In Putin’s Russia, Wanton Savagery

The Los Angeles Times reports:

Valery Kazakov was almost to the prosecutor’s office when the killers caught him. He was shot as he cut through an alleyway, and when he stumbled bleeding into the street, a man bent down to stab the final breaths out of him.

It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon, in the heart of the sleepy town of Pushkino. As far as the townspeople were concerned, it was a public execution. Kazakov, a former police officer, was believed to have been on his way to testify in the corruption case against the former mayor.

It has been a year now, and Kazakov’s widow holds out little hope of justice, shrugging off the idea with weary skepticism. Police recently arrested the alleged killer, but that’s just a “technical detail,” Maria Kazakova says. She wants to know who put the hit on her husband, who ordered and paid for it.

“Maybe we’ll find out, if the killer isn’t killed before he starts talking.” Kazakova pauses, staring down into her coffee cup. “Nothing is clean in Russia.”

This is the “legal nihilism” that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has famously decried: an epidemic of witness tampering that bedevils courts across the country, little abated by an Interior Ministry reshuffle and the recent creation of a fledgling witness protection program.

The dysfunctional nature of Russia’s legal system is legend — crooked cops and judges; bribery and corruption; endless corridors and inexplicable verdicts. When Medvedev, a career lawyer, made the wildly ambitious pledge to mend the cracked wheels of justice, he set himself a test that will determine whether he can have any sway over the kind of country he leads.

Through the collapse of communism, the wild swings of the 1990s and long years of the oil and gas boom, Russia’s failure to establish the rule of law has lingered as one of the great impediments to development. It is a problem that infects the texture of daily life, running much deeper than high-profile tragedies such as the killing of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and other Kremlin critics.

When it comes to witness tampering, the inertia of the status quo is crushing: According to police statistics, 10 million people testify each year in criminal trials. Half of them are threatened, police say.

Of those 5 million, just 20,000 are protected, leaving the rest to fend for themselves against kidnapping, arson, break-ins, street attacks, and attempts on their lives. There are no reliable statistics detailing how many come under attack.

“They either don’t inform us of the danger signals, or they don’t realize the scope of the threat,” says Col. Oleg Zimin, head of the Interior Ministry’s witness protection directorate.

But lawyers and victims’ advocates tell another story. They say that people are often more frightened of police than of criminals, and view them, with no small justification, as potentially linked to the same gangsters issuing threats.

“Citizens correctly believe that cooperation with law enforcement will bring them nothing but trouble,” says Olga Kostina, a lawyer who works with witnesses and crime victims for the Resistance human rights group.

Created in 2006, Russia’s first witness protection program is run by the Interior Ministry’s organized-crime division, which hoped to get witnesses to stick to their stories.

At the time, Zimin says, “very, very many people were recanting their testimony during the course of investigations. Some of them changed testimony right in court. They were threatened, they were bribed, they had property destroyed.”

He bridles at the suggestion that people are afraid of police, saying that many would-be witnesses are criminals themselves, and therefore avoid contact with police. More witnesses will be protected, he says, as soon as the public learns more about his program.

When Medvedev took office and launched his campaign against the legal chaos, the organized-crime division was broken into two units: a “division to combat extremism” and what is now the witness protection program.

These changes were accompanied by a hearty propaganda push. Eager to drum up confidence in the witness protection effort, state news has held up Vera Bobryakova as a success story.

The short-order cook’s troubles began when gangsters hired her husband to drive a car freighted with stolen gold to the restive province of Ingushetia. On his way south, he absconded with his cargo, went into hiding and stopped answering his phone.

Infuriated, gangsters stalked the couple’s home, kidnapped their 2-year-old daughter, threw a fake grenade through a window and slit the throats of their dogs. The child was set free, but for months she cowered from men and remained silent, too traumatized to talk, her mother says.

