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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Driver on Trial for Offering a Bribe

Thinking of taking care of a traffic violation by slipping a police officer a few rubles? You might want to think again.

Moscow driver Ildar Bicharov is facing eight years in prison after trying to bribe his way out of a traffic ticket.

According to police, Bicharov was driving his Lada on Minskaya Ulitsa in western Moscow on Aug. 9 when he took an illegal left turn onto Ulitsa Gerasima Kurina. A traffic policeman pulled him over and took him into the patrol car to write up a report.

It was at this point that Bicharov initiated a ritual well-known to drivers: He offered to deal with the fine on the spot and handed the policeman 930 rubles tucked inside his passport.

Officers from the city police's economic crimes department then approached the car and informed Bicharov that the conversation had been recorded and that he was under arrest.

A week later, he was charged with bribing an official, punishable by up to eight years in prison.

Bicharov does not deny offering to bribe the policeman. "The policeman, as it usually happens, tried to get me to pay a bribe," Bicharov told Gazeta.ru. "I offered to pay the fine on the spot and give the policeman the 930 rubles that I had on me."

Under the law, attempting to bribe an official is not an offense punishable with prison time, and Bicharov claims that he simply set his passport -- which he said often doubles as his wallet -- on the seat next to him.

Bicharov's lawyer, Mikhail Marov, is arguing that police broke the law by taping without probable cause to suspect criminal activity. "You can conduct such operations against people who have either committed a crime or are planning to commit a crime," Marov told Gazeta.ru. "But here we're talking about drivers who haven't committed any crime."

The city's Dorogomilovsky District Court is expected to issue a verdict in Bicharov's trial on Thursday.

The traffic police are feared and hated by even law-abiding drivers for their notorious practice of extorting bribes. Seven out of every 10 encounters with the traffic police result in a bribe, according to a stinging 2002 report released and conducted by the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, the Indem think tank and the Monitoring.ru polling agency.

A spokeswoman for the city traffic police declined to comment on the details of Bicharov's case or whether such sting operations might deter drivers from offering bribes. "We're not trying to scare anyone, but drivers, as well as our policemen, must know that bribes are illegal and the law will be enforced," she said.

Calls to the city police's economic crimes department went unanswered Tuesday, as did calls to the department's western Moscow precinct, which conducted the sting operation.

Bicharov's case is an unusual twist in attempts by authorities to curb corruption on the road. After a ring of Moscow police officers suspected of extorting millions of dollars was broken up in June 2003, then-Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov called on motorists to videotape and photograph corrupt traffic police officers and send the evidence to the ministry's internal affairs department.

Leonid Olshansky, vice president of the driver advocacy organization Automotive Russia, called Bicharov's trial a red herring. "This is just a propaganda tool to deflect accusations of corruption against traffic policeman," he said. "It's just a show trial."

But drivers' advocates aren't the only ones miffed about Bicharov's legal troubles. The case has incensed senior officials in the Interior Ministry, and Alexander Vorobyov, spokesman for the Interior Ministry's economic crimes department, harshly rebuked the officers who caught Bicharov. He accused them of "chopping sticks," or trying to improve their arrest statistics, by cracking down on small-time offenders while ignoring more serious economic crimes.

"Every economic crimes officer serves 10,000 citizens, and you're telling me they can't find anything more serious than someone offering a bribe of a few hundred rubles?" Vorobyov said.

He said sting operations against drivers are rare and expressed doubt that they could help battle corruption. "They may be legal, but I would say they are amoral," he said.

Sergei Ivanov, 46, a gypsy cab driver originally from Belarus, said he would not stop paying bribes to traffic policemen even under the threat of jail time.

"It's the only way to get around town," Ivanov said. "Plus, I'm very careful about how I do it. I watch their body language and always make sure they ask me, 'So, how are we going to take care of this?'"

Ivanov noted the difference between bribing traffic police in Russia and Belarus, where President Alexander Lukashenko has aggressively tried to stamp out police corruption and offered decent wages to officers.

"In Minsk I offered a cop $20 to take care of a ticket, and he told me he was going to take me back to the precinct and charge me with offering a bribe," Ivanov said.

"If I offered a Moscow cop $20, he'd shake my hand and tow my car home for me."