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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Courts, Killers and Calumny Cases

I have always thought that life is far more astonishing than any novel. Consider this little story. Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper known for its oppositional stance, published a piece on the activities of the Moscow municipal court, ruled in autocratic fashion by Olga Yegorova.

Perhaps Yegorova took offense. Perhaps an order came down from above. Whatever the case, no sooner had the article appeared than a judge at the Basmanny district court started hearings of two lawsuits against Novaya Gazeta, both suing for defamation of character. The judge quickly found in favor of both plaintiffs, awarding $1 million in damages to one and $500,000 to the other. The awards were enormous for a Russian court and spelled ruin for Novaya Gazeta.

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The plaintiff who received $1 million was also a judge -- Alexander Chernov, chairman of the Krasnodar regional court. Chernov, whose official salary is $300 per month, sued Novaya Gazeta reporter Sergei Zolovkin for making the well documented claim that he drives a 7-series BMW, wears a $50,000 watch and is winding up construction of a $1 million mansion. Zolovkin, Novaya Gazeta's correspondent in Sochi, is one of those journalists who couldn't stand life in lazy old Moscow. He's 49 and a former detective -- a well-trained and incorruptible guard dog who knows how to conduct an investigation, although he doesn't write terribly well. He does things that journalists have never done before and that the cops have forgotten how to do.

Zolovkin's hard work finally brought to justice the attacker who had hurled a mixture of acid and oil in the face of Eleonora Kondratyuk, Miss Sochi, permanently disfiguring and blinding her. The attack was ordered by a spurned admirer and well-known criminal figure in Sochi. Zolovkin personally apprehended the attacker, a certain Adgur Gochua who had gone into hiding in Abkhazia. And catching a man hiding with his relatives in Abkhazia is not much easier than catching a Chechen field commander in his native village.

When Gochua received a sentence even lighter than the minimum prescribed by law, Zolovkin took an interest in the workings of the Krasnodar court. That's when his troubles began: His car was stolen twice, wrecked and left outside his building; threats were made by telephone; and his wife's brother was severely beaten.

And now a judge in Moscow has awarded a judge in Krasnodar $1 million for defamation of character. These things happen. Chernov makes $300 a month, but the damage he suffered was valued at $1 million.

Two weeks after this just decision, Zolovkin the libeler entered his apartment building, followed by his wife Emma. Hearing footsteps behind her, Emma turned and began to scream.

She thought that the man running toward them was armed with a knife. He wasn't. He was carrying a pistol with a silencer, whose long outline Emma had taken for a knife in the darkness. Zolovkin turned. The first bullet pierced his trouser-leg.

Zolovkin bobbed up and down. Two more bullets whizzed by him. He pulled out his own pistol -- one he had received as a prize for being the best detective in Kazakhstan -- and started shooting. The hit man ran off.

Imagine what would have happened if the attacker had escaped. A bullet hole in Zolovkin's pants and an unsubstantiated story about an attempt on his life. Everyone would have had a good laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. But the crazed hit man ran down the street and straight into a police patrol. The police sergeant ordered the criminal to stop. When he did, the pistol tucked into his belt fell to the ground. In his panic, he had forgotten to ditch the gun.

What can you say in a case like this? That Basmanny district court should have heard the case a lot sooner. Then, perhaps, the unjustly offended party might have found the money to hire a more experienced hit man.

Yulia Latynina is a journalist with ORT.