European Investigator Alleges Widespread Corruption in Russian Courts

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By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 24, 2009

MOSCOW, June 23 -- A special European investigator issued a stinging report Tuesday that alleges widespread political abuse of the Russian courts and urges countries not to extradite people to Russia if they might be denied a fair trial.

The conclusions by Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, a former German justice minister, are likely to further strain Russia's relations with the Council of Europe, which commissioned the probe and is locked in a standoff with Moscow over the future of the European Court of Human Rights.

Russia joined the council in the 1990s, but it has recently attacked the court's impartiality and is the lone council member blocking a plan to streamline its operations. The court, based in Strasbourg, France, acts as an appeals panel of last resort for residents of 47 member countries.

The number of cases filed in the court against Russia each year has climbed sharply, from 8 percent of all cases in 2000 to nearly 30 percent last year, and the Kremlin has bristled at recent rulings that highlight torture and judicial corruption in Russia.

Asked to examine "politically motivated abuses" of court systems across Europe, Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger studied Britain, France and Germany but focused on Russia.

She said she found prosecutors with "almost unchecked" power to put people behind bars and subservient judges "subject to an increasing level of pressure aimed at ensuring convictions in almost all cases."

The practice of "telephone justice" -- an official calling and telling a judge how to rule -- has evolved for the worse, she wrote: Russian judges are now so worried about making a mistake and being disciplined or dismissed that they pick up the phone themselves to ask for instructions.

Defense lawyers, she said, are "frequently subjected to searches and seizures and other forms of pressure."

The report acknowledged some progress in the legal system, including pay raises for judges to reduce the temptation for corruption.

But it said a plan to give extra credit to convicts for time spent in notoriously crowded pretrial detention facilities has been derailed, apparently because it might have resulted in the release of jailed former oil tycoon and Kremlin foe Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger cited the start of a second trial against Khodorkovsky in March as one of two "emblematic cases" that cast doubt on President Dmitry Medvedev's professed commitment to fighting what he calls "legal nihilism."

The second case highlighted in the report is that of Hermitage Capital, which angered officials by waging shareholder campaigns against corruption in influential firms such as Gazprom, the state gas monopoly.

In 2007, police allegedly seized seals and documents from Hermitage's offices that were then used to transfer ownership of the firm to a shell company. In an elaborate ruse involving forged contracts and lawyers claiming to represent Hermitage, other shell companies sued the new owner and obtained judgments totaling about $1 billion, Hermitage chief executive Bill Browder said.

Hermitage had already moved its assets overseas and suffered no losses. But it says the officials used the judgments to obtain a tax refund of $230 million from the Russian treasury that then disappeared into offshore accounts.

Browder said the authorities are now retaliating against him and his colleagues for exposing the fraud. Three of the firm's lawyers are facing criminal probes, and one has been imprisoned since November.

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