Broken Justice: how Khodorkovsky judge was pressured into verdict


Natalya Vasilyeva is a court clerk and press secretary of Khamovniki Court, the unexpected last-minute venue of Khodorkovsky’s second trial. Disillusioned by “ordered justice” and political pressure, Vasilyeva today broke ranks in a sensational interview. She confirmed what many had already long suspected: Judge Viktor Danilkin had prepared a very different verdict from the one he read out.

Natalia Vasilyeva
14 February 2011

I was court clerk to the judge, but I was also responsible for press relations.  I write answers to the requests received by the court, to complaints and documents that go to the accounts department of the Justice Department.  And personnel and the job of drawing up into one report the statistics of what goes on in the court.  This was a lot of work. 

I say was, because I think it'll all come to an end today.   

Personal communications between the judge and me were mostly to do with the media.  The judge was in such a state that he often said things he didn't mean to.  A lot of the work I did had to be discussed with Judge Viktor Nikolaevich [Danilkin], but I also learnt a great deal from conversations in court and from someone who is very close to the judge, who I would rather not name at the moment. 

Throughout the trial, Judge Viktor Danilkin was put under immense pressure by his superiors. He developed heart problems, and became withdrawn and depressed





What distinguished the Khodorkovsky trial from the other cases in our courtroom was, of course, the media interest.  But there were no particularly glaring infringements of the judicial process during that trial.  As to whether Danilkin had a free hand in his conduct of the trial – well, I can tell you that he was constantly monitored even before he withdrew to consider the verdict on 2 November.  And after that date probably too.  He had to report regularly to Moscow City Court.  Any tricky moments in court, if something was not going according to plan would mean a  report to the City Court and then he would receive instructions as to how he should conduct himself. It was done by phone: he would probably ring the chairman of the City Court, Olga Yegorova. It could be to do with which witness to call, for instance.  Sometimes in the recess I would bring papers to be signed and would be told not to interfere, that Viktor Nikolaevich was on the phone to the City Court.  Or he himself would tell me he was talking to “the City”, by which he meant the  City Court.  So this is when instructions were being given…  

“One time he said: “I can't give you the answers to these questions, because I don't know where I'll be tomorrow and what will happen to me”

Natalya Vassileva on Judge Danilkin 

Was what Danilkin was doing general practice or not?  I think he did it because he was forced to.  The judge is not obliged to consult anyone or listen to anyone's opinion. The verdict he hands down has to conform to the law and no one has any right to interfere with this process.  So his consultations with the Moscow City Court were somewhat in breach of the law.

Danilkin was very stressed about it all.  It upset him and he resented the fact that he was being told what to do.  He didn't like it, which is perfectly understandable.  I don't think he discussed it with colleagues.  I saw how things were because I had to go to his chambers fairly often.  There was one time when I needed to talk to him. It was just before he withdrew to consider his verdict. I started asking questions and he was so stressed that he said to me: “I can't give you the answers to these questions, because I don't know where I'll be tomorrow and what will happen to me”. Another time during the reading of the verdict, I asked him something about the media and he said: “Do what you like.  I'm already past caring”.  

One time he had problems with his heart.  I went into his chambers and there was a strong smell of Korvalol, valerian and… some other kind of heart medicine.  I asked the secretaries if everything was all right and they said that yes, now it was. I think this was probably on the second or third day of the reading of the verdict.

I often saw him when he came back from the City Court.  He probably went there about once a week.  The way it works is that when there is an important trial, an ordinary judge has to inform or consult with the presiding judge of his court.  In cases like the Khodorkovsky trial the City Court has to know everything, so as to be able to direct the action.  If Danilkin had refused to cooperate with the City Court, then he would probably have been asked to resign, or sacked.  If it's political and the result is pre-ordained, then you simply lose your court.  That's all.  The whole of the judicial community would have known that it was a “designer case” and they all understood what Danilkin was going through and were sorry for him, but no one had any idea of how he could have emerged from the trial with clean hands.

“Danilkin started writing his verdict and I imagine that this was the one which the higher authority didn't like.  So he received another verdict, which was the one he had to read out”

The verdict was due to be publicised on 16 December, but then the date was moved to 27 December.  I suspect this was because something in the verdict had to be corrected.  Another reason was Prime Minister Putin’s speech [in which he said straight out that he considered Khodorkovsky's guilt proven] – so that the trial didn't deflect attention from what Putin said.  This wasn't stated in court, but it was in the air everywhere.

Normally the verdict is written by the judge alone, in his chambers during working hours, in Word on the computer.  No one is allowed to interfere with this work: members of the public and the court staff are not allowed in while he is writing. 

