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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Free Svetlana Bakhmina

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Have you ever heard of Svetlana Bakhmina? Probably not. She is a fairly ordinary Moscow woman: 35 years old, married, with two sons, aged 3 and 7. Her father is a welder. She was the first person in her family to go to college. She got a degree in law and got what amounted to little more than a clerical position in the legal department of a large corporation. She was fortunate: The corporation grew rapidly, and she rose through the ranks, becoming the deputy head of the legal department. The unfortunate thing was, the corporation was called Yukos -- and Svetlana Bakhmina is now in jail.

She was arrested in December 2004 on charges related to the cases of Yukos executives Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, who have now been sentenced to nine years in prison. But the alleged incidents of fraud in which the prosecutors say Bakhmina was implicated date back seven years, when she was a junior lawyer in no position to make decisions for the company. True, if anything illegal did take place, she could be considered culpable, no matter what her role. But considering just how minor that role probably was, one comes to suspect that her arrest and continued detention are intended not so much to punish her as to send a message to others potentially connected with this case, as well as to entrepreneurs who may find themselves at the center of a case like this one, and to the public.

The message is a classic one. In the last eight decades, it has been put forward by Bolshevik commissars, KGB functionaries and post-Soviet mafiosi, and it goes like this: "We will stop at nothing. The considerations that may give ordinary people pause hold no sway with us. Women, children, old people -- everyone is fair game. And if you don't believe us, just watch." What's happened to Bakhmina is like a scene out of a mob movie, when someone is forced to watch someone else's finger get cut off.

The court has on several occasions refused to release Bakhmina on bail. The prosecutor has argued successfully that if the court released her, Bakhmina would obstruct the investigation and try to flee from justice -- an absurd claim when applied to a woman who has two small children at home. For five months, Bakhmina was denied the right to call her children on the phone. She finally received permission to do so after a letter-writing campaign on her behalf.

So what are the prosecutors trying to do? It is possible they are applying blatantly unjust and cruel measures to Bakhmina to pressure her boss, Dmitry Gololobov, the chief lawyer for Yukos, into returning from London to turn himself in, as there has been a warrant out for his arrest since last November. One thing is certain: When mafiosi act this way toward their opponents, other crooks are in danger; when the state treats one of its citizens this way, we are all at risk.

The next hearing on Bakhmina's status is scheduled for Monday. The prosecution is asking that her time behind bars be extended another two months. The same group of people who organized the successful letter-writing drive to ensure she could call her children are once again asking people to write letters. They want to ask simple questions, such as what makes the prosecution think Bakhmina would be likely or able to flee, and whether she would be released in exchange for Gololobov's turning himself in.

Svetlana Bakhmina does not have an army of lawyers and the heft of public and media attention behind her. In fact, the only thing that can protect her from the system that abuses her is the continued attention of private citizens who make their concerns known. You can find a sample letter to the prosecutor's office online.

Masha Gessen is a contributing editor at Bolshoi Gorod.