Finding the innocent guilty: part I


A lowly researcher finds himself subject to the forces of the Russian security service and a flawed justice system. A trial is abandoned after word leaks of a jury minded to acquit; upon resumption, a new hand-picked jury comes to the opposite conclusion. This Kafkaesque nightmare is the basis of a new novel by Zoya Svetova, but the characters and scenarios are far from fiction. oDR is pleased to present exclusive extracts from the novel.

Zoya Svetova
19 May 2011

Foreward from the editors 

In 2004, the academic Igor Sutyagin was imprisoned for 15 years for alleged espionage. He was released last summer as part of a deal that saw Russian intelligence officers detained in the US returned to Moscow. Huge doubts remain about the fairness of his original trial: about the jury that was dismissed half way through the original process; about the original judge who was sent away on “annual leave” and replaced by one renowned for government loyalty; and about the coincidence of former intelligence officers appearing in the jury of the second trial. On 3 May 2011, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled that the trial was conducted in breach of Sutyagin’s rights, in particular the rights to a fair trial, and to liberty and security of person (articles 6 and 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights respectively).

Campaigning journalist Zoya Svetova followed Sutyagin’s case over many years, frequently for the oppostionist magazine “The New Times”. Her article “Jury duty is a nasty business” (in Russian) was quoted at length in the ECHR ruling. Struck by the fantastical absurdity and injustice of the process, she turned her trial notes into a novel, “Finding the innocent guilty”, which was recently published in Russian by publishers Vremya. Although the main characters appear under pseudonyms, they are instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with the process, and with the carefully calibrated machine of Russian “justice” in general.  In the first installment of translated extracts, we focus on a careerist Court Chairwoman, eager to please her supervisors, and comfortable with the expense of justice. Here she takes the name of Elena Filippova, but the real life parallel — the fearsome Chair of the Moscow City Court, Olga Yegorova — jumps from the page. 

Judge Filippova’s Empire

Elena Alekseevna Filippova, Chair of the Moscow City Court, waited for her guests in her recently refurbished office. She was worried, and when she worried, she simply couldn’t sit still. So she paced to and fro on the red and green rug, which had been returned an hour ago from the drycleaners. Occasionally she glanced at the wardrobe that housed her latest fur coat – a white mink. If Elena Alekseevna had one weakness it was real fur coats. She was short and sturdy, with hair which she had recently taken to dying bright red. Her husband, a retired FSB general and a great connoisseur of female beauty, used to say that fur ‘beautifies and ennobles’ a lady. At home she had a real collection, but the most recent, ‘Snow White’, as Filippova lovingly called it, was a dream of a fur coat. Looking at it, and stroking the glistening fur, the judge felt calmer. Recently, if truth be told, her nerves had been shot to pieces. 


Judge Olga Yegorova: the real-life basis for Judge
Elena Filippova. Opponents accuse Yegorova of
creating a system of "ordered", government-friendly

‘What shall I say to them?’, she asked herself. ‘Tell the truth and they’ll take offence. Lie and they will smell a rat. Perhaps they will accuse me of disloyalty or of unprofessionalism. Either way it’s bad. But how can I tell them that the prosecution is falling apart at the seams? That there are too many inconsistencies in the case? That given such material the jury will simply find this man not guilty?’

Elena Alekseevna grew tired of pacing, and sank into a large leather armchair, which a careful cleaner had placed directly beneath the portrait of Vladimir Putin. There were no other portraits in the office. The owner of the office had not yet decided which portraits to hang. The walls were painted light green, since someone had told Elena Alekseevna that this colour has a calming effect. Calm and tranquillity – this was just what was lacking in the life of Judge Filippova. There was a ring on the internal line. Elena Alekseevna lifted the receiver. ‘You have visitors’, the secretary conveyed breathlessly.

Filippova came out from behind the desk, inwardly preparing herself for any eventuality.

The secretary opened the door and two people appeared on the threshold: Viktor Viktorovich from the Presidential Administration and an unknown man of imposing appearance. Viktorovich gallantly kissed the lady’s hand and introduced his companion: ‘Nikolai Vasilyevich Vedrashku, our new social psychologist.’

Elena Alekseevna gestured the men to sit down.

She herself flopped into the armchair, managing to note that Viktor Viktorovich was in a good mood. ‘All is not yet lost’, she decided.

‘Elena Alekseevna, my dear, we are really distressed that you’ve had to dismiss the jury’, Viktor Viktorovich began. ‘Your actions have already caused quite a stir in the press. Of course, I realise that you didn’t have any other option. I saw the printouts of the conversations in the jury room. But you must understand that we simply cannot allow a second abnormal situation to arise. We will need to do some people work... Nikolai Vasilyevich will help you with the selection.’

Elena Alekseevna very much liked the direction the conversation was taking. The prospect of being reduced in rank, sacked or being taken to pieces by the Presidential Administration, which had agitated her in the two days since she dismissed the Letuchy case jury, seemed now like vain fears. They had forgiven her for her bad luck with the jurors. But now proving once again how necessary she was lay ahead. Elena Alekseevna was not used to this. Over the last five years the former district attendant of the Supreme Court had managed to build up something that resembled an empire in the Moscow City Court. She’d done so strictly in accordance with her own notions about the way in which a court should function: as an instrument of executive power.

The well-oiled mechanism of admission into her corporation rarely failed. Everyone on the panel of judges that selected new judges knew about Elena Alekseevna’s tastes and biases, which meant that the path into her fiefdom was barred to any person alien to these tastes and biases. The preferences of recent years had been for people from other towns, without flats, and with pasts not always transparent. 


Igor Sutyagin (here "Letuchy") vehemently refutes the
espionage claims made against him, and it seems the
first jury believed him

Such preferences were easily explained: should some sort of problem arise, one could easily find compromising material on those so bold as to express dissatisfaction. Elena Alekseevna distributed cases to one or another judge according to several criteria. Cases were ‘paid’ and ‘gratis’. In the first instance a reliable and proven worker was chosen, about whom it was known that he could be entirely relied upon.  Without fail, he would also be handed a directive about the expected decision, attached to the case files.

After completion of the work, a reward was paid out to the judge. 

If the case was ‘gratis’, but politically ordered, then it would be allotted to a judge not simply reliable and proven, but super-proven. In such cases the result could not be in doubt. What was at stake was not only money, not only a high and profitable post. The entire career Elena Alekseevna hung on the fulfilment (or non-fulfilment) of a political. And her ambition extended far beyond the position of a Chair of the Moscow City Court. Elena Alekseevna did not rule out the possibility that in ten or so years’ time she would end up amongst Femida’s assistants in the Supreme Court.

Judge Filippova knew exactly what each of her subordinates was capable of, to whom might be entrusted cases of varying degrees of complexity. And in both paid and gratis pre-ordered cases one had to deal with the clearly slipshod nature of case preparation by investigators and prosecutors. One needed to possess a special mentality in order not to notice the glaring errors of the investigation. One needed to be able to negotiate with one’s conscience and heart in order to impose on innocent people, in the face of clear falsifications and fabricated charges, a knowingly unjust sentence ordered for money or by a directive from above.

It seemed that there was no shortage of such willing executors in the courts. Until, that is, the institution of trial by jury was introduced Russia-wide.

Elena Alekseevna, like many of her colleagues from other regions, came up against this problem frequently. In professional gatherings they complained to one another that they were giving in to ‘the people’s judges’, who were proving rather difficult to control. They had, of course, experience of 'people’s assessors', picked by the party (‘yes-men’ as they were more commonly known). Any competent judge could deal with these two non-professionals and force them to take the side of the presiding judge. But 12 people – that was an entirely different matter! A genuine talent was needed in order to convince them of one’s rectitude given that the evidence was stacked in rough and ready fashion. Judges needed to be manipulators, hypnotists. In a worst case scenario there had to be people embedded in the jury who could win over the ‘people’s judges’ and lead them to the required verdict. 

