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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Citizens' Freedoms Whittled Away




About four months ago, an old woman receiving me in a once-grand, now dust-filled and neglected St. Petersburg flat was assuring me that her son, who had been in prison for a year and a half, was being used to get at Vladimir Gusinsky, a media mogul who owns the magazine where I work. I attributed her words to an understandable desire to get me interested in her son's case, perhaps by exaggerating its significance on a national scale.


She had my sympathy, but I did not write a story.


I should have f not because the government is now making an issue of this man's business ties to Gusinsky, but because his experience is a perfect example of the sort of extralegal practice that made Gusinsky's arrest possible.


The man's name is Dmitry Rozhdestvensky, and when he was arrested, he was the head of Channel 11, an independent television station in St. Petersburg. He was also a close ally of St. Petersburg's first mayor, Anatoly Sobchak, who lost his bid for re-election in 1996. Under his successor, Sobchak himself and many of his aides and allies were investigated by the federal prosecutor's office. Some were jailed. All but one f Rozhdestvensky f have been let out, and, one by one, cases charging corruption have been closed.


In March 1998, Rozhdestvensky was charged with nonpayment of taxes. On a single day that month, investigators searched the apartments of 41 of his employees, including those of freelance journalists. In September 1998, the tax charges were dropped and replaced with embezzlement charges, which allow arrest.


For the past 21 months, Rozhdestvensky has been moved from jail to jail in three different cities on charges that have continued to mutate; now Rozhdestvensky is accused of misappropriating company funds to build a summer house and illegally giving a member of his staff an inexpensive Russian car.


Just weeks before Rozhdestvensky was jailed, his wife, Natalya, suffered a massive stroke.


His lawyers have presented documents showing that she is unable to care for herself. Normally that, coupled with proof of Rozhdestvensky's own worsening health, would be enough to have him released from prison. But not in this case, because the prosecutors do not want him released. And in Russia, just as in the Soviet Union, the prosecutor's office has the right to review and overturn court decisions f which is to say, to dictate them.


In Rozhdestvensky's case, the term of pretrial detention has even been extended past the legal limit of 18 months.


Rozhdestvensky's parents and friends hoped he would be released after Vladimir Putin became president; the two men had worked together in St. Petersburg and had been political allies. It is unclear why this did not happen.


In a sense, the reasons don't matter. What does is that Rozhdestvensky's case is not all that unusual.


All over Russia, the authorities routinely subject local businessmen and journalists to harassment and persecution. Though Rozhdestvensky was one of the most prominent businessmen and media leaders in Russia's second-largest city, his arrest has drawn precious little attention from either the domestic or international press.


It was only when the same thing happened to Gusinsky, who was released June 16, after being accused of embezzlement, that the world took notice. (Though a low price paid by Gusinsky's company for stock in Rozhdestvensky's station figured in the case against Gusinsky, those charges have nothing to do with Rozhdestvensky's own case.)


Russia today is a very different place than it was 10 years ago because it has people like Gusinsky, Rozhdestvensky and many others who create independent local and national media. But their existence is precarious.


For a long time, we in Russia hoped that a new, democratic concept of freedom and justice would trickle down from Moscow, where it seemed to be taking hold, to the regions. Instead, we see the random injustice that remained typical for the regions occurring on a national scale.


Masha Gessen is chief correspondent of the Russian news weekly Itogi. She contributed this comment to The New York Times.