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Judge For Yourselves

"There are rules to the game. Any judge who broke those rules would immediately be taken for examination at a psychiatric hospital. If such a verdict were pronounced, it would be immediately overturned by another judge," an anonymous judge explains.
Russia's infamous "legal nihilism" wasn't built in a day. Even diehard Russia-watchers get inured to the daily drip-drip-drip of the outrageous legal shenanigans there and can be shocked when one report shows the scope of the phenomenon, which really is at the heart of President Vladimir Putin's so-called vertical of power.

Just such a report came in this week's issue of "The New Times," which marks the eve of the verdict in the notorious Pussy Riot case by profiling the "legal" careers of six of the Moscow judges who are involved in that case and in the ongoing, but much-less noted, detentions of people accused of fomenting violence against the police during a Moscow anti-Putin demonstration on May 6.

The report opens with a look at Marina Syrova, the Khamovnichesky district court judge who will read out the Pussy Riot verdict (the three women face up to seven years in prison on charges of "hooliganism...motivated by religious hatred or hostility). Of the 180 verdicts issued by Syrova that have been posted online, 179 are "guilty," "The New Times" informs us.

The red thread running through the profiles of all six judges is the Yukos case of former oligarchs Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev. Those numerous cases required a lot of compliant judges and gave the ones who were eager to please the opportunity to shine.

Syrova was no exception. In 2010, she sentenced Pavel Zabelin to eight years in prison for supposedly stealing shares in the Moscow Palace of Youth (MDM). Zabelin charges that the case against him and the harsh sentence came because he refused prosecutors' efforts to force him to commit perjury as a witness in the cases against of senior Yukos managers Aleksei Pichugin and Leonid Nevzlin.

Zabelin notes that Syrova refused to accept his testimony or that of any of the defense witnesses and that she rejected every motion from the defense. He has been granted political asylum in Estonia, which ruled his prosecution was politically motivated.

"The New Times" asked a Russian jurist who asked to remain anonymous whether it was possible the three Pussy Riot defendants would be acquitted: "Are you serious? That idea is from the realm of fantasy. There are rules to the game. Any judge who broke those rules would immediately be taken to a psychiatric hospital for an examination. If such a verdict were pronounced it would be immediately overturned by another judge. The person who was acquitted would, in the best case, be allowed to walk out of the courtroom -- then he would immediately be taken into custody and no one would appreciate your gesture."

The weekly then turns its attention to Olga Solopova, head of the infamous Basmanny district court, which gave rise to the term "Basmanny justice," meaning "justice" as it is ordered by the Kremlin. The Basmanny court was apparently the logical choice for this honor since the Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor-General's Office is right next door.

Solopova has been busy in recent weeks sanctioning the detentions of numerous people accused of participating in the May 6 scuffles with police. Earlier this month she sanctioned the dispersal of the "Occupy Abai" camp in central Moscow, citing unspecified "complaints from the neighbors. Based on these "complaints," filed on May 14, Solopova issued her verdict -- and police moved in -- on May 15.

Sometimes the wheels of justice are swift in Russia, and sometimes they are not.

"The New Times" hall of shame continues with a look at the records of Basmanny district court Judges Artur Karpov, Natalya Mushnikova, Natalya Dudar, and Irina Skuridina. Their stories are filled with names familiar to those who followed the Yukos trials and the case of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in pretrial detention after being denied medical care.

It is depressing reading, indeed. The article quotes Moscow lawyer Anna Stavitskaya as saying: "They say that judges are given specific instructions to pronounce a particular verdict. But a judge that I know told me this: they don't need to give us any advice. We know ourselves what needs to be done. The whole system is such that by the time you become a judge, you already understand the informal rules of the game. And if they don't follow those rules, big problems arise for them. They aren't fired but, for instance, they might be accused of taking bribes. That is why they almost never acquit."

The verdict in the Pussy Riot trial is expected on August 17.

-- Robert Coalson

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Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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