Inching Toward Justice in Russia

Under the Communist regime, the Russian criminal justice system had a reputation as a sham - and for good reason. A phone call could initiate or halt an investigation and determine a verdict, regardless of the evidence or the law. It was called "telephone justice." Even today, the general assumption among Russians is that if you have the right "contacts," the law doesn't really apply to you. And if all else fails, a bribe or two should do the trick.

So when it was discovered in the fall of 1995 that my firm's former executive director for operations in Vladimir - about 100 miles northeast of Moscow - had embezzled about $33,000, we were advised to conceal the theft. Two Russian accounting firms pointed out that if we reported the stolen money and failed to obtain a guilty verdict, we ran the risk of being forced to pay the back taxes on the full amount that had been taken, plus huge fines and penalties. However, I wasn't going to commit a crime by concealing the theft.

The initial investigation fit the predicted pattern. After a superficial review of the facts, in August of 1996 the criminal charges were dismissed. In his written decision, the young investigator accepted the former executive director's argument that she had "earned" the money she had personally taken, and that she had used the remainder for the "benefit of the firm," or had paid it to me. Initially she had stated under oath that she had given me a "lot of the money," but that I had "refused to sign any documents." Later, however, she claimed she had "found" three receipts covering a total of 20 million rubles - about $5,000 at that time. These were clearly forged - but accepted by the investigator.

Further demonstrating the influence of her "contacts," we were not immediately informed of the decision to drop the charges. Apparently she hoped the time limit for an appeal would expire and she'd be permanently off the hook.

When our Russian attorney learned of the decision to end the investigation, we immediately submitted an appeal. In addition to our legal arguments, we enlisted the support of the US embassy and others. We did our best to make it clear to the Vladimir authorities that their handling of this case would not go unnoticed in Moscow.

The investigation was reopened with a new, much more diligent investigator. As a result, the accused became increasingly hostile, and she made a number of threats. She sent two young men to inform our attorney that she and her family would be much less likely to be at risk from, say, a "reckless driver" if she ceased to assist us.

After the second investigation resulted in formal charges of grand theft and forgery, I was given an unsigned note threatening a series of actions if I did not withdraw charges. At the trial, the accused acknowledged she had written the note. Her threats undermined her defense, but the authorities took no direct action in response to her blatant efforts to obstruct justice. This is a weakness in the legal system that needs to be addressed, along with strengthening - and enforcing - the laws governing perjury.

On the other hand, there is at least one feature of Russian criminal procedure which bears positive review. In the Russian system, both the accused and the plaintiff are given the opportunity to confront each other directly at trial, and not just through attorneys. It is assumed that this will assist in uncovering the truth. This worked particularly well in our case - and it was definitely satisfying to be able to fully participate in the proceedings.

The trial began on Jan. 12 - two years after the crime had been reported. The judge and the two "people's assessors" assigned to hear the case proved to be uncorrupted and professional.

The accused was found guilty and was sentenced to five years in a penal colony and ordered to repay all the money she'd taken. On April 21, the Vladimir Regional Court upheld the verdict on appeal.

When I've discussed the case with Russians - and with Westerners familiar with the machinations of the Russian system - they've invariably been surprised.

One experienced consultant said the guilty verdict gave him hope for the future.

Justice is possible in Russia - but you have to work at it, and you have to take into account some significant cultural differences.

* Ronald R. Pope is president of Serendipity: Russian Consulting & Development Ltd. and an associate professor of Russian politics at Illinois State University at Normal.

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