Friday, February 18, 2011

Truths of Putin’s Justice: A Courageous Women, the Internet, and More on Khodorkovsky

A bare conference room in a Moscow office building. A strikingly beautiful woman in her early 30s, dressed immaculately in black and white, is interviewed by a young man and woman clad in jeans and pullover sweaters. She is nervous but composed and answers their questions in a subdued but steady voice.

This is the world of Russian internet TV. As in many other places, internet TV is a last outlet where the networks are controlled by “higher authorities.” Such an interview would be too hot to handle elsewhere.

The interviewee, Natalya Vasilyeva, knows the personal consequences of this interview: firing or worse and a tough life to follow. As the press secretary for the Khamovnichesky district court of Moscow, she is an insider witness to the months’ long trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whom her boss, Judge Viktor Danilkin, sentenced on December 27 to an additional seven years in jail.

Vasilyeva puts a face on a distorted justice system, which “all participants understand but no one is willing to say anything.” In political cases, such as Khodorkovsky’s, the verdicts are “ordered” from above. If any cog in this “justice” machine refuses to play their role, the best that can happen to them is that they lose their jobs. They are warned “to think about their careers and children.” When prodded to explain what is meant by “consider their children,” Vasilyeva answers that “it is up to the individual to interpret what that means.”

As the person responsible for briefing the press on the Khodorkovsky case, Vasilyeva is a frequent visitor in the judge’s chambers. She paints a sympathetic picture of Danilkin: “I must say that the whole judicial community knows that this is an ‘ordered’ case. They all sympathize and understand him, but no one can say how he can emerge from this situation as an honorable man.”

Throughout the trial, Danilkin reports regularly to his superiors in the Moscow central office. If the matter cannot be clarified by phone, he is called in. As the case proceeds, he is increasingly agitated, nervous, and depressed. In his office for instructions, the exasperated Danilkin tells her: “I can’t answer your questions. I don’t know where I’ll be tomorrow or what will happen to me.” Danilkin’s agitation rises as the sentencing approaches: “Do what you want. I don’t care anymore.” She enters his office on the third day of the reading of the sentence to find an ill Danilkin taking medicine for his heart. He assures the alarmed Vasilyeva: “I am Ok now.”

The heart of Vasilyeva’s testimony is that the sentence was not the judge’s: “Danilkin had no relationship to the verdict.” In fact, her boss’s superiors get upset that he begins writing the verdict on his own. On Saturday December 25, Danilkin is called to the Moscow central office to meet with “an important person.” Shortly thereafter “Danilkin’s” verdict is sent over. Parts of it arrive only during the actual reading of the verdict. Normal practice for the Khamovnichesky court is for the judge to write the verdict; formatting and spelling are then checked in house by court secretaries. In this case, the secretaries make the technical corrections on electronic files received from the central office.

The young interviewers close by asking Vasilyeva whether she understands the consequences. Answer: “I will be fired.” They warn that she will be accused of lying for sinister reasons. Her answer: “I am speaking out because I am disappointed. I wanted to become a judge, but, when I saw the internal working of the law, I understood it is a fairy tale that the judge carries out the law independently. The law itself has been transformed into a fairy tale. It is a fairy tale that the judge is subordinated to the law. Instead, the judge is subordinated to higher authorities.”

Natalya Vasilyeva’s brave actions will likely not change anything. She has been fired. Her former boss, Danilkin, has threatened her with a lawsuit for defamation. But sometimes courageous actions by one small person can have unanticipated consequences. People become fed up and speak out. Other regular people – all women -- are following her lead. One Svetlana Dobronravova reported to the limited-circulation “Metro Gazette” that, on the trial’s last day, she heard the following telephone conversation of the female prosecutor: “The lawyers are getting their honorariums, we have done in Khodorkovsky, but the verdict is not ready. They have not sent it over from the Moscow office.” She says she is ready to testify in court. Journalist, Vera Chelishcheva, wrote on a blog: “I can confirm what Natalya Vasilyeva has said. We all heard Danilkin shouting in his chambers at the prosecutors so loud that it could be heard at times in the courtroom.”

At a much higher level, the Khodorkovsky verdict is having uncomfortable ramifications. President Medvedev’s entourage to Davos admitted that the Khodorkovsky verdict discourages foreign investment, but Medvedev has taken no action even though he has the power to pardon Khodorkovsky. We can understand Medvedev’s reluctance to tangle with his “boss” Vladimir Putin. Putin’s answer to queries about Khodorkovsky leaves no doubt where he stands: “Thieves should sit in jail.”

For those wishing to see the Vasilyev interview, see:


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