31.12.2008 | Halya Coynash

A Squalid year for Russian justice


First the very good news: Vasily Aleksanian, Yukos Vice-President, who is gravely ill with two potentially fatal medical conditions, has finally been released on bail.  He had been remanded in custody in Russia for more than two and a half years without any conviction on financial charges similar to those levelled against Mikhail Khodorkovsky and other people connected with Yukos. 

As reported here, on 22 December 2008 the European Court of Human Rights found violations of four articles of the European Convention on Human Rights, including Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment), and called for Aleksanian’s remand in custody to be substituted for less harsh measures.  This came days after Vasily Aleksanian announced that he was simply unable to raise the exorbitant bail amount which a court for the first time had allowed as a possible preventive measure to replace custody (50 million roubles, 1.7 million USD).

The Russian authorities did not heed the European Court, and Aleksanian’s release is thanks to the many people who took part in collecting the outrageously large bond demanded. 

In his letter of thanks, Vasily Aleksanian writes: “I would like to express my enormous gratitude for your support. It brings joy to realize that a great number of people in Russia have not lost true eternal values. I am certain that through the joint events of such people it will be possible to overcome and improve the situation in Russia”.

Svetlana Bakhmina and her new-born daughter remain in a prison hospital. Ms Bakhmina, former Yukos lawyer, was sentenced on charges of tax evasion and embezzlement to 6 and a half years imprisonment, despite having two small sons. She has served four years of the sentence and despite calls from all over the world to release her on parole all calls for mercy have thus far been turned down. She has always maintained her innocence, and although in October (with her baby due within weeks) she is believed to have changed this statement and simply applied for a pardon, this is by now means clear and all took place at a time when her family and lawyer were denied access to her. 

The latest parole application should have been heard before New Year but was inexplicably deferred until 22 January 2009.

News of this came in the same week that we learned that Yury Budanov is to be released early from the sentence he finally began serving for murdering an eighteen-year-old girl in Chechnya. Budanov had already been in a low-security colony settlement despite the gravity of his crime, and will now be released 15 months early.

Yury Budanov was the first high-ranking Russian officer to be charged with serious crimes over Chechnya. He was originally charged with raping and murdering the 18-year-old.  Later the rape charge was dropped, probably because the body of his victim had been burned.  Budanov claimed that he had thought the young woman was a sniper. She was not.

The first trial, involving the notorious Serbsky Institute in Moscow, had ended in Budanov’s being released on the grounds of having been “temporarily insane” at the specific moment when he killed Elza Kungaeva.  Not surprisingly the verdict was greeted with outrage, and eventually another judge sentenced him to 10 years. 

It is worth mentioning that the “first trial” does not necessarily imply a great many others. Take, for example, the trial of Captain Ulman (

In April Edward Ulman, Vladimir Voevodin and Alexander Kalagansky were declared wanted after not appearing at their trial on charges of murdering 6 civilians in cold blood. On 11 January 2002 military servicemen under Captain Ulman’s command shot at a car carrying civilians, killing one of them, – the 65-year-old head of a village school. Then, having questioned the other passengers, a few hours later they killed them all, including a 35-year-old mother of 5.  Ulman did not deny the killings but said that he had been obeying orders….

Presumably other orders were issued in order to assist the men to escape justice, after two court verdicts acquitting the men were overturned. 

Thus, Vasily Aleksanian, who has been too ill to attend court hearings over charges of a financial nature, was held in custody for two and a half years, while men accused of murdering a number of people in cold blood were conveniently left to roam – as indeed they did when justice might otherwise have finally been demanded.

Political Prisoners

Russia for some unfathomable reason remains a member of the G-8 despite having a number of prisoners who are widely considered to have been imprisoned for motives having little, if anything, to do with justice. 

The systematic destruction of Yukos, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who had become a strong opponent of Vladimir Putin, is the most prominent case where the justice system, no longer in the Soviet Union, but in the supposedly democratic Russian Federation, has been used against opponents of those in power.

The number of prisoners is, in fact, higher, including people imprisoned for long periods over absurd spying charges: Igor Sutyagin, Valentin Danilov, Igor Reshetin.

They are all in prison this New Year, and will be for a long time to come while the world remains silent. 

Here’s hoping for some justice in 2009. 

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