Innocent until proven guilty: It's a bedrock principle in Western democracies. Not so, it seems, in Russia, where defendants go to trial expecting to be found guilty. They're just hoping for a lenient sentence.
Jailed Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky reacts after being sentenced on Dec. 30, 2010, to six more years in prison. Critics say the judicial system in the Khodorkovsky case worked just the way Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wanted it to.
Jailed Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky reacts after being sentenced on Dec. 30, 2010, to six more years in prison. Critics say the judicial system in the Khodorkovsky case worked just the way Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wanted it to. Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
That's why few Russians were surprised when Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man, was convicted of embezzlement and sentenced last month to prison for a second term.
Once the head of a giant oil company, Khodorkovsky, 47, is now modern Russia's most famous prisoner. He spoke out against the Kremlin, was arrested and was sent to prison in 2003. Just as Khodorkovsky was about to complete that sentence, a judge convicted him in December of embezzlement and money laundering; he'll stay locked up in Siberia until 2017.
Khodorkovsky's 25-year-old son, Pavel Khodorkovsky, who lives in New York and hasn't seen his father in seven years, wishes more people paid attention to the case.
"My dad's case is a very good illustration of one simple fact: There is no rule of law, no working judicial system in Russia," he said in an interview last year.
Judges As An Extension Of Law Enforcement
Critics say the judicial system in the Khodorkovsky case worked just the way Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wanted it to. Days before Khodorkovsky's new conviction, Putin said on television that "a thief belongs in jail." It was almost as if he gave the judge a signal, instructing him on what to do.
In this case, and thousands of others across Russia, judges seem to behave like they are an extension of law enforcement. Prosecutors file charges, and it's a judge's job to convict rather than interfere.
Alena Ledeneva, a professor of Russian society and politics at University College London, said it's not just because of political pressure from above.
"It is pressure from within," she said. "Within the judiciary, you've got this sense of dependency that your career as a judge depends on your compliance with the way the system works."
Many Russians, she says, have no faith in the system. They assume that many judges are corrupt or will just side with the most powerful person in the room.
"People do not even expect otherwise," she said.
Tangled Up In The System
Consider these numbers: According to the Russian Supreme Court, of nearly 800,000 criminal defendants brought into federal courts during the first nine months of last year, 99.3 percent were convicted.
One former judge, Alexander Melikov, told NPR that the judges are not bad people. It's just that many have a "mindset that a court is a law enforcement body; it is not an institution there to protect citizens." When he tried to work outside the system around 2003 and '04, his superiors complained that his decisions were too lenient — and he was fired.
Andrei Grigoryev, 43, is a federal game warden, or forest ranger. After he chased after a hunting party last winter, he ended up being charged with abuse of power. He now faces four to 10 years in a Russian jail. Grigoryev fears he is falling victim to a Russian federal court system that convicts almost everyone.
Andrei Grigoryev, 43, is a federal game warden, or forest ranger. After he chased after a hunting party last winter, he ended up being charged with abuse of power. He now faces four to 10 years in a Russian jail. Grigoryev fears he is falling victim to a Russian federal court system that convicts almost everyone. Boris Ryzhak/NPR
Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev has acknowledged many of the problems -– government pressure, bribes and lack of faith in the system –- and has said he'll work to improve the system and give the courts their "rightful place" in Russian society. But he hasn't made clear when.
For Andrei Grigoryev, such a change couldn't come too soon.
Grigoryev works as a federal forest ranger near Zaraysk, a town two hours east of Moscow. The 43-year-old has a small frame, but he has a larger presence when he's in uniform, slicing through the landscape on a snowmobile.
A year ago, Grigoryev got a call that a group of hunters on snowmobiles were breaking the law, going after fox and deer in a wildlife preserve. At first, they fled, but then they turned and came after the officer.
"One of their snowmobiles knocked me down, hitting me in my right leg," he said. "I fell down in the snow. Another snowmobile sped by without stopping, and another rushed at me.
"I had a rifle with me. I shot in the air to stop him before he knocked me down again."
Finally, Grigoryev detained the hunting party, which included a local politician from Putin's United Russia Party. You're messing with the wrong bunch, they told him. Sure enough, by night's end, he was the one being arrested. The charge: abuse of power.
"The government investigator told me, my lawyer and the witnesses, 'You guys must not mess around. Very important people are interested in the case. And they want to put Andrei Grigoryev in prison.' "
The prosecutors, the government investigator and that politician all declined to be interviewed. But one of the hunters, Dmitri Karpeyenkov, did give his version of events.
"We were unarmed, just riding our snowmobiles," Karpeyenkov said. He added that his group didn't do any killing, so the forest ranger must have planted carcasses as evidence.
Karpeyenkov said he and his friends have not interfered with the trial in any way.
There are two sides to this story. Yet wherever the truth lies, Russia's court system is all but certain to convict Grigoryev. That's why he has been spending a lot of time in his home, bracing his family for the worst.
The trial opens Friday, and Grigoryev is facing between four and 10 years in prison. He would be leaving behind his wife, their 11-year-old daughter and his parents, who all live together.
"I think about it every day. I, my family, our daughter live in this shock for almost one year," his wife, Svetlana, said in a written message. "I hope for justice to our family. I am sure that my husband, Andrei, is innocent."