Notebook

August 12, 2013 5:58 pm

The merciful side of Russian justice

The case of Yevgeniya Vasileva shows how humane the country’s courts can be, says Courtney Weaver

The criminal justice system in Russia is not known for its leniency. Alexei Navalny, an opposition leader, was recently sentenced to five years in prison. The two jailed mothers from the punk band Pussy Riot have been denied parole. And the late Sergei Magnitsky, a respected lawyer, was put on trial as a dead man and convicted posthumously for fraud. Yet for every example there is a counter-example. Take the case of Yevgeniya Vasileva, an example of just how reasonable and humane Russian criminal courts can be.

A blonde bombshell and the one-time director of a Russian Ministry of Defence subsidiary, Ms Vasileva is accused of embezzling more than Rbs360m ($11m) from the company. Upon discovering the fraud in November, police searched Ms Vasileva’s home and found Rb3m in cash, 120 gold rings and more than a dozen antique paintings. They also discovered Anatoly Serdyukov, Russia’s (married) defence minister.

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Half a year later, Mr Serdyukov has been fired and Ms Vasileva is under house arrest. Not that she is suffering. Recently, a photo emerged online showing her shopping at Chanel on Moscow’s ritziest side street – something she was known to do quite regularly.

Russian prosecutors responded accordingly and demanded that Ms Vasileva be allowed to leave the home for only two hours a day instead of three. The judge refused, although, seven months after charges were first levied, he did freeze the defendant’s bank account.

Corruption and adultery, separate or together, are not new in Russia. Kremlinologists speculate that the Serdyukov-Vasileva affair became a criminal case not because of the alleged embezzlement or romance but the lineage of Mr Serdyukov’s aggrieved wife. (Her father is former prime minister Viktor Zubkov, a powerful Putin ally.)

Banx illustration

Banx illustration

Studies show that Russians are actually relatively tolerant when it comes to adultery. According to the journalist Pamela Druckerman’s 2008 book Lust in Translation, an estimated 40 per cent of Russians surveyed believe that extramarital affairs were “not at all wrong” or “not always wrong”.

This has been driven home by recent Russian reaction to two fallen politicians: Anthony Weiner and Dominique Strauss-Kahn. While the married Mr Weiner, a New York City mayoral hopeful, has received a chilly reception in the US after it emerged he was sending sexually explicit messages to women who were not his wife, he gained an unlikely ally in NTV, the Russian broadcaster owned by state-owned Gazprom. In a five-minute prime time segment, NTV appeared to move the blame from Mr Weiner to the internet age, which had made luminaries’ private affairs public. “It seems that the internet has put an end to private life, including intimacy,” the broadcaster warned.

Even more leniency has been showed to Mr Strauss-Kahn, the former managing director of the International Monetary Fund. Just days before French prosecutors announced that they would press forward with charges of pimping, the one-time French presidential hopeful received a bout of good news. He was welcomed on to the boards of two Russian state groups: the country’s sovereign wealth fund and a bank owned by Rosneft.

For three decades, the World Values Survey, a multi-university academic project, has been tracking the attitudes of almost 100 countries to different social issues. In Russia particularly it has seen curious results, says Roberto Foa, a Harvard University researcher who works with the survey.

While Russians are liberal when it comes to certain issues such as prostitution and divorce, they are reversely conservative on others, most notably homosexuality. Indeed, according to the study, Russia is the only country in the west where prostitution is considered more “justifiable” or acceptable than homosexuality.

According to the World Values research, Russians are slowly becoming slightly more tolerant of homosexuality. Yet from a legislative point of view, things are moving in the exact opposite direction. In June President Vladimir Putin signed into law new legislation allowing Russian authorities to fine and detain any person who is deemed to be spreading so-called “homosexual propaganda”.

While few have been fined or detained so far, critics of the law warn it is only a matter of time. One can only hope these defendants are afforded half the humanity that has been shown to Ms Vasileva.

courtney.weaver@ft.com

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