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Reputed Russian Crime Boss Caught In Spanish Legal Nightmare

Gennady Petrov is escorted to court in Palma de Mallorca in June 2008.
Gennady Petrov is escorted to court in Palma de Mallorca in June 2008.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's state visit to Spain in March gave rise to a number of articles in the Spanish press finding fault with the Russian criminal-justice system.

One of Spain's leading dailies, for example, described the "notorious" case of murdered Russian journalist and outspoken Kremlin critic Anna Politkovskaya as a "legal farce" marked by "embarrassingly incompetent investigatory work." An "El Pais" editorial invoked murky court sessions held "behind closed doors" in which evidence went "mysteriously" missing and the state prosecutor engaged in shameless "obstructionism."

But those who live in glass houses should refrain from throwing stones with such reckless abandon.

Operation Troika was launched in June 2008 and spearheaded by Spain's superstar prosecutor, Judge Baltasar Garzon. It targeted a Russian businessman with Spanish residency, Gennady Petrov.

Garzon is known worldwide as the "apostle of extraterritorial jurisdiction" for his efforts to prosecute such prominent international (non-Spanish) personalities as former Chilean President Augusto Pinochet, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Garzon has never been one to let considerations of legal due process get in the way of a good headline (that is, one featuring his name). His case against Petrov would seem to fit into this category.

Although Petrov's guilt or innocence has not been established, it does appear that his legal rights are being trampled upon. A recent press release from the U.S.-based International Fund for Legal Due Process was strongly critical of Garzon's handling of the case on grounds of due process. It called Operation Troika a "blatant violation of European Union law" and "an affront to 21st-century jurisprudence."

Trial By Ordeal

At 2 a.m. on June 13, 2008, law enforcement officers -- in helicopters, boats, and ground transport -- surrounded and invaded the home of Petrov and his wife, Yelena, in Calvia, near Palma de Mallorca, only to find the couple naked in bed. They interrogated them in that state, refusing to let them cover up until four hours later. To add insult to injury, the police rousted the couple's 11-year-old daughter out of bed and forced her to witness her parents' humiliation.

The officers insisted repeatedly that the Petrovs hand over all guns and weapons. The Petrovs said they had none and indeed none were found. The police rifled through the Petrovs' belongings, and ultimately walked off with all of their jewelry and other items of value.

Seven hours after they invaded his home, the Guardia Civil chucked Petrov in the Palma de Mallorca municipal jail. He has been imprisoned at various locations ever since, often with hardened criminals, including (according to his attorney) members of the Basque separatist group ETA.

Petrov is in poor health. He has Parkinson's disease and possibly a heart condition. Although he appeared mentally strong at the outset of the ordeal, he now seems to have sunk into depression. His attorney is petitioning the court for a full physical examination.

The galling thing for Petrov -- and the frightening thing for the rest of us -- is that he has been held all this time without bail and with no trial date set. According to Spain's antiquated Criminal Code, he can be incarcerated pending trial for two, and possibly up to four, years.

Slipping Standards?

It is hard to assess the charges that have been brought against Petrov. In the nine months since he was charged with money laundering, the prosecution has yet to present his attorney with any documents to establish an underlying crime (always present in cases of money laundering).

There is no outstanding international warrant for Petrov and never has been. Russia has never charged him with any crime. His attorney says all documentation of transfers of funds was carried out according to normal legal standards. He is unaware of any underlying crime that would have prompted Petrov to launder money. If Garzon has any evidence to the contrary, he is not letting on.

The refusal of the prosecution to document the charges against Petrov constitutes a violation of the European Court for Human Right's ruling prohibiting pretrial secrecy and the withholding of key evidence from defense attorneys. The ECHR says this practice places the defendant in "a grave state of defenselessness and prejudice to fundamental rights, and that such prejudice must be cured immediately without delay."

Although Spain is a signatory to the ECHR convention, Spanish judicial authorities have ignored ECHR rulings bearing on criminal cases in the past. Meanwhile, Gennady Petrov, ailing and in solitary confinement for nine months, continues to await a trial date and ponder why the government of his adopted country thinks he did something wrong.

The U.S. State Department's 2007 annual report on human rights practices and Amnesty International have both condemned Spain for lengthy pretrial detention. Under Spanish law, suspects can be detained for more than two years before being put on trial. A judge may authorize a further delay, extending the detention to four years. Amnesty International has also written about the worse conditions for foreign citizens incarcerated in Spain and expressed concern about torture in Spanish prisons.

With Operation Troika, Garzon has taken on a daunting task -- coming to grips with Russian organized crime in Spain. But his heavy-handed tactics in the Petrov case indicate a zeal for results that trumps considerations of due process. Law-based societies should uphold a higher standard.

Taras Kuzio is a senior fellow in the Department of Ukrainian Studies, University of Toronto, and editor of the bi-monthly "Ukraine Analyst." The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL