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June 7, 2005 by AK

The right to defend ourselves: update

Unexpectedly, the Moscow Prosecutor’s office announced yesterday that it had asked the Moscow City Court to reverse the guilty verdict in Alexandra Ivannikova’s case, and that it intended to drop the charges and close the case altogether. Late last night, Channel One spread the news to millions of Russians who don’t have Internet access yet. They also invited two major legal experts to briefly discuss the prosecutors’ move: both expressed sympathy with the convicted woman and proposed amendments to the Criminal Code.

It looks like it was indeed a difficult case for an ordinary judge to handle, since the Criminal Code, although its latest version is more friendly to those who are forced to defend themselves, is still ambiguous as to the limits to necessary self-defense. The court seems to have built on what it saw as the most reasonable reconstruction of events; yet “the most probable scenario” is not sufficient for a criminal conviction.

Another aspect of this case that struck many as incongruent was the damages awarded to the late man’s family. Unlike before, victims’ lawyers are now allowed to take part in criminal trials — which presumably helps prosecutors defend the rights of the victims — and ask for damages, which are normally awarded if the defendant is convicted. Although these trials remain essentially criminal, they incorporate something of civil proceedings. This criminal-civil conflation makes things more complicated than they should be. In this case, the driver’s family was awarded over $5,000, apparently to cover their funeral expenses. I have no doubt these expenses are all backed by proper receipts but an average funeral in Moscow costs about $1,000. The prospect of a woman of at best average means (judging by the area of Moscow where she lives) having to pay for her sexual abuser’s lavish funeral is bound is raise eyebrows.

Since this case generated much discussion in the Russian Blogosphere (the Russophone segment of LiveJournal.com), made it to the national media and mobilized some people to picket the courthouse and the Duma, let us see who the activists have been. Perhaps the first group to take heed were the “self-defenders” who gather at guns.ru — typically family men concerned for the safetly of their families. Then various ethnonationalists joined in with their “swarthy men against Russian women” mantra. Cases like this appeal powefully to subconsious tribal instincts. However, when it came to picketing, no extremist slogans were seen, and only a handful of racists displayed hystrical behavior. The gender dimension must have attracted many women to the cause. Violence against women unfortunately remains a painful and relatively underdiscussed subject. Finally, a lot of supporters are independents of all sorts, including for example Sergei Hudiev, director of the interdenominational Christian Library in Moscow.

As is common in rape cases, Alexandra’s detractors portrayed her as a mentally unstable woman of loose ways. More importantly, some have hinted that the script for the legal case emerged from the Kremlin to stoke hatred against people of Caucasian and Central Asian descent. The Kremlin might indeed try to divert popular discontent into a riverbed of ethnic hatred. Also, having a strong and ugly ethnonationalist party would help Putin seem a decent guy. But I don’t think the driver’s name or ethnicity has ever been mentioned on TV, so this hypothesis doesn’t fly.

Finally, I must say I was wrong about human rights groups. At least one prominent human rights activist, Lev Ponomarev, chairman of the Movement for Human Rights, wrote a letter to the court in support of the defendant.

UPDATE. As I’ve said, there are in fact three sides in a Russian criminal trial: defense, prosecution and the victim’s or victim’s lawyers. Turns out the lawyer for the driver’s family has filed an appeal, too, with the Moscow City Court. He requests that the verdict be vacated, and Alexandra be retried — oh my — on a charge of assault resulting in death, which is understandably a more serious crime than “murder under affect.” The zeal with which the young man’s family is trying to have a mother of a small child imprisoned is amazing.


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