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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

In a Grassroots Victory, a Driver Walks Free

Itar-TassShcherbinsky being hugged by his daughter after his release on Thursday.
After protests from drivers across the country, a court on Thursday overturned the conviction of Oleg Shcherbinsky in the accident that killed Altai Governor Mikhail Yevdokimov.

Shcherbinsky, who initially was sentenced to four years in a labor colony, was freed from custody and greeted by his daughter with a hug and bright flowers.

The court reversal shows that grassroots organizations are gaining strength, but also casts the spotlight on the weakness of a judicial system prone to outside influences, organizers of the protests and political analysts said.

Shcherbinsky, a railroad worker, was making a left turn off a highway in the Altai region in August when a Mercedes carrying Yevdokimov raced up from behind at a speed of 149 to 200 kilometers per hour, or perhaps even more. The Mercedes tried to pass on the left, grazed the car and flew off the road. The governor, his driver and a bodyguard died.

The Altai district court ruled last month that Shcherbinsky should have yielded to the governor's car and sentenced him to four years.

Drivers rallied nationwide not only over the conviction but also to protest the use of flashing blue lights and sirens on bureaucrats' cars, which they believe cause many accidents.

Drivers tied white ribbons to their cars to express their solidarity with Shcherbinsky, whom they saw a as a scapegoat.

Similar grassroots protests have been few and far between since President Vladimir Putin took office in 2000. The first spontaneous rallies hit the country in January 2005, when the state replaced benefits for million of pensioners, disabled people, war veterans and others with small cash payments.

"In my opinion, our protests played a decisive role in Shcherbinsky's case. We demonstrated that civil society can influence unfair decisions in this country," said Vyacheslav Lysakov, the head of the Free Choice Motorists' Movement, a nongovernmental organization that started the rallies in support of Shcherbinsky.

"This is a victory for us because we were able to defend a simple citizen," he said by telephone. "But in a law-based state, things should work differently, and the courts should make only fair decisions."

Viktor Pokhmelkin, an independent State Duma deputy who heads the Motorists' Movement of Russia, an advocacy group, welcomed the Altai regional court's reversal on Thursday, but he also said he "regretted that the decision was made only after pressure from civil society."

"In the future, I'd very much like to see our courts issuing verdicts and making decisions by strictly following the law, not under pressure from someone else," he said, Interfax reported.

In a poll conducted by Ekho Moskvy radio, more than 90 percent of respondents said they believed that the court had been influenced by the drivers' protests.

Earlier this month, after the protests had taken off, Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov rushed to Shcherbinsky's defense. The pro-Kremlin United Russia party then gathered tens of thousands of signatures against the conviction and submitted them to the Altai court.

United Russia leader Boris Gryzlov, who is the speaker of the Duma, welcomed Wednesday's acquittal as "just," Itar-Tass reported. "It was the right thing to do," he said.

Lysakov said that with the overturning of Shcherbinsky's conviction, his group would organize demonstrations to call for legislation to strip bureaucrats of the privilege of using flashing blue lights and sirens.

"Only a few people from the government should be allowed to use them," he said.

He expressed confidence that the legislation would come about, recalling that his group organized a rally last May during which drivers blocked Kutuzovsky Prospekt to oppose a government proposal to prohibit right-hand steering wheels. The proposal was soon tabled.

"We understood that people could organize themselves and speak directly to those in power, without any intermediaries," Lysakov said. "They were forced to listen to us."

Lysakov's group was formed on May 19 to protest the initiative to ban right-hand steering wheels, which are popular with buyers of secondhand cars in the Far East.