Video of Natalya Vasilyeva's sensational interview (in Russian) 

Danilkin started writing his verdict and I imagine that this was the one which the higher authority didn't like.  So he received another verdict, which was the one he had to read out.  If experts were brought in, they would be able to establish that this is not his writing by looking at previous verdicts and comparing the styles.  After New Year, when it had already been read in court, I saw secretaries making alterations to the text on the computer.  They were correcting technical errors – paragraph here, commas there and incorrect spacing, which is why the issuing of the text to the parties involved was delayed.  Usually secretaries don't correct the text, as it's the judge that is solely responsible for the text of the verdict, which has to be clear, accurate, economic in style and conform to the law.  Secretaries have nothing to do with it – they only prepare the court records. I know absolutely for certain that the verdict came from the Moscow City Court and it was clearly written by the judges of the Appeal Court i.e Moscow City Court.  No one else in the City Court could have written it.  The mistakes arose from the fact that there was only a short time to put it together. 

Someone close to Danilkin told me who actually wrote the text of the verdict, but I prefer not to give the name at this time.  It was written, of course, after 15 December.  It was done quite near the date of the reading i.e. 27 December and some parts only arrived when the reading had already started i.e. the end, which is the part where the sentence is given. I don't know how the last parts were delivered to the court.

It was said that just before the reading of the verdict, on Saturday 25 December, i.e. not a working day, Danilkin was summoned to the City Court. He spent some time there and quite possibly was discussing the Khodorkovsky case, though I was not there and cannot say for certain. I do know that he was there practically all day and, as my informant tells me, that he was waiting for an important person.  Not the presiding judge of the City Court, but someone “more important”. The people who saw him when he came back from there at the end of the day noticed he was stressed, very stressed.  He might have been physically ill and was clearly very depressed.  He didn't say anything to anyone, but that's just how he looked.

Physically he's OK now, but his inner state is different.  He's become withdrawn, he's depressed and….just sad.

I don't know what will happen to Judge Danilkin now.  Rumours are going about that a convenient excuse will be found soon to remove him from his duties.  He'll either retire, or he'll go and work in the City Court and then quietly be sacked.  I don't know how to explain this, after all he did what was required of him.  Perhaps he didn't do it quite right, or not quickly enough.  Perhaps that he tried to write his own verdict, rather than the one that was expected of him.  People do say that he dragged the trial out by calling too many witnesses, ones that shouldn't have been called for some reason or other. The list of witnesses to be called had to be agreed with the higher authority – if they approved it, then he could call them.

Physically he's OK now, but his inner state is different.  He's become withdrawn, he's depressed and….just sad.  The sort of state you get in when you know something bad's coming. He doesn’t smile or talk and sometimes gets very irritated.   

When I first knew him in 2009 he was quite, quite different.  Normally he's very easy to approach and very balanced.  He was interested in everything around him, in the court and outside, but the more time passed, the more withdrawn he became.  Life in the court has almost ceased to exist for him, although as president of the court this life is very important for him.  He read everything in the press – papers, internet, magazines, so he knows what's going on and it distresses him.  At one point the magazine New Times wrote that his son had not got into higher education, which was not true.  The boy is a good student and very clever. 

You ask what effect my speaking out will have on Danilkin's future and I have to say that I'm very afraid for him, though I don’t think it will have that much of difference, as either way things are bad for him.  I just know that if I hadn't told the story, he would quietly have been removed from his post.  Now I don't know.  Perhaps if the story is known, it'll be easier for him to defend himself, if he can.  I don't know if he even wants to, as he hasn't said much at all recently. He doesn't know I'm doing this interview, but I can't think his reaction will be very positive. I don't know if it'll be reported to him, whether he'll get a call from the City Court.  Perhaps he'll tell me I'm mad, perhaps not… I don't know.

My reason for bringing this out into the open is that I am disillusioned.  I wanted to be a judge, but when I saw his mental state and how everything gets done, the fairytale of the judge being accountable only to the law just melted away.  I realised that it's not true: the judge is accountable to the higher authority.  

Perhaps I will be accused of having an interest in a new outcome for this case, that I would like it to be reviewed and that I am discrediting the foundations of the judiciary in Russia.  I have no personal interest in this.  I just wanted people to understand that a lot of what they are offered has been cleaned up and corrected and is not always anything much to do with reality.  I fully expect to be dismissed from the Khamovniki Court and I don't know what I shall do then.  I shall never resile from what I have said. I can’t; I saw it all with my own eyes.  There is no one in the court system or among the judges who thinks as I do and would back up my words: judges can't, because they'd lose their job and in the court system – well, why would they?  Too much trouble.  I didn't discuss my feelings with anyone. There was no time.  Danilkin was too busy, too taken up in court matters.  We would discuss and decide things together very quickly to do with internal court matters and my duties there, but when it comes to these sorts of things, you have to be sure that the person you are talking to actually wants to hear what you have to say. There will certain pointers, which will tell you whether he does or not. 

As for Khodorkovsky and Lebedev, I don't think that they should be in prison.  I don't pity them, but I do sympathise. I realise that they were just unlucky enough to fall into the mincer, as it were. You ask if Judge Danilkin ever expressed any opinion about them:  he was always completely correct in his dealings with the accused and treated them like people.  I never ever heard him say anything inappropriate about them.


Text of interview with Vasilyeva at www.gazeta.ru here  (in Russian)

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