William and Mary Law School

Criminal trial - Russian style!

In the last few weeks I have been really tied up with work and thus have fallen behind with my blogs.  I was assigned to write a memo on a Vermont case (a favor for my Director who is still in touch with his former firm in Vermont) and have finally chosen a project (related to the ECHR) to work on before my internship ends.  More on all of this later.

Oh, some interesting info about my Director.  It turns out that he is the grandson of the great Russian composer Mikhail Glinka. So cool! His family moved to the US when he was very young and thus he grew up there. He speaks perfect English, but has a slight accent when he speaks Russian. Many of his childhood stories begin with "So, once Nabokov came over to our house..."

Anyway, now I'd like to tell you about the criminal trial I attended several weeks ago. It was of an alleged former mob boss from St. Petersburg, Vladimir Barsukov (or Kumarin).  The Times called him "the Russian Al-Capone".  In the 1990s he founded the "Tambovski" crime syndicate.  In a 1994 assassination attempt, Barsukov received gun wounds in his lungs, stomach, and right arm (which later had to be amputated).  Since then he has become an owner of several legitimate businesses.  Barsukov is also very religious and recently used his influence to negotiate the release of two kidnapped children.  So, not your typical gangster.

Only now officials have finally gathered evidence that has given them a reason to arrest him.  He is being accused of corporate raiding and of orchestrating an assassination attempt. Allegedly he is behind the raid of two St. Petersburg stores and the 2006 attack on Sergei Vasiliev, his former business partner (Vasiliev's Rolls Royce was raked with gunfire and one security guard died).  Along with Barsukov, there were seven other men in court who are allegedly under his employment. That particular day one of the victims (a woman who was the owner of one of the stores raided) testified and was questioned.

Tom (our friend from the DOJ), Tonya, and I arrived around 10:30 at the relatively new building of the Moscow City Court. I point out that it's new because, from what I hear, most of the other court buildings throughout the city are in decrepit condition.  I was surprised to learn that we had to present our identification (which was then recorded) twice in order to access the court room.  Tom was quick to mention that this would never be required at a US court building (and certainly was never required in Congressional buildings, when I interned there). "That's because we have a democracy" said Tom.

Once we got into the building, Tom introduced us to the public prosecutors.  Prosecutors are very highly regarded here in Russia and it was a rare opportunity to get to meet them.  They were very down to earth and very curious about us.  We were introduced as "the Americans."  This was a strange title for me because I have always been "the Russian" while in the US. Anyway, we sat for a bit in their office and they asked us questions about law school in the United States and what it takes to become a prosecutor there.  Then, the prosecutors introduced us to one of the judges - a very young guy probably in his early thirties.

At the doors of the court room stood an armed guard with a machine gun.  The format of the actual trial was also strange.  First, no one was allowed into the courtroom until the accused (all 8 of them) were placed into glass cages along one of the walls. So much for a presumption of innocence I guess.  The cages were reminiscent of a zoo.  The men sitting in them had the appearance of total thugs. Several of them wore track suits and had shaved heads (yes, just like in the movies).  Each read a newspaper as the trial proceeded - very casual. I guess a trial which determines something so trivial as whether you go to jail or not can get pretty boring (!).  Their advocates (15 in total) were all squeezed in behind four small tables and some sat in chairs on the sides.  Barsukov himself had three lawyers who sat behind their own table facing the prosecution. 

The victim who testified that day was a woman in her early thirties who owned 5% of a store located on the Nevsky Prospekt (one of the main streets in St. Petersburg).  According to her written testimony, she arrived at the store one day to find that guards had barricaded the entrance and were boarding up the windows, as the employees stood outside.  She was not permitted inside and was not told why this was happening.  Apparently, later, the owner with 95% of the store asked her to meet him in a restaurant. She met him and two rather intimidating men (possibly the those who are now accused) at this restaurant.  There, the other owner basically told her to sign away her portion of the store or otherwise the two men present could kill her dog and/or burn down the dacha (summer home) where her mother lived.  Obviously she gave away her 5%.

In a rather shocking twist, when we watched the victim testify, she denied having been harmed in any way (other than her deteriorating health) by the accused.  Our theory was that she was either paid off or again threatened to change her testimony.  Her answers were extremely vague and many of her responses were "I don't remember."  She was then read her former testimony and asked why her present story was so different.  Her response was that with time she has begun to see the events in a different light.

The victim was then asked many questions by the prosecutor and the three judges present.  Then, both Toni and I were stunned when one of the judges basically asked "Does anyone else have other questions?" and not only did the defense lawyers all speak out of turn, but the accused themselves got the opportunity to address the clearly frightened woman.  At one point, she responded to the probing questions of the accused "You are worse than a judge", to which he responded "Well what do you want? You're the one that's going to put me in jail."  I would have peed my pants.

Barsukov himself never asked any questions. He sat quietly and read a newspaper, only smiling once in a while when he heard a response that he probably considered ridiculous.  All in all, this was an excellent experience and now I hope to visit a US criminal trial so that I can make comparisons.

Do sledushej vstrechi (until we meet again),

Masha