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Telephone Justice: Russian Prankster Says His Phone Calls Changed Verdicts

"There’s nothing hard about it,” telephone prankster Sergei Davydov told TV Rain. (file photo)
"There’s nothing hard about it,” telephone prankster Sergei Davydov told TV Rain. (file photo)

MOSCOW -- Russian judges are often said to lack independence, issuing rulings based on instructions phoned in from the Kremlin or powerful people in the regions.

One prankster decided to put that idea to the test -- and says he found it to be all too true.

Sergei Davydov, a resident of the Ural Mountains region of Perm, claims he has prompted several judges there to change their verdicts by phoning them, posing as a senior judge or a law enforcement officer, and requesting they rule in a specific way.

Davydov’s claim would support allegations of widespread political interference in the courts -- a phenomenon known in the country since Soviet times as “telephone justice.” It is one of the most formidable obstacles to development of the rule of law, which is seen as crucial to Russia’s future well-being.

In an interview with the independent Russian station TV Rain station on March 10, Davydov described how the idea came about.

He said that a former judge who quit in disgust at practices in the justice system told him about how the court decisions are sometimes made, and he decided to see for himself.

“We tried, and in principle everything worked out; there’s nothing hard about it,” he told TV Rain.

Davydov said he didn’t record the first call because he assumed it wouldn’t work, but found to his surprise that it did.

He said he subsequently tricked a judge into letting him off the hook when he faced a small fine in a case brought against him following an argument he had with a court bailiff. After he made the call, he said, the judge “found a loophole in the law” and the case was dropped.

TV Rain aired the recording of a conversation in which Davydov called a judge, presented himself as Igor Chelombitsky, the chairman of Perm region’s council of judges, and made a "personal" request to the lower-level judge to rule in favor of a defendant’s appeal in a criminal case.

In the recording, however, the judge hesitates, saying, “I can’t see you over the phone. I know you by face.”

The prankster protests that there is only 10 minutes before the court hearing. The recording fades out, and it is unclear how it ends.

Davydov’s activities first came to light in 2014. In an interview with regional news agency that year, he said he had influenced the decisions of 18 judges.

The TV Rain interview came a day after a district court in Perm banned the broadcast and distribution of audio recordings made by Davydov between October 2012 and February 2013 and circulated on social networks.

The court said the contents of phone recordings are “slanderous” and “discredit the honor of judges,” regional media reported.

Davydov was found guilty of interfering in court decisions in June 2014 and fined 180,000 rubles ($2,570 at today’s exchange rate), but says he fell under an amnesty enacted by President Vladimir Putin last year.

Davydov is not facing further prosecution at the moment, while he says that the recordings are still available online.

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