Crime without punishment

The Highway Code does little to protect Russian citizens, especially pedestrians. High-ranking officials or people with connections get away, sometimes literally, with murder in today’s Russia and there is no redress for them under the law.

Leonid Storch
17 March 2014

Impunity on the roads

On 4 October 2013, in Vorkuta, a powerful local businessman, in a BMW X5 hit two bystanders, a man and a woman. The woman was thrown several yards forward, but was not killed. The businessman, Igor Gerasimov, was a law-abiding citizen and didn’t want to get into trouble with the police. So, after a bit of careful thought, he decided to make sure she was dead and ran over her, diligently flattening her body with the car's huge wheels. Then he drove off. This was all recorded on CCTV. Miraculously, the victim survived, although with her pelvic bones and ribs broken and serious brain damage.

[Graphic] Video footage allegedly showing Igor Gerasimov running over two pedestrians with his car.

This businessman had good contacts in the city administration, so he was released after only three days.

Of course there are monsters everywhere, and this driver was just one of them. Yet in Putin’s Russia, with its ubiquitous corruption and total disregard for human rights, well-connected criminals have no difficulty in getting away with their crimes. This businessman had good contacts in the city administration. He was arrested but released three days later. Those ‘above the law’ in the police concluded that the injuries sustained by the victim were not severe enough to press charges. The driver then had the nerve to harass the victim, demanding compensation for the dents caused to his BMW by her ribs. The video exposing his sadism was uploaded to YouTube, and only then did the authorities finally decide to press charges. However, the outcome of this case is not difficult to predict, considering the numerous travesties of justice in similar road killing cases.

Karina Galoyan, who was killed by Valery Kopchuk in a DUI.

Karina Galoyan, who was killed by Valery Kopchuk in a DUI. Photo via VK.comIn 2012, in the city of Pyatigorsk, Valery Kopchuk, a detective with the local police department, ran into 47-year-old Karina Galoyan in his Volkswagen Passat, throwing her over the bonnet and onto a side barrier. He was drunk. The car was travelling at nearly 120km per hour within city limits and had veered off into a pedestrianised area. The intoxicated policeman didn’t even slow down and fled the scene. The woman died instantly. This incident was also recorded and gruesomely uploaded to YouTube.

The local Prosecutor’s Office pressed charges. The court, illustrating the ‘integrity’ and ‘honesty’ of the Putin regime at its best, punished the well-connected murderer with two years of probation and took away his licence for a year. Now detective Kopchuk will not be able to drive for 12 months and will possibly be forced to get hold of a fake licence. 

The punishment should fit the crime

What punishment would such an offence trigger if it were committed in, say, the US? Florida law mandates a minimum four-year prison sentence for driving under the influence (DUI) and causing a death; leaving the scene of the accident resulting in a death leads to a mandatory minimum two-year imprisonment. ‘Minimum’ means that, depending on the circumstances, the actual punishment may be much harsher, up to thirty years in prison. The long-standing tradition of alcoholism in Russia somehow means that Russian law is much more forgiving to DUI killers and imposes only a modest punishment of up to seven years in prison. But that’s only on paper. If you can pull strings, then you can get away, sometimes literally, with murder.

Results of a car accident. Two vehicles are totalled.

Aleksei Sergeyev, a St Petersburg politician, crashed his Audi while driving on the wrong side of the motorway. CC Vulkan0808The most appalling aspect of the Kopchuk case is not even the so-called punishment but the reaction of the state Prosecutor’s Office. Not only did it not appeal against the travesty that was the judge’s decision, it proudly publicised it as a victory of justice on its official website [in Russian], bragging about its commitment to the no-one-is-above-the-law principle. ‘Critics say we are corrupt, but we are not. Look how hard we were on one of our own: two years of probation and losing a licence for a simple DUI death are no joke. We’re harsh but fair!’ – was their message.

If you can pull strings, then you can get away, sometimes literally, with murder.

Unlike Karina Galoyan, the victim of the Vorkuta businessman survived the assault. So in all likelihood, her heartless assailant will receive a milder punishment than murderer Kopchuk, and might get away with a year of probation or just lose his licence for a short period.

