Over the past 18 months, President Dmitry Medvedev has signed two laws meant to rein in Russia’s notorious pretrial detention system, an institution often used to extract bribes and enforce widespread corruption. He has been trying to make the country more governable and conducive to business.

Medvedev sought to discourage police, prosecutors and judges from jailing busi­ness­peo­ple on false charges, often in return for bribes from competitors bent on destroying a rival.

But the system quickly proved itself more powerful than the president. The laws were ignored. Yet another of Medvedev’s promised reforms would go unkept, and Russians would remain fearful of their courts and police.

The failed attempt to strengthen the rule of law illustrates an odd paradox: Even as the government has grown more authoritarian, it has become less capable of exerting its will over the vast bureaucracy beneath when that bureaucracy has other interests.

“Of course, they can say whatever they want,” said Yana Yakovleva, who leads Business Solidarity, an organization that fights for the rights of Russian busi­ness­peo­ple. “But there is not a single agency not poisoned with corruption here, and they will listen to what they’re told only if it’s profitable or when their fear is stronger than the desire for money.”

When a compliant judge denies bail, detention gets a businessman out of the way while his company is stolen. It’s a powerful tool for corrupt officials to extract a bribe: Pay up or go to jail. Detainees are held in intolerable conditions. The water is usually undrinkable — the fortunate use electric coils brought by relatives to boil it. Cells are damp and dark. Medical care is routinely denied.

Many suffer, and for no reason. Last year, according to court records, 404,333 people were convicted of economic crimes, but only 146,490 received prison terms. The rest paid fines or got suspended sentences. At the same time, 59 people died in Moscow’s pretrial prisons, half a dozen more than the year before.

“We can say one thing for sure,” said Valery Borshchev, the head of a public commission that monitors prison conditions in Moscow. “The president’s initiatives are not working.”

Problems remain

With Medvedev’s new laws in place, lawyers and human rights activists thought the legal system would throw off some of the practices left 20 years ago by the Soviet Union, where detention nearly always meant guilt and punishment, trial or not, and private business, illegal until the late 1980s, remained suspect.

They thought that Stanislav Kankia, 47, a businessman accused of fraud after he had a falling-out with his partners, would be freed. He has been in jail for a year, and four strokes have left him brain damaged, barely able to talk and partly blind. On Oct. 24, a court, saying his health was fine, ruled that there were no grounds to release him.

Natalia Gulevich, 52, has been in prison for 11 months because of an unpaid bank loan. Her lawyer said the real cause was raiders trying to seize office buildings she owned. She has gone into kidney failure, and this month, a Moscow court agreed to allow bail — if she posted a $3.5 million bond within a week. The Itar-Tass news agency called the amount unprecedented in Russia, and her lawyers said she could not possibly come up with that much money.

Gulevich’s husband and family members put up their cars, apartments and other property, but it was not enough. “Investigators told her to plead guilty, and she would be freed,” said Zoya Svetova, a journalist and activist. “She refused.”

This week, Gulevich was finally hospitalized — after the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg told the Russian government to provide her with immediate medical treatment.

Russia has the world’s second-highest rate of incarceration, behind the United States. The United States has an even higher rate of pretrial detention, with jails full of poor people unable to afford bail, usually on charges involving drugs or violence. The difference is that Tom DeLay awaits money-laundering charges in freedom while Maxim Petlin, a city councilman in the city of Yekaterinburg, languishes in pretrial detention, accused of bribery. His supporters say his real crime is that he’s a liberal politician who is critical of the authorities.

Pretrial detention has been under scrutiny here since Sergei L. Magnitsky, a lawyer who accused officials of a $230 million tax fraud, was charged by those same officials with the crime. He died on Nov. 16, 2009, at age 38 in Moscow’s Butyrka prison.

While he was in detention, investigators tried to force him to implicate his employer, Hermitage Capital, a Western investment fund. He refused and was denied treatment for pancreatitis and beaten before he died. Borshchev and his commission investigated Magnitsky’s death at Medvedev’s behest, but the findings went right to the officials who were implicated in the death.

Two prison doctors are being investigated in connection with Magnitsky’s death, not the officials who pursued him and dictated the conditions of his confinement.

Yakovleva, who became an activist after refusing to pay a bribe and spending seven months in jail, said that’s what happens across the country — complaints about abuse or corruption are automatically sent to the authorities involved.

“Who is the creator of this wonderful situation?” she asked rhetorically, saying it was put in place by the Bolsheviks in the 1930s to silence complaints about collectivization.

Two laws passed

In April 2010, Medvedev signed a law calling for bail or release on personal recognizance for economic crimes and, in January, signed another law stipulating that seriously ill detainees need not await trial in jail.

Yelena Panfilova, who monitors corruption as director of Transparency International in Moscow, said this month that corruption has grown more entrenched in Russia over the past decade. If businesspeople once gave bribes voluntarily, perhaps to get a permit faster, now payoffs have become required. Those who refuse to pay often find themselves in jail, despite the new laws.

“It’s in the hand of judges,” she said, “and they have other incentives.”

Judges don’t even pretend they’re independent, said Stanislav Dmitrievsky, an activist in the city of Nizhny Novgorod. “Those who tried are no longer judges. They’ve been disqualified.”

The country is run, he said, by making sure everyone is guilty of something. “Then they’re easy to manage.”

Borshchev and Lyubov Volkova, another member of the prison-monitoring commission, visited Baltimore jails in June, a tour arranged by the bilateral presidential commission, a vehicle of the reset of relations between the United States and Russia.

“What I liked about Baltimore was the good legal regime,” he said. “There’s not the arbitrariness we have here.”

The food and hygiene was far better than in Moscow, he said, but not all was perfect. “As we walked along, we could see someone on the toilet,” he said. “That’s a violation of European conventions.”

Volkova said some things have changed since the early days of capitalism in the 1990s, when business disputes were settled by picking up a gun and killing someone. Now they’re settled by getting an investigator to issue a warrant.

“Prisons are a tool for taking a business from an entrepreneur,” she said. “They’re destroying the middle class of Russia, while real criminals happily serve their sentences with rosy cheeks.”