A Moscow court sentenced entrepreneur Alexei Kozlov, whose case was championed by protesters at recent opposition rallies, to five years in prison for fraud on Thursday. The verdict prompted outrage in the courtroom. Kozlov’s supporters tried to prevent him from being led away with chants of “Shame!” and “Hangmen!” but were held at bay by a dozen riot police.
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The renewed prosecution of embattled Moscow businessman Alexei Kozlov has once again highlighted the smaller hurdles that face the Russian opposition movement and its efforts to take on corruption in Putin’s Russia. Kozlov’s wife, crusading journalist Olga Romanova, says the case is yet another manifestation of crooked Russian courts, but the timing suggests it may be the Kremlin’s retribution against the opposition movement. Observers, meanwhile, said the case draws attention to the implications of weak courts and a strengthening civil society.
The Kozlov saga reaches back to mid-2008, when the wealthy realtor was arrested on charges of fraud stemming from his business relations with a former senator, Vladimir Slutzker. Romanova, a seasoned business journalist, claimed her husband’s arrest was rooted in a critical article she wrote about one of Slutzker’s allies, which prompted Slutzker to allegedly threaten Kozlov with legal trouble if he didn’t denounce his wife.
What resulted was but another example of the grassroots efforts that have come to define the burgeoning Russian protest movement. Seeking all available channels to force her husband’s release, Romanova started an advocacy group, Russia Behind Bars, to help others in similarly dubious legal situations. With a combination of savvy, drive and deep commitment, Romanova was able to push the case to Russia’s Supreme Court, which tossed out Kozlov’s conviction. He was released last September from a Siberian prison.
For a little while, it seemed Kozlov was off the hook. But just a month after his release, prosecutors reopened the case and filed a formal indictment in a Moscow district court on March 11. The prosecutor, Dmitry Diadiura, is calling for Kozlov to serve a five-year sentence. The move’s timing, on the heels of a three-month cycle of protests in which Romanova has played a key role, has prompted some to fear it is a form of unofficial revenge for the opposition movement’s actions.
In a meeting with journalists outside the courthouse at her husband’s hearing, Romanova lashed out at the latest case of what she says is the widespread corruption that has come to symbolize Putin’s Russia: “What we are seeing in this court today is not Kozlov’s defense: it is a thoroughly rotten system that is trying to defend itself against civil society,” she said. “It is trying to defend criminals. It is running a protection racket on behalf of criminals, and it is now signaling to them that it is ready to convict an innocent man just so the racket can go on.”
Perhaps most suspicious – and typical of Russia’s infamously dysfunctional justice system – was when prosecutors gave Romanova a copy of her husband’s indictment and sentence beforehand, which she in turn posted to Facebook. She then continued her participation in the protest rallies, likely further angering the authorities involved in Kozlov’s case.
Yet despite the curious timing, experts deny the case is motivated by the Kremlin’s desire to pursue political reprisal after the spate of mass street demonstrations which Romanova has helped organize. They point instead to the fact that the case was opened before the protests began. Kozlov’s prosecution is rather a reflection of the vicious cycle in which the Russian justice system at large has found itself, said Elena Panfilova, head of Transparency International’s Moscow branch.
“If the court suddenly decides that he was not guilty at all and did not commit the crime he was charged with and jailed for, then all the judges and prosecutors who were responsible for that in 2008 have to go to court, and maybe to jail, themselves,” she said. “If he’s released now and there’s a court judging that he was never guilty, then that means those who sentenced him to seven years in 2008 are also guilty.”
Political reprisals or not, the case is inextricably tied to the opposition movement and its seemingly endless battle with the Kremlin. As she has in the past, Romanova appeared at the latest rally on March 10 and collected signatures in support of her husband’s case. At the same rally, opposition leaders urged demonstrators to pursue more localized and practical grassroots efforts, such as Romanova’s, to ensure the future of the movement.
In an interview with Kommersant FM on March 10, Kozlov himself also expressed the need to take part in concrete actions, rather than just staging rallies and added that he that is confident these measures will ultimately lead to justice. “It’s time to move onto real deeds,” he said. “In Moscow, the control that people had over the election as [election] observers who hadn’t earlier thought of becoming [election] observers shows that society knows how to mobilize.”
Panfilova also said the success of the protest movement is largely dependent on the small array of activist groups which have attempted to take on corruption recently, adding that their victories, though still relatively few, are the key in the long run. “The protest movement never would have happened if it wasn’t for them,” she said. “The real decisions and real directions are being chosen by all these small groups.”
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