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© RIA Novosti. Andrey Stenin

Kozlov found guilty

by Natalia Antonova at 15/03/2012 21:44

Russian businessman Alexei Kozlov was found guilty of stealing factory shares and sentenced to five years at a Moscow court on Thursday in a case that has highlighted the corruption and foul play inherent in Russia’s criminal justice system.

Both outside and inside the courtroom in Moscow’s Presnensky district, over 200 protesters loudly chanted their outrage at the highly controversial verdict.

“Throw the judge in jail!” they screamed, referring to Judge Tatyana Vasyuchenko, who read out the verdict in a quick, robot-like manner.

Kozlov, who hugged his wife as his sentence was read, was jailed on the spot. He had brought a sports coat and a couple of books with him to court, anticipating that he would be held in custody.

The businessman has become a symbol of miscarriage of justice in Russia.

Originally arrested on fraud charges in 2008, accused of stealing leather factory shares, Kozlov was convicted and spent three years behind bars before Russia’s Supreme Court threw out his conviction.

The businessman always maintained his innocence and claims the charges were brought by his former business partner Vladimir Slutzker, who is also a former senator to the Federation Council. In 2010, Slutzker was awarded sole custody of his children by the same Presnensky district court.

A month after Kozlov’s release from a Siberian penal colony, Moscow prosecutors reopened the case against him. The proceedings became widely publicized due to the efforts of his journalist wife, Olga Romanova, an active member of Russia’s protest movement and the founder of the Russia Behind Bars advocacy group, which aims to protect the rights of prisoners and the accused.

Romanova anticipated the guilty verdict against her husband – and alleged that there will be an attempt on his life if he is put back behind bars. She cursed the court as her husband was sentenced.

‘Freedom for Kozlov!’ – outside the Presnensky courthouse in Moscow

© RIA Novosti. / Ramil Sitdikov

‘Freedom for Kozlov!’ – outside the Presnensky courthouse in Moscow

During his final speech to the court on Tuesday, Kozlov stressed that the criminal court system in Moscow has become a platform for businesses to settle scores on their rivals since the arbitration courts in the city were made more transparent in the early 2000s. And experts say that since the Moscow criminal court system has a 98 percent conviction rate, businessmen can be fairly sure of success when they open charges against a rival.

“The arbitration courts are more transparent now, and all decisions made by the judges are available online, which means that it’s much harder to cover up any irregularities,” Marina Krasnobayeva, a lawyer at the Yukov, Khrenov and Partners law firm, told The Moscow News. “The criminal court system, meanwhile, is traditionally less transparent.”

Krasnobayeva believes that “enormous political will” is needed to reform the criminal courts.

“The courts are pressured into to handing down guilty verdicts because an innocent verdict automatically means that the prosecuting side did something wrong,” she said. “And because under the Soviet system judges and prosecutors were seen as essentially playing for the same team, that closeness still remains…in this system, the best a defense lawyer can hope for is to reduce the sentence.”

Many of the protesters gathered at the court house this week in support of Kozlov and Romanova expressed disdain for the courts. Ivan Valeryevich, a pensioner, said he lives nearby and came out to swell the ranks of the dissatisfied. “I know someone who was once thrown in jail on trumped-up charges – because his ex-wife wanted to steal his apartment,” he said. “She later withdrew her complaints – but the system is unstoppable, and so he still ended up serving time.”

A young woman who gave her name as Anna said that she was “tired of feeling terrorized” by the criminal justice system. “Once this system has you in its grip, you’re basically doomed – that’s the impression everyone has,” she said. “What that has to do with the rule of law is beyond me.”

The proceedings surrounding Kozlov echo a similar case against tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was jailed after he accused Russian officials of mass fraud. He died in pre-trial detention, allegedly after being refused medical treatment.

One striking difference in the Kozlov case is the amount of civil activity it generated. While Magnitsky’s case sparked outrage only after his death, Kozlov has received widespread public support in recent weeks. The case has come to be regarded as a litmus test for a country where a significant portion of the population is growing civilly active and demanding more transparency and justice.

“Both Kozlov and lawyer Sergei Magnitsky were people who were not directly involved in human rights,” said Anna Sevortian, director of the Russian office of watchdog Human Rights Watch. “But their cases became important to [human rights] struggles in Russia, where there is a great number of people serving time for so-called ‘economic crimes’ – and talks of a general amnesty have gone on for a while.”

Sevortian added that being involved in business in Russia can carry as much risk as being a political figure. “A lot of these people who are in jail are capable of doing a whole lot of work, they also represent the creative and the economically active class,” she said. “Which is why cases such as Kozlov’s are so important.” 

Yulia Ponomareva contributed to this report.

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