13 February 2022
Vera Vasilieva, freelance journalist, host of the Radio Liberty project ‘Freedom and Memorial’ and laureate of a Moscow Helsinki Group award
The European Court of Human Rights recently ruled that Russia had violated the right of Leonid Nevzlin, a former Yukos vice president, to a fair trial as set forth in Article 6 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. In particular, the court noted: Nevzlin’s counsel did not have enough time to study the materials of the criminal case, which amounted to 84 volumes. Russia is obliged to comply with its international obligations, including the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, despite all the changes made to the Constitution last summer. The finding of a violation of the right to fair justice implies that the applicant’s guilt was not proven in a fair trial. Such a conviction must be quashed and the criminal case must be reviewed. The applicant did not request monetary compensation from the ECtHR.
Nevzlin’s trial in absentia ended at the Mogorsk Court on 1 August 2008. Judge Valery Novikov ruled that the former vice-president of Yukos had ordered Aleksei Pichugin, a former security service employee of the oil company, to organise murders. The murders allegedly benefited Yukos. However, when analyzed by independent experts, the fairness of the court verdict raised doubts. This case is a record-breaker in many ways. It has been awaiting resolution for 14 years, as part of a series of criminal cases against Yukos and its former employees and shareholders. Witnesses in some of these cases were in kindergarten when the events about which they were subsequently questioned unfolded. The Nevzlin case is the first and almost the only one in which a life sentence was handed down in absentia.
My book Without Witnesses? Notes of an Eyewitness of a Trial in Absentia, based on the outcomes of Nevzlin’s trial, includes an article from the fictional dictionary 2108, which defines “justice in absentia”: it is a kind of “Basmanny” justice, the distinguishing feature of which is the absence of the defendant during the trial. This interpretation of the term was anticipated by the lawyers Philip Bagryansky, Andrei Mikhailov and Mikhail Ovchinnikov in their article ‘Justice in absentia’ published in Live Journal on 4 August 2008. Now, I think that by its ruling, the ECtHR confirmed the correctness of the definition given in 2008, ruling, in particular, that the person convicted in absentia had no possibility of an effective defence. In other words, it was really “Basmanny” – an unfair, imitation, fake justice.
Courts in various Western countries have taken an even harder line on the Nevzlin case than did the court in Strasbourg, notably, the High Court of Justice of Israel (the country where Nevzlin obtained citizenship and now lives). Responding to Russia’s demand to hand over the former VP of Yukos, the Israeli court determined that the files it had received from the Russian Prosecutor’s Office contained not a shred of evidence against Nevzlin. In addition, they were said to be based solely on witness testimony that in turn relied on hearsay from individuals who had not undergone questioning. It has to be said that this case (as indeed any other case relating to Yukos) would completely fall apart no sooner was it heard by an independent and impartial court. I’m quite sure that the same could be said for Pichugin and former Yukos owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky as for Nevzlin, if the accusations against them were heard in a fair trial. They’re essentially the same case, featuring the same events, injured parties, and prosecution witnesses. Several of these witnesses, by the way, later admitted to perjury, while there are compelling reasons to suspect that others committed serious crimes.
The potential effects of the ECtHR ruling go further than Nevzlin himself and the events of recent years, as it might appear. In my view, this judicial decision puts the investigation into the so-called third Khodorkovsky case in doubt. As Novaya Gazeta reported, citing sources in the prison system, last summer, Pichugin may also have been transferred from the Black Dolphin prison in the Orenburg region to Lefortovo remand centre for questioning in the case.
So it looks like the prosecutors probably want this case to go to court, but can they really want Khodorkovsky to be tried in absentia in a case that just came in for more criticism by the ECtHR, and after so much time has passed? I think that if the investigative team goes ahead with this, having, as I suspect, fabricated Pichugin’s case, and then Nevzlin’s, and now possibly preparing to appear in court to make the very same allegations against Khodorkovsky, then it will look highly dubious, to say the least – even if the investigative team were to submit some fake testimony by Pichugin, as is rumoured in the media. Especially after the recent ECtHR decision in favour of Nevzlin. Incidentally, back in April 2008, at Nevzlin‘s trial, Pichugin spoke about how they tried to induce him to commit perjury with threats and blackmail.
In my opinion, if such a lawsuit really did get underway, then it would remove Russia from universal values to an even greater extent, if not altogether. We already have the concept of ‘sovereign democracy’ in our country, Russia recognises several territories that in the eyes of the international community do not belong to it, and they are building a ‘sovereign’ internet here that is ringfenced from the rest of the world. It seems there will be ‘sovereign’ justice, too.
Translated by Lindsay Munford