was walking down Lyublinskaya Ulitsa early Wednesday afternoon and a girl came up to him and offered him a free lottery ticket.


He accepted the ticket and won a television set. But so did two other men, who appeared also to be passers-by but who were in fact accomplices in the swindle, police said.


All three men were then asked by the man running the lottery game to place cash bets in a special round to determine the winner. They did, but this failed to determine the winner, and they were asked to place higher bets or withdraw from the game, losing their previous bets.


And so the game went on until Kovalyov raised his bet to 13,500 rubles only to lose, Shubin said.


He didn't have that much cash on him, so Kovalyov took the winner to his apartment on Prospekt Vernadskogo where he paid him $2,000 and 1,500 rubles in cash, the police inspector said.


"It was a matter of honor," Kovalyov, a Soviet-era dissident who was a colleague of the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov, said in the radio interview.


But when he told his family the story of his gambling losses, they informed him that he had been swindled and he hurried back to the Tekstilshchiki neighborhood to file a report with police.


Detectives immediately fanned out into the area, surrounding the Tekstilshchiki metro station, and rounded up almost a dozen suspected street swindlers.


None of them turned out to have been part of the gang that deceived Kovalyov.


But the exercise was not all in vain, Shubin said. Two of the detained men were recognized by a woman who had lost 58,000 rubles in the same kind of the game.


Police then asked Kovalyov to help draw composite sketches of the four who swindled him, which he did. The sketches have been distributed to police stations across Moscow, but no arrests have been, Shubin said.


The lokhotron scam is widely practiced in Moscow, and the typical swindler can make $200 to $500 a day. Most of the victims are women.


One of Kovalyov's friends, human rights activist Oleg Panfilov, said it was probably Kovalyov's "decency and delicacy" that cost him so dearly.


He simply could not refuse the girl offering him the lottery ticket and once he had taken it felt compelled to play the game to the end, said Panfilov, who works at the Glasnost Defense Foundation.


Kovalyov could not be reached either at home or at the State Duma throughout Friday.


In Soviet times, his dissident activities cost him his job in a biology laboratory at Moscow State University in 1970. Kovalyov was convicted of anti-Soviet propaganda in 1974 and served seven years in prison camps.


He was allowed to return to Moscow during the late 1980s under the reforms introduced by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.


Kovalyov once again found himself pitched against the executive powers when, as human rights commissioner, he exposed atrocities during Russia's bloody attempt to crush Chechen separatism beginning in late 1994.


His severe criticism of the military campaign cost Kovalyov his seat as human rights commissioner in March 1995.