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Americans grow up learning that you are innocent until proven guilty. That's not so, it seems, in Russia, where defendants go to trial expecting to be found guilty - they're just hoping for a lenient sentence - and that's why few people were surprised when the man who was once the richest in Russia was recently convicted of embezzlement and sentenced to jail for a second term.

NPR's David Greene is reporting on Russia's rule of law. And David, would you remind us who this man was.

DAVID GREENE: I can, Steve. He's 47 years old, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, is probably modern Russia's most famous prisoner. He was once the head of a giant oil company. But he also became known for speaking out against the Kremlin and he was arrested and sent to prison in 2003.

Now, just as Khodorkovsky was about to complete that sentence, a judge last month convicted him of embezzlement and money laundering and said that he's going to stay locked up in Siberia until 2017.

Mr. PAVEL KHODORKOVSKY: It would be great if people here would pay attention to my dad's case.

GREENE: That's the voice of Khodorkovsky's 25-year-old son, Pavel. He lives in New York and he hasn't seen his father in seven years. I interviewed Pavel last year when I was visiting the U.S.

Mr. KHODORKOVSKY: My dad's case is a very good illustration of one simple fact: There is no rule of law, there is no working judicial system in Russia.

GREENE: And Steve, critics say the judicial system in the Khodorkovsky case worked exactly the way that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wanted it to. Just a few days before Khodorkovsky's new conviction, the prime minister said on television that a thief belongs in jail. It was almost as if he gave the judge some kind of signal, some kind of instruction for what he was supposed to do.

In this case, and really thousands of others all across Russia, judges seem to behave like they're an extension of law enforcement, really a partner with the government. It's a judge's job to convict rather than interfere.

Alena Ledeneva, she's a professor of Russian society and politics at University College in London - here's how she sees it.

Professor ALENA LEDENEVA (University College, London): It's not even the fact of political pressure from above, but is pressure from within. 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.

GREENE: Many Russians, she said, 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.

Prof. LEDENEVA: People somehow do not even expect otherwise.

GREENE: 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% were convicted.

(Soundbite of snowmobile)

GREENE: Let's look at the story of one defendant. His name is Andrei Grigoryev and he works as a federal forest ranger. The 43-year-old may have a small frame but he's a larger presence when he's in uniform, slicing through the landscape on a snowmobile. I met him out in the frozen forest near Zaraysk, a town two hours southeast of Moscow.

Mr. ANDREI GRIGORYEV: (Speaking Russian)

GREENE: He told me how he became tangled in the court system a year ago. He got this call that a group of hunters on snowmobiles were breaking the law, going after foxes and deer in a wildlife preserve near here. At first they fled, but then they turned and came after the officer.

Mr. GRIGORYEV: (Through translator) One of their snowmobiles knocked me down, hitting me in my right leg. I fell down in the snow. Another snowmobile sped by without stopping and another rushed me. I had a rifle with me. I fired a warning shot in the air so he wouldn't come and knock me down again.

GREENE: Finally, Grigoryev detained the hunting party, which included a local politician from Prime Minister Putin's United Russia Party. You're messing with the wrong bunch, they told him. And sure enough, by night's end the forest ranger was the one being arrested. The charge: abuse of power.

Mr. GRIGORYEV: (Through translator) 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 want to put Andrei Grigoryev in prison.

GREENE: The prosecutors, the government investigator, and that politician all refuse to be interviewed. One of the hunters, Dmitri Karpeyenkov, did give his version of events.

Mr. DMITRI KARPEYENKOV: (Speaking Russian)

GREENE: We were unarmed, just riding our snowmobiles, he 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 this trial in any way.

(Soundbite of metal clanging)

GREENE: There are two sides to this story. Yet wherever the truth lies, Russia's court system is all but certain to convict Andrei Grigoryev. That's why he's been spending a lot of time here in his home, bracing his family for the worst. The trial opens Friday and he's facing up to four to 10 years in jail. He'd be leaving behind his wife, their 11-year-old daughter and his parents, who all live together.

His wife, Svetlana, speaks a little English, and she wrote out a message she wanted to read.

Ms. SVETLANA GRIGORYEV: I think about it every day. I, my family, our daughter, live in this shock for almost one year. I hope for the justice to our family. I am sure that Andrei, my husband, is innocent.

INSKEEP: That's Svetlana Grigoryev, whose husband Andrei is facing a likely prison sentence in Russia. She spoke with our colleague, David Greene, who remains on the line.

And David, when you go and talk with Russian judges, what do they say about how the system works?

GREENE: It's not really easy to get them on the phone, as you can imagine, Steve. But I did speak to one for a long time. He came into our office: Alexander Merezhko(ph). He served for 19 years on a court in Moscow and he talks about this situation in a very sad way. I mean, he says that many judges are not bad people. They don't have it out for defendants, but they do feel like they're in this system. They have this mindset that, as he put it, a court is a law enforcement body, it's not a institution that's there to protect citizens.

So it's very different than what we're used to, certainly, in the United States. And I should say that this judge, Alexander Merezhko, he tried to be fair-minded back in 2003, 2004. His superiors started filing complaints about him. They said he was being too lenient, he was acquitting too many people, and he was fired.

INSKEEP: And as a reminder also, David Greene, you've got a country there with elections, with a president, with a prime minister. They can all say they're elected, but it's a little different than the way we would imagine democracy.

GREENE: I mean, a lot of European countries, the United States likes to paint Russia as, you know, a country with some problems but moving closer to democracy. But I do think this is a reminder that there are some fundamental ways that it's very different.

I mean, just after the Soviet collapsed, Steve, there was a movement to really make the judicial system here more independent. But under Vladimir Putin's rule, when he became president, he's now prime minister, you know, there's much more centralized authority, that the government was more powerful and the judiciary sort of fell in line with that.

Now, I should say that President Dmitry Medvedev has spoken very openly about this problem. I mean, he says it's a grave concern that people don't have faith in the courts. He admits that there is pressure on the courts from government officials, and he says he's going to try to find a way to give the courts their rightful place in Russian society, but he certainly hasn't given any indication when he'll actually be able to do that.

INSKEEP: David, thanks very much as always.

GREENE: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: And impressive to hear you speaking Russian.

NPR's David Greene in Moscow.

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