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A high-profile court case in Moscow has again put the spotlight on Russia's judiciary — an issue that opposition protesters often cite as one reason they've taken to the streets.
The Presnenski District Court handed down a five-year prison sentence last Thursday to prominent businessman Alexei Kozlov on charges of fraud and money laundering. The case has attracted wide attention as it has worked its way through Russia's court system for four years. Kozlov was accused of wrongdoing by his former business partner, Vladimir Slutzker, a wealthy ex-member of the Russian Senate.
But Kozlov has many supporters who say he is innocent, including his wife, Olga Romanova, a well-known journalist who has been a fiery speaker at anti-government rallies.
A court convicted Kozlov in 2008, ruling he stole money from a leather production company that he owned with Slutzker. Kozlov served three years, during which he gained renown by blogging about prison life.
His wife, meanwhile, founded a support group called "Russia Behind Bars" for the families of other inmates convicted of white-collar crimes. And she applied her skills as an investigative reporter to her husband's case and compiled enough evidence to help persuade Russia's Supreme Court to overturn the verdict.
But Russia has no law against double jeopardy, and a lower court refiled the charges.
The lower court upheld the original charges against Kozlov on Thursday. For more than an hour, Judge Tatiana Vasyuchenko read out the indictment at a rapid-fire pace, so quickly that the words were barely intelligible. When she finished and rushed through the sentence, Romanova shouted, "Damn you!" Within seconds, the verdict was relayed to Kozlov's supporters outside the courtroom, who erupted into cries of "Shame, shame."
Kozlov smiled as he was taken away in handcuffs. The crowd continued to chant, "We will not forgive; we will not forget." And they also directed their ire at the judge: "Send Vashyuchenko to jail!"
Critics of the Russian justice system argue that the courts lack independence and say the rich and powerful can effectively get the verdict they desire.
Days before the judge's ruling, Kozlov told NPR that he expected a guilty verdict, and said he didn't think the judge would be making the decision herself.
"I think someone else who is her boss will tell her what to do," he said.
Since the court will count his time already served, Kozlov will now be released in a year and 10 months.
Veteran television journalist Vladimir Posner, who has interpreted the Soviet Union and Russia for Americans for decades, says the lower court should have respected the Supreme Court's ruling in Kozlov's favor. He notes that Kozlov's ex-partner is very wealthy and says Russian courts are corrupt.
"The justice system in Russia is one you can buy," Posner says. "You can pay the court on the side; you can pay the judge on the side."
This view is shared by Yana Yakovleva, a Russian businesswoman who has also spent time behind bars. She has looked at the case against Kozlov and believes he is innocent. Yakovleva says she has seen documents that show Kozlov fulfilled the terms of his agreement with his business partner and paid the full amount for the assets he acquired.
The judge was "deaf and blind" to this evidence, says Yakovleva, who is chairwoman of a nonprofit group called Business Solidarity. Business people are frequently subject to criminal investigation, though most of these cases are dropped, she says, because people pay a bribe to stay out of jail.
Mikhail Prokhorov, a billionaire who ran on the presidential ballot against Vladimir Putin, said the verdict against Kozlov "shows the deficiencies and lack of independence of Russia's judicial system." In a post on his blog, Prokhorov wrote that Russian law enforcement agencies and courts have long been an instrument for seizing people's assets, and judges take sides in settling business disputes. Such cases, Prokhorov said, "breed public distrust in the courts."
There is a belief in Russia that judges are subject not only to financial incentives but political pressures. A notable case is former tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who ran afoul of the Kremlin after he began funding politicians. He is serving a long prison sentence.
Analyst Konstantin von Eggert says the guilty verdict against Kozlov looks like revenge for the political activities of Kozlov's wife, Romanova, who has been a vocal critic of the government.
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