What was most unpleasant for the judges was that juries brought twenty times more not guilty verdicts than ordinary judges. The guilty bias in the justice system was an unwritten rule, the violation of which was punished by excommunication from the judicial corporation. And then suddenly, with the introduction of trial by jury, a wave of acquittals washed over Russia. Judge Filippova awaited with fear the time when cases would start being heard with juries in the court under her jurisdiction.

And then the case of the researcher Letuchy arrived at the city court. When it became clear that the accused wanted to be tried by jury, Elena Alekseevna passed the case to an experienced judge from Saratov, who for many years had worked with juries in his native town. 

Listening equipment and a video surveillance system were set up in both the jury room and the courtroom. Elena Alekseevna could therefore not only hear, but also see, what was going on during proceedings and ‘behind the scenes’.

A week passed. Judge Filippova did not like at all what she overheard in the jury room.

‘It looks as if our lad here isn’t guilty of anything’, said juror no. 4 to juror no.10. ‘Look at how they’re slandering him. He's supposed to have sold government secrets to foreigners, but he didn’t do any kind of secret work. Read newspapers, kept newspaper clippings and then summarised them. And that he concluded a contract with foreigners, well that’s understandable. Academics over here, as you know yourself, are practically beggars. They need to feed their families.’ 

‘The Court concluded that Mr Sutyagin’s doubts as to the independence and impartiality of the trial court in his case could have been said to be objectively justified given that the presiding judge had been replaced for unknown reasons and without procedural safeguards ‘[and] that the first jury to consider the case of Igor Sutyagin was dissolved under extremely crude pretexts.’

Ruling of the European Court of Human Rights, 3 May 2011

‘And really, if he didn’t have access to government secrets, as the lawyers say, and as he says, then what could he reveal that would be so dangerous for the country? He himself didn’t know anything of the sort,’ agreed juror no. 10. ‘I feel sorry for the guy. He looks like an honest type.’

Other conversations in the jury room, printed out and brought to Elena Alekseevna at the end of the week, were no better.

‘If things carry on like this, mark my words, they’ll acquit this wretched researcher’, mused Judge Filippova. ‘We shouldn’t have allowed the selection of jurors to be carried out haphazardly.  We should have picked them carefully. But who was to know that they would turn out to be so soft-hearted and begin to pity this blundering researcher. The FSB miscalculated. They trusted me, and I’d stopped being as vigilant as I should have been.’

The Chair of the Moscow City Court opened the Code of Criminal Procedure and became absorbed in the article about dissolving a jury. She seemed to remember from what her colleagues had said that in rare cases a jury could be disbanded. For this one needed the absence of a quorum, or a change of judge. The first variant was out of the question: it was already too late to ‘work’ with the jurors, to persuade them to withdraw on health grounds so that the jury could be dissolved for lack of numbers. There was only one option: the judge needed to be swiftly replaced.

Elena Alekseevna summoned her protégé from Saratov. She decided, while she was at it, to give him a dressing down for failing to incline the jurors towards a guilty verdict.

Judge Fedor Brander stood his ground. ‘The case is half-baked. There’s no evidence. The whole prosecution has just been thrown together. I’ve tried everything, but the jurors, it seems, just don’t believe the accusation.’

‘I don’t have any other accusation for you, my pet’, declared Judge Filippova expertly. ‘Off you go, on leave. I’m taking the case off you.’

Who would replace Brander? Elena Alekseevna didn’t have to think. There was, after all, one judge that was used in the most critical situations. She had presided in many cases which had been deemed of particular interest to the security services – FSB cases and other highly complex cases.  She was called Galina Vikentyevna Mukhina. It was true that Madam Mukhina had no experience of jury trials. ‘But never mind,’ decided Elena Alekseevna, ‘she’ll cope. She doesn’t have any other option.’




Continues tomorrow...

Zoya Svetova's novel, Finding the innocent guilty, is published in the Russian by Vremya

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