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In Russia, witnesses risk their lives

In a corrupt legal climate, testifying at trial is fraught with danger: kidnapping, arson, break-ins, attacks. With many Russians also afraid of the police, a witness protection program is little help.

August 02, 2009|Megan K. Stack

MOSCOW — Valery Kazakov was almost to the prosecutor's office when the killers caught him. He was shot as he cut through an alleyway, and when he stumbled bleeding into the street, a man bent down to stab the final breaths out of him.

It was 3 o'clock in the afternoon, in the heart of the sleepy town of Pushkino. As far as the townspeople were concerned, it was a public execution. Kazakov, a former police officer, was believed to have been on his way to testify in the corruption case against the former mayor.

It has been a year now, and Kazakov's widow holds out little hope of justice, shrugging off the idea with weary skepticism. Police recently arrested the alleged killer, but that's just a "technical detail," Maria Kazakova says. She wants to know who put the hit on her husband, who ordered and paid for it.

"Maybe we'll find out, if the killer isn't killed before he starts talking." Kazakova pauses, staring down into her coffee cup. "Nothing is clean in Russia."

This is the "legal nihilism" that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has famously decried: an epidemic of witness tampering that bedevils courts across the country, little abated by an Interior Ministry reshuffle and the recent creation of a fledgling witness protection program.

The dysfunctional nature of Russia's legal system is legend -- crooked cops and judges; bribery and corruption; endless corridors and inexplicable verdicts. When Medvedev, a career lawyer, made the wildly ambitious pledge to mend the cracked wheels of justice, he set himself a test that will determine whether he can have any sway over the kind of country he leads.

Through the collapse of communism, the wild swings of the 1990s and long years of the oil and gas boom, Russia's failure to establish the rule of law has lingered as one of the great impediments to development. It is a problem that infects the texture of daily life, running much deeper than high-profile tragedies such as the killing of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and other Kremlin critics.

When it comes to witness tampering, the inertia of the status quo is crushing: According to police statistics, 10 million people testify each year in criminal trials. Half of them are threatened, police say.

Of those 5 million, just 20,000 are protected, leaving the rest to fend for themselves against kidnapping, arson, break-ins, street attacks, and attempts on their lives. There are no reliable statistics detailing how many come under attack.

"They either don't inform us of the danger signals, or they don't realize the scope of the threat," says Col. Oleg Zimin, head of the Interior Ministry's witness protection directorate.

But lawyers and victims' advocates tell another story. They say that people are often more frightened of police than of criminals, and view them, with no small justification, as potentially linked to the same gangsters issuing threats.

"Citizens correctly believe that cooperation with law enforcement will bring them nothing but trouble," says Olga Kostina, a lawyer who works with witnesses and crime victims for the Resistance human rights group.

Created in 2006, Russia's first witness protection program is run by the Interior Ministry's organized-crime division, which hoped to get witnesses to stick to their stories.

At the time, Zimin says, "very, very many people were recanting their testimony during the course of investigations. Some of them changed testimony right in court. They were threatened, they were bribed, they had property destroyed."

He bridles at the suggestion that people are afraid of police, saying that many would-be witnesses are criminals themselves, and therefore avoid contact with police. More witnesses will be protected, he says, as soon as the public learns more about his program.

When Medvedev took office and launched his campaign against the legal chaos, the organized-crime division was broken into two units: a "division to combat extremism" and what is now the witness protection program.

These changes were accompanied by a hearty propaganda push. Eager to drum up confidence in the witness protection effort, state news has held up Vera Bobryakova as a success story.

The short-order cook's troubles began when gangsters hired her husband to drive a car freighted with stolen gold to the restive province of Ingushetia. On his way south, he absconded with his cargo, went into hiding and stopped answering his phone.

Infuriated, gangsters stalked the couple's home, kidnapped their 2-year-old daughter, threw a fake grenade through a window and slit the throats of their dogs. The child was set free, but for months she cowered from men and remained silent, too traumatized to talk, her mother says.

When the gang hunted down Bobryakova's husband, he called the police and cut a deal. He agreed that he and his wife would testify against two members of the gang, and they were moved into the witness protection program.

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