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The Former Russian Cop Who Thinks No One Is Above The Law

"I catch drunk drivers," says Elshad Babayev, "and for me it doesn't matter who a drunk driver is -- a police officer, a prosecutor, a civilian, a neighbor, a brother, whatever."
"I catch drunk drivers," says Elshad Babayev, "and for me it doesn't matter who a drunk driver is -- a police officer, a prosecutor, a civilian, a neighbor, a brother, whatever."

The idea that everyone is equal before the law would seem pretty uncontroversial. But faith in it has pushed 28-year-old Elshad Babayev out of the Astrakhan police force and into the life of a fugitive in Russia.

Babayev managed to get into trouble by cracking down on drunk driving.

"I catch drunk drivers, and for me it doesn't matter who a drunk driver is -- a police officer, a prosecutor, a civilian, a neighbor, a brother, whatever. It doesn't matter," Babayev says. "If he sits down behind the wheel, he has to answer to the law. That's all there is to it."

Babayev followed a twisted path from straight-laced police officer to wanted fugitive. The son of a police officer, he graduated with honors from the Interior Ministry Academy in Nizhny Novgorod. But right from the start he had misgivings about what he was getting into.

"As soon as I got there I had the feeling that they had selected from the whole country mentally deficient people who not only were incapable of understanding legal nuances and were ignorant of the law, but who were antisocial personalities," Babayev says.

"Eighty-five percent of the students had parents or relatives who were bosses, generals, or colonels in various security agencies," he tells RFE/RL's Russian Service. "I was probably the most ordinary one there -- my father was just a police major who had been retired for several years."

After he took up his post in Astrakhan, Babayev quickly found himself assigned to internal affairs, inspecting police stations around the city and reporting on violations. It was a thankless job.

"Everyone [at police headquarters] would laugh at the officers, saying some Lieutenant Babayev came through again and found a ton of problems. And they'd stand red-faced in front of the municipal commanders," he says. "Naturally, no one loved me for this. How could they? 'We have worked in this system for 20 years and now some young guy comes along and demands that we obey the law -- we aren't used to that.'"

Babayev says he came under increasing pressure from other officers until one day a fellow cop punched him in the face and informed him that if he kept writing his reports, criminal charges would be filed against him. At that point, his father advised him to quit the force -- and he did.

Around the same time, a chance brush with death set Babayev on a new course.

"I nearly was killed by a drunk driver," he says. "One night, he came at me head-on. I veered right and he veered right and we missed each other by millimeters. If we had collided head-on, I'd be dead for sure, or at least in a wheelchair."

He made it his mission to rid Astrakhan of the scourge of drunk driving, which he says is epidemic because of police corruption. Traffic police officers, he says, are obligated to pay set amounts in bribes to their commanders. So it is easy for drunk drivers to pay a bribe in order to persuade cops on the street to let them off.

"Of course, the police bosses aren't interested in the Gorod Grekhov project because -- this is no secret -- the basic unofficial function of the traffic police is to feed the entire police force with bribes," Babayev explains.

So Babayev founded Gorod Grekhov (Sin City), a volunteer organization that patrols city streets, identifies suspected drunk drivers, and follows them until a police unit can be called in. The volunteers then stay around and make sure that the police actually take the driver off the streets.

Moreover, Gorod Grekhov volunteers film their patrols and post the videos on social media:

The movement is quite similar to the Stopkham organization that targets drivers who park illegally.

In all, Gorod Grekhov claims to have directly taken 102 drunk drivers off the streets over the last three years. Indirectly, Babayev says, the organization's results are even more impressive.

"People who were used to driving drunk have been stopped by the very fact that even if there are no police around and the street is empty, if they get into their car and drive off there is no guarantee that in 500 meters they won't be seen by a Gorod Grekhov activist," Babayev says.

But many of the people that Gorod Grekhov captured on film were police officers, officials from the prosecutor's office, or city officials.

In one video that has been viewed more than 550,000 times, an official from the prosecutor's office is stopped while apparently driving drunk. He tries to run over two police officers in his car. Then he tries to walk away. Then some of his drunken friends try to attack the Gorod Grekhov volunteers:

But it was another video that got Babayev into hot water. In it, a local police officer named Sergei Badmayev is also stopped. He tries to run away, but the volunteers catch him and call the police. He then tries to "negotiate" his way out of the situation, but the Gorod Grekhov cameras continue to follow him:

Because of the incident Badmayev was fired from the police department. Two days later, however, he filed a criminal complaint that Babayev attacked him and threatened to shoot him. Babayev denies anything like that happened, but a warrant for his arrest was issued -- a move that Babayev says is purely aimed at stopping his civic activism.

Now Babayev is a fugitive. But although he is physically in hiding, he could hardly be more visible in the virtual world. He has made a reputation for himself as a witty and sharp-tongued interlocutor for some of the most prominent pro-Kremlin journalists and officials on sites like Twitter and VKontakte.

For instance, when pro-Kremlin advocate Vladimir Solovyov complained on Twitter that one of Moscow's most expensive grocery stores was no longer selling lactose-free products, Babayev retorted that he should go to Crimea, turn on the national anthem, and eat worms off a shovel. It was a reference to a controversial incident in which officials in Stavropol fed Russians at a festival from shovels and a report from July in which scientists in Tomsk said people should use worms as a food source.

But Babayev says he has had enough of trying to right Russia's wrongs. The criminal complaint against him accuses him of "having a contemptuous attitude and positioning himself against society."

"When I read that, I had the feeling that I was reading about some sort of terrorist," he says.

He says he is ready to leave Russia forever and give up his Russian citizenship.

"Russia has become a beyond-the-looking-glass country," Babayev says. "It is normal to say that freedom is slavery, that the worse things are, the better they are. I am deeply disenchanted not just with the government, but with the entire country."

"The main thing is to be honest with yourself," he says. "But our country doesn't need people like that."