December 17, 2017 by AK
Shaun Walker reports from Moscow for The Guardian:
A Moscow court has sentenced a former Russian economy minister to eight years in a high-security prison for corruption, in a verdict that is likely to send chills through the Russian elite…
The trial was a rare case of the vicious infighting between government clans spilling out into the open.
I’m not an expert on undercarpet bulldog fights and have little interest in the souls and bodies involved. The trial, in contrast to the infighting, was mostly open to the public and the press. Anyone with a knowledge of Russian and a minimum understanding of the Russian criminal procedure (broadly Continental) can draw one’s own conclusions from the publicly available reports of the proceedings. It’s more or less obvious that the judge’s summary of the verdict, as read out in the courtroom this past Friday, was irrelevant to the facts of the case as found during the trial. This is typical of politically motivated Prozesse in Russia, such as the Navalny and Bolotnaya Square trials. Some well-informed observers say this is typical of the Russian criminal justice system more generally.
The prosecution’s number one witness failed to appear, and number two mostly produced hearsay on the stand. Another major witness, a relatively low-ranking FSB operative, was also unavailable. This would have killed the prosecution’s case in an American or British court, if not an Italian one, admittedly. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), if the case makes it so far, will probably point out that relying on a key witness’ pre-trial interview without questioning him in court (he was neither dead nor hiding) is a major failure making the verdict unsound.
There is also the troubling issue of president Putin publicly commenting on the case twice – the second time on the day before the verdict, which could have been interpreted by the judge as an implicit instruction to convict. Both times, Putin communicated his belief in the minister’s guilt based on nothing but the FSB investigation, to the blanket exclusion of facts and circumstances that would be or had been found during the trial. His comments seemed to break with his customary legalism. On the other hand, if no law prohibits such comments by a senior member of the executive branch, the speaker must have felt he was not breaking any written rules.