In today’s Russia, numerous cases where the offender is a government official or has government connections result in no prosecution. Where charges are pressed, the law is applied in such a way that well-connected offenders receive the lowest possible sentence or suddenly become eligible for some weird legal exception, never previously invoked.

Mothers and children

In 2009, in the Siberian city of Irkutsk, a Toyota driven by one Anna Shavenkova skidded off the snowy road into a sidewalk and crushed two young women, the Pyatkov sisters, against the wall of a university building. One of the sisters died, and the other will be badly incapacitated for the rest of her life. Horrible things often happen, but what distinguished this accident from others is how it happened and how the 28-year-old offender acted. She stepped out of the car and, without even approaching the two victims lying on the ground, began to examine the dents on her front bumper, assessing the damage. Then she took out her mobile phone and made a phone call – not to the police, not for an ambulance, but to her husband. She did not even check on the sisters and made no effort to help them.

Anna Shavenkova, daughter of an important regional official, escaped the accident with minor injuries.

Anna Shavenkova, daughter of an important regional official, escaped the accident with minor injuries. Photo via Polit.ruAt the time of the killing, Shavenkova was a few months pregnant. The court delayed the case until she gave birth and then sentenced her to three years in prison. Subsequently an obscure provision was invoked, allowing sentence to be deferred if the prisoner is a woman with a child under 14. Sounds humane. The problem is that, in a plethora of even more compelling cases, Russian judges have regularly refused to invoke this provision. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a member of the Pussy Riot group and mother of a four-year old daughter, was sent to jail, her request for deferral of sentence refused. Last year, Taisya Osipova, a leftist political activist, was convicted on drug-related charges, apparently fabricated, and sentenced to eight years in prison. She moved for a deferral, but the judge found that the young mother, who has diabetes and several other health issues, had not established any need to care for her six-year-old daughter, and denied the motion.

She stepped out of the car and, without approaching the two victims on the ground, examined the dents on the front bumper…

With all of that in mind, one might wonder why the Shavenkova case was so special. The answer is quite simple. Unlike other, unsuccessful, applicants, Shavenkova had a mother who was a high-ranking government official, head of the local Election Committee and a member of the ruling ‘United Russia’ Party. In fact, the offender gained much more than just a deferral: as long as she doesn’t commit another offence, the sentence will effectively be cancelled in no time.                     

Selective justice

The selectivity of Russia's corrupt legal system is notorious, but Putin has failed to improve the situation. Indeed, the system of social inequality and de facto social castes in Russia has been reinforced. In slave-owning societies, the laws may have protected individuals’ rights, but the definition of ‘individual’ did not include slaves. Killing a slave was not considered murder and was only regarded as damage to the owner’s property.

Essentially, each region and municipality of present day Russia is collectively owned and controlled by members of a ruling clan. These rulers are bound together by a code of silence and cover each other’s backs. They do not view the killing of an ordinary person by a member of their mafia-like inner circle as a crime, and pull strings to set the unlucky offender free. The corrupt system operates vertically, penetrating all branches of government, including law enforcement and the judiciary, on all levels, whether federal, regional or local. More significantly, it affects nearly all areas of life, including education and health care, and infects people’s minds, making them think that this is the only way of doing things.

The corrupt system operates vertically, penetrating all branches of government, including the judiciary.

One last point remains to be made here. Three members of the Pussy Riot group were each sentenced to two years of imprisonment for aggravated hooliganism. In the opinion of the Kremlin-manipulated court, as well as thousands of clergy and ‘patriotically-minded’ politicians, journalists and public activists, dancing for one minute in an Orthodox cathedral – which, apparently unbeknownst to the court, was public property – constituted aggravation. It also offended the feelings of believers (a crime under a new law) in that it desecrated the church and religious objects located on its premises. These believers and their Patriarch should be reminded that the most precious religious object, God’s gift and miracle, is human life. I find it perplexing that images of ordinary Russians being killed and mutilated by the rich and powerful did not offend the feelings of any believer. No Orthodox bishop or archpriest said a word. And no Duma deputy expressed any rage, as they did so eagerly when commenting on the Pussy Riot case.

O tempora, o mores!  There’s definitely one law for the poor and one – or no – law for the rich and well-connected in today’s Russia.

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