City's Legal Battle Turns Harsh Light On Russian Law

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A group of citizens in the southern Russian city of Astrakhan say they've fallen victim to their country's corrupt judicial system. They blame a series of deadly fires on government officials, saying the city was desperate to destroy their homes to reclaim coveted land. They brought their complaints to court. Now, the only people who may land in prison are them.


Russia's justice system drew international attention last month with a new conviction of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. He was once the country's most successful businessman. Critics called the trial of the former oil tycoon pure politics. They said it was intended to punish and silence a man who has prominently opposed the Kremlin.

But it's not just oligarchs who can suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of the court in Russia. NPR's David Greene has the story of another legal battle in Russia's deep south.

DAVID GREENE: The city of Astrakhan is in the part of Russia that looks out across the Caspian Sea towards Iran. There are a half million residents here, and people from Central Asia, Muslims, help create this rich diversity.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

GREENE: The fishing industry here has struggled, and people live in rickety wooden homes built a century ago.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

GREENE: The city is trying to modernize, but there may be a shadowy side of their plans. Residents whose homes are marked for demolition say theyre not getting the compensation that was promised them, and in some cases, if they resist moving, their homes are mysteriously catching fire.

Viktoriya Zagidulina is an out-of-work lawyer whose apartment building caught fire in 2006. Her unit was the only one salvaged. She's gone to court, determined to find out if the city, or perhaps developers working with them, are intentionally setting fires to make sure downtown is cleared for new development. There have been dozens of fires since 2006, and an unknown number of people have died, including two of Zagidulina's neighbors.

Ms. VIKTORIYA ZAGIDULINA: (Through translation) There was a fire, and a son was trying to save his mother. They both died, all in the name of a business plan. Each year it becomes worse and worse. They built this hierarchy of power. And trying to get justice in a Russian court is impossible.

GREENE: Zagidulina has paid a price for trying. She says she's been labeled as a troublemaker among the city's elite, and several men once attacked her boyfriend.

Meanwhile, she has spent several years tangled in a legal bureaucracy that has produced a lot of paper from prosecutors, judges, city officials, but really no answers.

Whatever the cause of these fires, battles like this are familiar across Russia. Courts are pressured to ignore accusations against the government. Journalists are intimidated, or worse, beaten or killed if they start asking questions.

Sergei Kutushev, Astrakhan's deputy mayor for legal affairs, says in his city at least, there's nothing to hide. The fires, he says, are mostly accidental or arsons carried out by other residents.

Deputy Mayor SERGEI KUTUSHEV (Astrakhan, Russia): (Through translation) We live in a democracy. And we love our citizens. The idea that we are trying to clear this land, it's ridiculous. The mayor and I are not running around the city with matches setting houses on fire.

GREENE: One of the homes that caught fire belongs to 47-year-old Olga Sidorenko. She was doing the laundry one night when flames appeared from all sides. Her wooden house was built before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, and it survived everything including this fire, though just barely.

Ms. OLGA SIDORENKO: (Speaking foreign language).

GREENE: She's not ready to directly accuse local officials, but as she puts it, we were not the first ones and not the last ones. Fires are everywhere around here.

For several years, she's tried to get the police or prosecutors to look in to what happened. She's heard nothing.

Ms. SIDORENKO: (Soundbite of laughter).

GREENE: Sidorenko brought us into her home, a few rooms salvaged from the wreckage that she shares with her three children and elderly mother. There's cold coming in through the mangled roof. The walls are still charred.

This woman spends much of her time shivering in front of a small television set, which at this moment happens to be showing her president, Dmitri Medvedev, at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. He was telling other leaders that Russia must fight corruption and improve its legal system. Sidorenko pointed at the TV.

Ms. SIDORENKO: (Speaking foreign language).

GREENE: He talks so much, she said. Let him come here and look at my house.

David Greene, NPR News, Astrakhan, Russia

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