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Russian Entrepreneurs On Edge Over Spiraling Police 'Repression'

Vladimir Romanov (right) and his wife Margarita say police investigators extorted money from them.
Vladimir Romanov (right) and his wife Margarita say police investigators extorted money from them.
MOSCOW -- Vladimir Romanov looks forward to celebrating his company's birthday later this month.

The small family start-up he created a decade ago has since grown into a sprawling business with more than 300 employees. Today, the firm provides mobile-phone services and leases payment terminals from a dozen offices across Russia.

Proud of his success, the 34-year-old Moscow entrepreneur never misses his company's anniversary. This year, the festivities have taken on special significance.

"Thankfully, I can celebrate this 11th anniversary," he says. "I spent my own birthday, on March 5, in the town of Mozhaisk -- not in a restaurant, but in pretrial jail."

Romanov is one of hundreds of Russian business owners who face prison each year for alleged financial misconduct. And like him, most accuse corrupt police and investigators of trumping up charges to extort money from them or take over their businesses.

Not all, of course, are innocent. But the number of criminal cases against businesspeople has grown so sharply in recent years that entrepreneurs are now taking action to combat what they say is a vast campaign of racketeering by law enforcement officials.

Fighting 'Repression'

Business-Solidarity, a nongovernmental organization that defends the rights of entrepreneurs, has organized a dozen street rallies in Moscow since the beginning of the year.

The group's chairwoman, Yana Yakovleva, says not a week goes by in Russia without entrepreneurs getting arrested. Official graft, she says, has spun out of control.

Yana Yakovleva: Graft out of control
"It has become so severe in Russia that entrepreneurs live with the fear of being arrested," she tells RFE/RL. "It has become a way of making money [for law enforcement officials], a kind of conveyor belt."

Yakovleva, who herself spent eight months in prison on what she claims were false fraud charges, says the unrelenting legal assaults on the country's business community can safely be described as repression.

Many in Russia share her view. "That's the way our law enforcement system functions, with the protection of the FSB security services," says Yelena Lukyanova, a law professor at the Moscow State University.

"A trend has swept the country, and it already has a name: criminal-legal repression," she continues. "It is a state within the state. This system has long cut loose and turned against the population, but now it has cut loose even from the federal authorities."

The recent deaths of businesswoman Vera Trifonova and Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who had accused Interior Ministry officials of corruption, further incensed business circles. Both died in pretrial detention after being denied medical care.

Afraid to meet the same fate in Russia's notoriously brutal prisons, some entrepreneurs are resorting to desperate measures.

Yury Fink, a businessman charged with fraud, posted two online appeals to President Dmitry Medvedev in April and May.

Fink accuses officials in the Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor-General's Office of trying to take control of his company, which develops and sells transportation safety systems. He faces up to 10 years in prison.

In the clips, he says he fears for his life if convicted. "I know that I can end the same way as murdered Sergei Magnitsky and Vera Trifonova," he says. "I don't wish to repeat their silent participation in this process. I want to name my future killers, I want to make their names public so there won't be any need for an investigation after my death."

Too Little, Too Late?

The Kremlin is well aware of the problems faced by small and medium-sized business, despite having done little to solve them.

Medvedev has pledged to fight police corruption, support entrepreneurs, and improve Russia's investment climate. In April, he signed new legislation prohibiting the detention of suspects accused of economic crimes pending trial -- a move welcomed by entrepreneurs as a step in the right direction.

For entrepreneur Romanov, the decision came too late; he had just won a release on bail in court. After seven months spent in detention, he is nonetheless grateful for the knowledge that he can now stay home with his family right until his trial.

He could spend as much as 32 years in jail if found guilty of all the charges against him, which include illegal banking activities and money laundering. The arrest of an investigator caught red-handed extorting money from his wife has not led to a revision of the charges.

Lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died after implicating senior officials in a fraud case.
Seated behind his desk in his office, based in a somewhat rundown two-story building on the northern edge of Moscow, the entrepreneur relentlessly maintains his innocence. The raid on his office last fall, he recalls, came as a complete shock.

"A man entered my office and indentified himself as a police officer. He told me to place my hands on the table and shut down my computer," he recalls. "At first I thought it was a joke, but then several people entered the room armed with machine guns. More than 50 people were involved in the operation. That's when I realized I was in trouble, in big trouble."

Large-Scale Bribery

Romanov claims more than $300,000 in cash was stolen during the raid on his office and accuses police of placing wash towels on his surveillance cameras to cover up the theft.

He says investigators offered to free him in return for a large sum of money just a few weeks following his arrest. After refusing to pay the bribe, he says investigators turned against his wife Margarita, threatening to throw her in jail and place the couple's child in an orphanage. It wasn't long before she caved in to the pressure.

"I had no connection whatsoever with the business activities that were causing Vladimir problems. It all sounded crazy to me," she says. "But when I started receiving threats on my home and mobile phones, it became very real. And by the time these people started calling one of my friends, I was ready to give anything to make them back off, to make all of this end."

Margarita Romanova ended up paying $400,000 in return for her husband's release on bail, but investigators failed to honor the deal.

When they asked for another $500,000 to prevent additional charges from being brought against him, she reported the case to the Interior Ministry's internal-crimes unit. One of the corrupt investigators was soon detained after a sting operation.

But things only got worse for Romanov. He was transferred to another prison outside Moscow and placed in a tiny cell with hardened criminals in what he believes was retaliation from investigators.

Today, he considers himself lucky to be alive and out of jail, at least until his trial begins. No date has been announced yet.

Romanov, who now spends much of his time preparing his defense, says he remains upbeat about his chances in court. But for all his optimism, the young entrepreneur is planning to change careers if he walks free.

"You run your company for 10 years thinking that you are acting lawfully, that everything is fine, that you are being useful to society," Romanov says. "And then you find out you could go to prison for a long, long time and all your relatives will suffer. It doesn't really make you want to continue in that profession."

RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report

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