August 31, 2012

IN A COURTROOM in the western Russian city of Smolensk on Tuesday, a judge delivered a sentence to Taisia Osipova on drug charges. As the defendant looked on from behind bars, the prosecution recommended four years in prison.

The judge declared: eight years.

Ms. Osipova’s sentence was delivered 250 miles from Moscow and has not attracted as much attention as the jailing of punk rock band Pussy Riot. But the Osipova case is just as outrageous, another vivid example of arbitrary power being used against the powerless, a consequence of Russia’s failure to build a modern, post-Soviet rule of law.

The mother of a 6-year-old, Ms. Osipova is the wife of Sergei Fomchenkov, a leader of an unregistered, nationalist opposition party, Other Russia. He said that Ms. Osipova was framed to put pressure on his political activities. She was arrested after a police sting operation on the street in Smolensk. The police also said they found drugs during a search of her apartment. She was initially sentenced to 10 years in prison.

An outcry at the punishment drew the attention of Dmitry Medvedev, then Russia’s president, who said it was “too severe” and called for a reexamination of the case. Mr. Medvedev’s comments came as protests swelled in Moscow and elsewhere after he announced plans to swap jobs with Vladimir Putin, then prime minister, and reports of widespread falsification in December’s parliamentary elections. Mr. Putin returned to the Kremlin in May.

Ms. Osipova, who has diabetes, got a new trial. A witness to the apartment search, Anton Mandrik, testified that he saw police plant the drugs. Mr. Mandrik took a lie detector test to back up his claim and passed. Ms. Osipova maintained since the start of the case that the drugs were planted, a common practice in Russia when the authorities are attempting to ensnare someone on trumped-up charges.

After the second trial, the judge threw out the charges based on the apartment search, but the others stuck. The Post’s Will Englund reported this year from Smolensk that the witnesses to the police sting were members of a pro-Kremlin youth group. One of them said she was misled by the police into thinking it was a routine criminal case, only to find out later that it was a trap for Ms. Osipova’s husband.

It is rare for a Russian judge to impose a longer jail term than that recommended by prosecutors, and the judge did not offer an explanation for deciding on an eight-year term. Most likely, there is a back story of a power struggle that is known only to a few. In a state without rule of law, individuals exercise power at a whim, and people such as Ms. Osipova are trod underneath.