Natalya Vasilyeva is reportedly "on vacation" after revealing that the judge in Mikhail Khodorkovsky's recent fraud trial was pressured from on high into handing down a guilty verdict and stiff sentence.
Vasilyeva, an aide to Viktor Danilkin, the presiding judge in Khodorkovsky's trial, made her allegations in an interview published today in "Gazeta.ru."
WATCH THE FULL VIDEO OF THE INTERVIEW (IN RUSSIAN):
"I can say that the whole judicial community understands very well that this is a made to order case and a made to order trial," Vasilyeva said, adding that top officials were concerned that Danilkin would not impose a sufficiently harsh sentence on Khodorkovsky.
Judging from Danilkin's conduct in the courtroom, perhaps those fears were justified.
During the long trial, which began in March 2009 and wrapped up in late December, Danilkin often appeared to be doing something remarkable for such a politically charged case -- considering it on its merits.
He treated Khodorkovsky with more respect than anyone dared expect. He admitted testimony from government officials who defended Khodorkovsky like German Gref, the head of Sperbank and Russia's former economy minister, and Viktor Khristenko, the former industry and trade minister.
And when the prosecution made mistakes and committed gaffes, he laughed along with defense lawyers and Khodorkovsky's supporters. Indeed, one wonders how anybody could keep a straight face throughout the trial give the ludicrousness of the charges -- Khodorkovsky was accused of stealing oil from his own company!
Welcome to Absurdistan.
"Danilkin began to write the verdict. I suspect that what was in that verdict did not suit his higher ups, and therefore he received another verdict, which he had to read," Vasilyeva said.
Vasilyeva said Danilkin was then summoned to the Moscow City Court on December 25, just days before he began reading the verdict, where he was to meet an "important person who had to give him clear instructions about the verdict."
On December 30, Danilkin sentenced Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev to 14 years in prison. The first eight years were to run concurrently with the eight-year sentences for tax evasion and fraud that the two had been serving since 2003 and which were set to finish this year. It was precisely the sentence prosecutors were asking for.
For his part, Danilkin dismissed Vasilyeva's allegations, calling them "nothing but slander." More ominously, Anna Usacheva, a spokeswoman for the Moscow City Court, accused Vasilyeva of carrying out a "provocation" and a "well planned PR act," adding that she was "certain" that "Natalya Vasilyeva will yet renounce her comments."
She wouldn't be the first to do so. As I blogged here last week, after testifying in court that he falsified police reports on the New Year's Eve arrest of opposition figure Ilya Yashin, a move that severely embarrassed the authorities, Moscow police sergeant Artyom Charukhin later recanted his testimony.
Other recent whistleblowers who have stuck to their stories have found themselves in varying degrees of trouble (read journalist Aleksei Siderenko's excellent rundown here.)
Anastasia Volochkova, the socialite and former prima ballerina, has reportedly had her television show cancelled by Channel One after she revealed that she had been tricked into signing a 2005 letter denouncing Khodorkovsky.
Aleksei Dymovsky, the original YouTube cop who went public with corruption allegations against police in the Black Sea port town of Novorossiisk faced prosecution and harassment.
Mikhail Yeseyev, an investigator in the northwestern city of Ukhta, was prosecuted and sentenced to a penal colony after he accused police in November 2009 of falsifying evidence in an arson case.
Grigoriy Chekalin, Ukhta's deputy prosecutor, received an 18-month sentence after making similar allegations in the same case.
In her interview with "Gazeta.ru," Vasilyeva appeared poised and confident, albeit very aware of the gravity of what she was doing. When asked why she decided to go public, she replied: ""Because I am disappointed" in how the judicial process really worked.
"I wanted to become a judge. And when I saw how things really work on the inside, my belief that judges are subject only to the law and nothing else melted," she said.
Vasilyeva's motive is as inspirational as it is heartbreaking. Inspirational because Russia needs honest and sincere people like this in its judicial system. And heartbreaking because, well, Russia needs honest and sincere people like this in its judicial system.
"For a person who had good career prospects to suddenly ruin everything and make such a statement, I see no other motive but her conscience," human rights attorney Yury Shmidt, a member of Khodorkovsky's defense team told RFE/RL's Russian Service.
-- Brian Whitmore