When the gang hunted down Bobryakova’s husband, he called the police and cut a deal. He agreed that he and his wife would testify against two members of the gang, and they were moved into the witness protection program.\

The Bobryakovs sent their children to live with her parents, sold their house and took up residence in a police station. The head of the gang was sentenced to five years. Spotting Bobryakova in the courtroom, he said to her, “Some time will pass and I’ll get out, and we’ll meet again.”

Once the trial was over, the Bobryakovs said they received a letter informing them that they’d been dropped from the witness protection program.

“Then we lost all hope of ever getting our life back,” Bobryakova says. “We realized that the government had washed its hands of us, and didn’t really want to protect us.”

The danger is compounded because the couple is still expected to testify in a second trial.

“They’ll come back sooner or later, and they’ll find me,” Bobryakova says of the gang members. “They know where I am. And I know I’ll get no protection this time.”

Bobryakova was particularly outraged when Russian state television featured her family in a documentary about Medvedev’s push for witness protection.

“The program was totally outrageous,” she says. “The point of it was that the state saved us and helped us in everything, and that it was only because of the witness program that we survived.”

Worst of all, despite the assurances she says she received from the film crew, the couple’s faces and voices appeared unaltered on national television.

The Bobryakovs’ tale is a cautionary one and hints at the reasons for the nervousness of Maria Kazakova, the policeman’s widow.

Sipping coffee in a swank cafe near the Kremlin, she says she has taken over her husband’s “business interests,” but won’t say what kind of business he was running.

The 30-year-old looks like a young Christie Brinkley, swathed in designer black, fingers and throat covered with diamonds and cranked up on heels.

She is nervous, she says, because the former mayor’s trial has ended. The man she describes as her husband’s “enemy” was handed a suspended sentence.

In fact, she’s so nervous that she doesn’t like people saying that her husband was on his way to testify. There’s no proof, she insists. True, she allows, her husband had detailed knowledge of the power struggles that gripped Pushkino in recent years.

“There were open wars. People were beaten up with baseball bats, cars were burned down, shops were torched,” she says. “Of course, he knew all about it, and he didn’t conceal that he knew.”

But she’s got a family to raise, so she’d rather keep quiet and move forward. Russia is a rough place, she says. Her children will have to know that, too, one day.

“For us, this is a normal state,” she says. “Nobody expected anybody to be killed, but . . .”

She trails off, and shrugs, again.

15 responses to “In Putin’s Russia, Wanton Savagery

  1. Typical uncivilized barbaric kremlin policy = kill or arrest all honest and intelligent citizens and neighbors.

  2. Is it really just the kremlin, Les?????

  3. The kremlin has their own version of the “Darwin Awards”, which they stole from Superman’s bizzaro world. The kremlin removes the intelligentzia from the gene pool!

  4. A few months ago I translated (to the best of my abilities) Latynina’s article about three states of Russian economy: solid, liquid, and gas. “Gas” is the intellectual brainpower that Kremlin is squeezing out of the country. And the Don Quixotes that have brains and don’t leave are simply killed. As Comrade Stalin used to say, no person – no problem.

  5. Seems like KGB/FSB agents have managed to have stolen secret CIA know-hows on El Salvador, Guatemla, Haity and Nicaragua death squads trained for decades at the School of Americas in Georgia and canal zone of Panama. Who’s gonna cover the copyright expenses if I may ask?

    “Comrade Stalin used to say, no person – no problem.”

    As far as I remember Anastasio Somoza, a prominent US-trained and educated Latin American democrat, with his sons shared the same conception feeding animals at his private zoo with his political opponents still alive in less than half a mile from the US embassy in Managua.

    Savak service or what they called it way back then in Shakh Iran also was not too bad in using democratic tortures under American guidence and the US copyright law. They still are fond of Americans in Iran as you might suspect.

    In Indonesia they well remember president Sukharto of Indonesia and his beloved American friends. They have murdered several millions in the 60′ and 70′.

    Americans are tougher experts on death and torture. Putin is but a kid.

