Is this what Vladimir Putin meant when he said he wanted to establish a "dictatorship of law"?
The mass killing of 12 people -- including four children -- at a farmer's home in the town of Kushchevskaya in Krasnodar Krai has put a bright spotlight on the close links that have long existed between Russian law enforcement and organized crime.
Some 20 men are alleged to have participated in the November 5 attack, in which most of the victims were stabbed to death.
Police have arrested the alleged ringleader, Sergei Tsapok, who Russian media identified as the head of an agricultural holding company that has been pressuring farmers to hand over their land. The farmer who was killed along with his family and house guests had refused.
Tsapok -- a former local legislator who media reports say attended President Dmitry Medvedev's 2008 inauguration -- has close ties to police and prosecutors in the region, who had been shielding him from prosecution for previous crimes. Also among those arrested was Aleksandr Khodych, who headed the antiextremism department in the regional Interior Ministry.
Medvedev has fired the regional police chief, Sergei Kucheruka, and ordered Krasnodar Governor Aleksandr Tkachev and regional envoy Vladimir Ustinov to find and fire any officials involved with Tsapok's alleged criminal activities.
On December 6, Yekaterina Rogoza, a Kushchevskaya police investigator, appealed to Medvedev in a video posted on YouTube, saying she was afraid that her superiors would seek to shift blame for protecting Tsapok to lower-ranking police officers who had little choice but to carry out their superiors' orders.
WATCH THE VIDEO (in Russian):
Rogoza said she had been investigating a member of Tsapok's gang, Vladimir Alekseyev, for allegedly extorting 2 million rubles from a man in 2009 by forcing him to sign a fraudulent loan agreement. An unidentified prosecutor forced her to drop the case. Alekseyev has since been implicated in the mass killing on November 5.
Rogoza's video appeal came just days after her name surfaced in press reports, alleging that she "refused to initiate criminal proceedings for at least four times" against Alekseyev, suggesting that she was indeed being set up to take the fall for her superiors.
Russian media reports that Tsapok’s gang has acted with impunity and lorded over a "reign of terror" that lasted nearly 20 years. Among other crimes like extortion, investigators are also looking into 28 rapes that could be linked to the gang.
On December 6, the Kremlin announced that Medvedev had ordered Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika to take control of an investigation into the mass killing and alleged cover-up.
But if the experience of previous whistle-blowing cops who took their cases public on YouTube and other video-sharing sites is any indication, Rogoza could be in for a very rough ride. In a recent article in Global Voices Online, Aleksei Siderenko writes that most of the online whistle-blowers -- beginning with the original YouTube cop Aleksei Dymovsky -- have ended up being prosecuted themselves.
Most recently, Grigory Chekalin, a deputy prosecutor in Ukhta, was sentenced to 18 months in a penal colony after he alleged in a video that his superiors falsified evidence and framed innocent people in an arson case.
Speaking to "Nezavisimaya gazeta," Gennady Gudkov, a member of the State Duma Security Committee, says most people involved in serious criminal activity in Russia have some form of "krysha," or protection, from above:
Gudkov's comment is fine as far as it goes. I would add that the corrupt offical in the regional Interior Ministry has protection from another corrupt official in the federal Interior Ministry, who in turn has protection from somebody in the FSB or the Kremlin.
The "criminal vertical" Gudkov describes is therefore dependent upon Putin's vaunted power vertical -- and vice versa.
As my colleague Robert Coalson has blogged here, the Kremlin elite needs loyal police and prosecutors to fix elections and keep themselves in power -- and the price of that is tolerating a level of impunity and corruption.
To address the cancer exposed by Kushchevskaya, not only will some very big heads need to roll, but the very nature of Russia's political system will need to change dramatically.
There are conflicting signals emerging about how the authorities might react to Rogoza's video appeal.
The Gazprom-owned and Kremlin-friendly NTV television network aired a program Thursday night on the Kushchevskaya killings that included a very sympathetic interview with Rogoza. (You can watch the video here.) Toward the end of the interview, the host invited Rogoza to again make her appeal to President Dmitry Medvedev, which she did in a convincing way.
That kind of thing doesn't happen by accident in Russia in such a high profile case and suggests she has won over some supporters in high places.
But, the Prosecutor-General's Office is sticking to its original claim that Kushchevskaya helped cover-up the activities of Sergei Tsapok's gang by failing to open an extortion case against Vladimir Alekseyev, one of the suspects in the November 5 killings. Prosecutors also say Rogoza hid rental income from a plot of land she owns on her tax declaration.
This probably suggests a split among the authorities about how to handle Rogoza's revelations.
For her part, Rogoza denied both the old and the new allegations today in an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service.
-- Brian Whitmore