Saturday, November 01, 2003

Russia is a Lawless Country

This depressing New York Times article confirms my view that Russia is a country where due process is no more than a fiction.

OSCOW, Oct. 31 — Anton V. Drel arrived at the grim Mastrosskaya Tishina prison here last Saturday and signed the papers declaring him the official counsel of Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, Russia's richest tycoon. Then a prosecutor presented Mr. Drel with a summons to be questioned as a witness.

"Even in the Soviet Union, that never happened," he said.

The jailhouse summons, which prompted an outcry from Russia's bar, was the latest in a series of aggressive and, lawyers say, illegal tactics in an investigation lasting months into Mr. Khodorkovsky and others connected with his company, Yukos Oil.

Whether Mr. Khodorkovsky is guilty of the fraud and forgery alleged by prosecutors is much debated here and abroad, particularly given the murky nature of most big business in Russia. The real question, however, is whether he has any chance of due process or, should it ever come to it, a fair and open trial.

Few here believe he does — even the deputy chairman of President Vladimir V. Putin's advisory committee on the judiciary, Sergei E. Vitsin. "I would say there are more features of political games here than of justice," he said in an interview.


Masked agents seized Mr. Khodorkovsky on a Siberian runway last Saturday after prosecutors accused him of ignoring a summons that, Mr. Drel said, he never received. His partner, Platon Lebedev, has been in jail since July and has not yet appeared in an open court hearing. He, like Mr. Khodorkovsky, has been ordered held until at least Dec. 30.

Agents of the Federal Security Service, the domestic successor to the K.G.B., even appeared at the public school of Mr. Khodorkovsky's daughter, demanding a list of her classmates. Mr. Drel called the visit a naked act of intimidation.

On Oct. 9, investigators raided Mr. Drel's own law office — without a warrant and without his presence, he said — and seized his mobile phone, electronic notebook and files involving business deals with international companies. As for the summons, Mr. Drel refused to appear as ordered. After the public outcry, the prosecutors withdrew it.

"Some dangerous precedents are being created in this case," Mr. Drel said in an interview this week at Yukos's headquarters in Moscow. "If this is the way they treat the richest and one of the most influential men in Russia, then they can confiscate an apartment or a kiosk from any small-rent trader," he said. "And if they treat the lawyer of the richest man in Russia like this, how will they treat ordinary lawyers in, say, small Siberian towns who represent ordinary businessmen?" (emphasis added)

When you have agents of the state going to harass a man's daughter at her school, you know you're dealing with a thugocracy. Everything Putin has said and done in his time in office leads me to believe that he is nothing more than a power-hungry thug. He speaks like a thug, being ever ready to spew forth vulgarities, and he certainly acts like one, be it in Chechnya or in his dealings with the Russian press and opposition.

Putin is willing to frighten away potential investors and encourage capital flight from a country that had been seeming on the mend, all for what, exactly? All the indications were that Khodorkovsky posed no real threat to him politically in the upcoming elections, so just what is to be achieved at such a horrendous cost? The whole thing only makes sense if one regards Putin as a man so afraid of the slightest opposition, and so unwilling to allow alternative centres of power to exist in Russian life, that he is determined to do whatever he can to ensure that he and his allies alone have a voice, whatever the price the rest of Russia must pay.