Yesterday, the Moscow City Court affirmed the trial court’s verdict and sentences in the case against opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his brother Oleg. Alexei Navalny received a suspended sentence of 3.5 years but Oleg Navalny, who is already in jail, was sentenced to a 3.5-year prison term. Alexei Navalny is now technically free from house arrest but there are two more “investigations” that could result in new charges against him any time.

This is old-school hostage taking, Oleg imprisoned in lieu of Alexei. Stalin would sometimes stop short of jailing or shooting some popular old Bolshevik but jailed a less known member of his family, such as wife or brother.

This second Navalny trial stemmed from bogus charges that a firm owned by the brothers Navalny somehow defrauded the French cosmetics company Yves Rocher. Although Yves Rocher has withdrawn all allegations against the brothers, leaving the state with no case to prosecute, no facts can avert the outcome of a politically important court case in Putin’s Russia.

The first Navalny trial, in which both Alexei Navalny and his business associate Petr Ofitserov – another hostage of the Russian state – received suspended sentences, was somewhat more elaborately constructed, although the charges were also trumped up. The Russian authorities used the same judicial trick against Navalny and Ofitserov as Italians did against Knox and Sollecito: they introduced spurious claims as “judicial facts” because those claims had been accepted by another court in another, rubber-stamping trial.

Suppose there’s a burglary in my apartment block and the guy living next door in my hallway confesses to it. He asks for an “accelerated” trial, which means a reduced sentence for him and no disputes between the parties. The suspected burglar makes a statement to the court: “I broke into that flat but not alone: I was with the guy who lives across the hallway.”

The judge writes it into his ruling, and bingo! it’s a “judicial fact” now that your neighbor not only committed burglary but did that together with an “unidentified” person.

Except that it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to identify that person: the guy across the hall, that’s you. In Navalny’s first trial, the role of the burglar was played by Vyacheslav Opalev, a Kirov businessman who was pressured by the police and prosecutors into implicating “others”.  In the Knox-Sollecito case, the likely sole killer (and burglar), Rudy Guede, got a reduced sentence in a “no-contest” trial. The judge accepted the prosecutor’s claim – uncontested by anyone – that Guede had not acted alone, and it acquired the status of an unassailable “judicial truth.”

Not that Russian courts need to go into such legalism to convict: they only do so in high-profile cases. Their Italian colleagues shroud the absurdity of their reasoning in fleshy fantasy novels known as “motivation reports”; written in mellifluous Italian, these works of judicial fiction (or shall I say, masterpieces of judicial handwaving?) may impress a gullible foreigner, but not for long.

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