3 December 2003
Dimitry Afanasiev's commentary on the Russian court system in The Moscow Times

Prosecutors Accused Of Pressuring Court

Caroline McGregor

Elections, the independence of the courts and a high-profile furniture scandal converged Monday, as a Moscow City Court judge accused the Prosecutor General's Office of pressuring the court to issue rulings in its favor. Judge Olga Kudeshkina, who is running for the State Duma from a single-mandate district in the Moscow region, said in a speech to voters that prosecutors have exerted "unprecedented pressure" on judges hearing criminal cases, in violation of the law.

Kudeshkina has said she was pressured to rule in favor of prosecutors when hearing the case of Pavel Zaitsev, the Interior Ministry investigator who headed a disputed probe into fraud at the Grand and Tri Kita furniture stores.

In the latest chapter of the case, which has run for three years, the Moscow City Court on Nov. 3 handed Zaitsev a two-year suspended sentence for abuse of office.

The Prosecutor General's Office in November 2000 had charged Zaitsev with overstepping legal bounds in his investigation of furniture importers allegedly tied to the two stores, which were suspected of listing artificially low weights to minimize customs duties.

Prosecutors also said Zaitsev had conducted 12 unauthorized apartment searches and had detained two suspects without cause. But in September 2002, the court cleared Zaitsev of all charges, ruling that prosecutors had not presented sufficient evidence of his guilt.

In an interview Monday on Ekho Moskvy radio, Kudeshkina said that with Zaitsev's acquittal, prosecutors who sought a guilty verdict "felt their prestige in the eyes of society had been injured." The Prosecutor General's Office appealed to the Supreme Court, which sent Zaitsev's case back to be heard by a new panel of judges, including Kudeshkina.

Kudeshkina said in the course of hearing the case, Olga Yegorova, the chairman of the court, had summoned her to her chambers and made it clear what decision was expected. Yegorova and the Prosecutor General's Office "act as one, having a common interest in the Zaitsev case," Kudeshkina said, singling out First Deputy Prosecutor General Yury Biryukov as being behind Yegorova's interference.

Judges on low state salaries are subject to pressure that comes in different forms, she said. Stubborn judges risk having their salaries cut, authority restricted and fringe benefits revoked.

"In my experience, this is not an isolated instance of a court case being used for political or commercial or personal interests," said Kudeshkina, who has 20 years' experience. "Today it's Zaitsev, tomorrow it could be any one of us." During Kudeshkina's interview, Ekho Moskvy conducted a phone-in and online poll, asking listeners to say whether they consider Russia's judicial system to be independent: 96 percent of the over 4,000 respondents said no.

Kudeshkina said she had decided to run for the Duma to make judges less vulnerable to outside pressure.

"With what's happening now, it's impossible to keep silent," she said. "If judges are quiet, then the country could become a judicial basket case." Prosecutors dismissed the allegations as a publicity ploy. "This is an unconcealed campaign speech," Natalya Vishnyakova, a spokeswoman for the Prosecutor General's Office, told Interfax Monday. "What else can you say when she saved up all her rage almost half a year? The events she's talking about happened this summer." Genri Reznik, the head of the Moscow Bar Association, said Kudeshkina's allegations were serious and deserved "intense scrutiny" by a qualified group of judges. If confirmed, such intervention "bears the markings of a criminal offense. Of course it's a scandal. I can't recall a recent time when a judge has been so outspoken," he said.

Lawyer Dmitry Afanasyev attributed the problems to a loophole that exists in Russian legislation. In contrast to laws in the United States, there is no prohibition on lawyers from either side, representing the government or private individuals, meeting one-on-one with a judge before the case is heard. "Maybe one party is trying to bribe the judge. Maybe the government is trying to communicate to the court whatever it wants to say." "It's a mini-judicial process, before the judicial process," he said. "The name of the game is who gets access to the judge first, and who will be heard more. It's totally ridiculous, but that's the flaw." Reznik said in civil cases between two private individuals judges were mostly free from outside interference. In criminal cases, where the interests of power and money are clearly in play, the courts are less independent, he said.