  6. We know that putin is a kid, rather than a muture civilized man who respects life. He is still in kindergarden with the older group. [old slavic saying]

    PS The cheka came before the CIA; your comments are for useful idiots.

  7. LES

    “He is still in kindergarden with the older group. [old slavic saying]”

    If Putin is still in kindergarden then Saakashvili is a toddler and needs a special delivery of new chew-resistant ties from the Foggy Bottom Nazi headquaters.

  8. Russian inmates used for torture, activist says
    Today, 19:54 | Associated Press

    MOSCOW (AP) – A prominent Russian human rights activists accused the prison system Tuesday of using hardened criminals to torture other inmates with the aim of extracting confessions.

    Lev Ponomaryov said his organization, For Human Rights, has received many letters from prisoners reporting abuse.

    “There exist about a dozens of these concentration camps, and I’m not exaggerating here, in which groups of the toughest criminals, people who are serving time for pedophilia, for rape and other crimes, get official permission to torture, to rape and sometimes even to kill whomever they are told,” Ponomaryov said at a news conference.

  9. Russia has the level of lawlessness and corruption that you’d expect in a backwater dump like Haiti.

    By every metric I’m hard pressed to see how Russia could ever be integrated into the west. Ever.

    When these educated young Russians that support Putin, and most of them do, travel abroad do they notice anything but the stuff they buy?

  10. penny: “By every metric I’m hard pressed to see how Russia could ever be integrated into the west. Ever.”

    So do I. Give that funny advice as part of your desperate hope to the Chinese. Check the map, penny.

    penny: “When these educated young Russians that support Putin, and most of them do, travel abroad do they notice anything but the stuff they buy?”

    They notice in the first place they are Russians from the country which is 10 time-zones long.
    That’s exactly what makes you scary.

  11. Chechen Wunderkind Faces Next Big Trial
    05 August 2009
    By Alexandra Odynova / The Moscow Times

    He represented the victims in the so-called Ulman Trial in 2007, when four Russian troops led by Captain Eduard Ulman were convicted of murdering six civilians in Chechnya in 2002.

    Ulman and two other defendants have been missing since failing to show up for hearings in the trial. The fourth defendant was sentenced to nine years in prison. The case had been followed closely in Chechnya, where many were outraged that no one had been brought to justice for the killings.

    Musayev also participated in a trial in a Karelian court against six natives of the Caucasus accused of starting a brawl with local residents of Kondopoga in August 2006, which resulted in two deaths.

    The incident sparked ethnic riots and violence against the Caucasus natives living in the Karelian town.

    Musayev was also a defense lawyer for Chechen Umar Batukayev, one of the three men accused of preparing an assassination attempt against Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov in 2007.

    But the Politkovskaya trial was Musayev’s first before a jury, and he said it was also his first victory in a criminal case out of the dozen he has worked on. The unanimous not-guilty verdict he won remains a rarity in Russian courts.

    When the trial ended, several Russian newspapers wrote that it was thanks to Musayev that the jury believed in the suspects’ innocence.

    “He’s the best lawyer working with criminal cases in Russia at the moment,” Novaya Gazeta journalist and radio talk show host Yulia Latynina said on Ekho Moskvy at the time.

    Novaya Gazeta is conducting an independent investigation into Politkovskaya’s murder, which is focusing on the two brothers, Khadzhikurbanov and former Federal Security Service officer Pavel Ryaguzov.

    • Robert,

      I am a little puzzled, what point you are trying to make with this reprint. Musayev is indeed a very talented lawyer, akin to late Johny Cochran, to use US analogy. As any trial lawyer, he has some noble clients, as well as scum.

      That said, what is the newsworthiness of your reprint? You don’t say (in fact, you don’t say anything yourself) – and it is not clear. I enjoy reading your posts and thoughts… but blind reprints from third party source miss the point.

      • Something (someone) positive in the so-called “Russian justice system”.

        May be killed by “the unknown gunmen”, too.

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