Russian human rights activists are becoming more vocal about judicial scandals in the country, including one that has important implications for the current Ukraine crisis. Will the Kremlin listen?

Will recent legal scandals will drive the Kremlin to reassess its thinking? Photo: RIA Novosti

The Russian judicial system has often been subjected to criticism for what appears to be its blind obedience to the executive branch. However, in recent days, Russian authorities have been forced to listen to the views of human rights defenders, as well as ordinary citizens, who are starting to challenge some court decisions.

The Vasilyeva case

The release on parole of Yevgenia Vasilyeva, former head of Oboronservis, a Russian military contractor, is a recent example.

In Russia, Vasilyeva is being called the “Amazon of Serdyukov,” a reference to Russia’s former Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov. She was in charge of a department of Russia's Defense Ministry and was found guilty on large-scale fraud, as well as money laundering and abuse of power.

According to investigators, the damages she caused to the state amounted to 216 million rubles (approximately $3.3 million at today’s ruble-dollar exchange rates).

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The former minister was questioned a few times by prosecutors and cleared of all wrongdoing. Vasilyeva, on the other hand, was sentenced to a 5-year prison term this past May, but by August, she was already out, despite the fact that the former official still had two years and two months remaining in her sentence.


Yevgeniya Vasilyeva, right, former head of the Defense Ministry's Department of Property Relations and a defendant in the Oboronservis corruption case, is taken into custody by law enforcement officers. Photo: RIA Novosti

However, journalists did not find her during their visit to the penal colony where she was supposed to be serving her sentence. Moreover, numerous Russian media outlets reported that another woman, a hired double of Vasilyeva, served time in the colony instead of her.

Re-thinking Russian justice

The early release of Vasilyeva, like no other verdict before, revealed the questionable nature of Russian justice. This was especially hard to take, on the background of another verdict announced the very day when Vasilyeva was paroled. A different Russian court issued a 20-year penal colony sentence to Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian director, on apparently fabricated charges of organizing a terrorist cell and preparing terrorist attacks in Crimea.

However, the Sentsov case, which was only briefly mentioned on Russian TV news channels, did not receive wide publicity, and did not result in any mass protests.

The early release of Vasilyeva, however, did receive wide publicity. It was even challenged by Ella Pamfilova, the Commissioner for Human Rights. She used very sharp terms when criticizing the decision made by the court in the Vladimir Region, on the release of the former official of the Defense Ministry. Pamfilova addressed a request to Russian President Vladimir Putin to initiate a review of the Oboronservis case.

“Shameful and shocking”

Pamfilova described the Oboronservis criminal case as “shameful" and "shocking.” This decision, says the ombudsman, demonstrates clearly that in Russia investigation and legal proceedings “are divided into two levels – one for the elites and one for the rest of the people.” This destroys the authority of the judicial and law enforcement system, and undermines citizens’ faith in justice,” said Pamfilova.

Her demarche was supported by the Public Chamber under the President. The chamber appealed to the Supreme Court to verify the legality of the decision of Judge Ilya Galagan, who freed Vasilyeva. Moreover, numerous citizens also joined this demand.

Vladimir Osechkin, founder of the social network, who urged people in Russia to use this method to protest against this “illegal and unjust” decision, said that the prosecutor’s office of the Vladimir Region had already received several hundred inquiries, and it was obligated to answer each and every one of them.

The human rights activist insists that Judge Galagan clearly made an illegal decision to parole Vasilyeva, thus violating all conceivable and inconceivable requirements of the law.

In the wake of public outcry over the Vasilyeva case, Pamfilova requested to launch a large-scale inspection of prisons in Vladimir Oblast, including Penal Colony No. 1, where Vasilyeva was supposed to serve her sentence. Moreover, investigators will look into the actions of Judge Galagan, looking to see if he committed crimes under the articles of Russia's Criminal Code, including the Abuse of Authority, Abuse of Power, Forgery of Official Documents, and the Submission of Knowingly Unjust Decisions.

Why did the authorities respond to this public outcry?

A number of factors led to the decision of the authorities to carry out an investigation into this case that has resonated with the Russian public. In early September, the Public Opinion Foundation conducted a survey of Russian citizens. According to the results, if presidential elections were to held on the upcoming weekend, 72 percent of the population would vote for the president. 

In April and May, the figure was higher – 76 percent. The number of those who have trust in the president also decreased – in May, this figure was 42 percent, dropping to 37 percent in August. According to another respectful sociological center – the Levada Center, the percentage of people that have a positive opinion on the work of Mr. Putin as president dropped – from 86 percent in May to 84 percent in August.

Experts attribute the drop in Putin’s ratings to the discontent of the population towards growing prices for housing and communal services, gasoline and food, and the withdrawal of imported powders and detergents from store shelves, which resulted partly from the Kremlin's resposne to the Westren sanctions. However, to the purely economic reasons for discontent, one more (not at all typical for Russia) reason was added.

This was the release on parole of Vasilyeva, the major figure in the Oboronservis case. This move of the authorities was disapproved by 70 percent of the country’s population. The Russian President’s ratings remain very high. However, a year before elections to the State Duma, even a slight decline may lead to a drop in support for the ruling United Russia party.

As political analyst Andrei Kolesnikov put it, “Russian leaders have demonstrated a ‘drug dependence’ on their ratings – the president’s rating fell, and with it down went the ratings of all government institutions, including the State Duma.”

It is generally accepted that Putin, under no circumstances, would react to the pressure exerted on him – whether coming from the public opinion of his country, or of the global community – it is not part of his strong personality, to “sag” under pressure and give in to compromises.

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However, in the present circumstances, the Russian government is compelled to listen to the opinions of ordinary citizens, especially as these coincide with the official position of the Commissioner for Human Rights, the Public Chamber, and parliamentarians in the State Duma.

And this fact inspires optimism. It appears that civil society in Russia, no matter how amorphous it may be, is able to show its teeth, and challenge the decisions of the authorities.

The Savchenko Case – a new test for the authorities

However, in the future there lies waiting another legal case that may resonate with the Russian public. Court hearings began into the case involving the Ukrainian army officer Nadezhda Savchenko.

According to the investigators, during the fighting near Luhansk in June 2014, Nadezhda Savchenko, as operator-gunner, gave the Ukrainian military the coordinates of a crew of Russian TV journalists from the VGTRK Company. As a result, Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Voloshin were killed by mortar shelling.


Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko, charged with involvement in the killings of Russian journalists, at the Basmanny District Court of Moscow. Photo: RIA Novosti

Savchenko denies the charges. The lawyers claim that their client, before the mortar attack that killed the journalists, was captured by armed militants of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), and then, as a result of collusion between separatists and Russian special services, she was illegally brought into Russia. Savchenko announced that she was ready to confirm her innocence by taking a lie detector test.

Russia’s position on this case was outlined by Putin during his live “Direct Line with the Nation” appearance in December of last year.

“If in the course of the investigation, it is found that Nadezhda Savchenko was not guilty and was not a gunner when the journalists were killed, they will let her go,” he said.

However, as the newspaper Vedomosti writes, that “the investigation is being dragged out, and as long this situation continues, the figure of Nadezhda Savchenko plays the role of a media asset, so needed in the current hybrid war. Russian propagandists are molding her into the personification of evil, while Ukrainian propagandists – into a symbol of resistance.”

The Savchenko case has received some international attention as well – the world’s leading publications cover it quite regularly. At the same time, as Sergey Sayapin, the Law School professor at KIMEP University in Almaty, Kazakhstan, argues, the European Court of Human Rights has already assigned to the Savchenko case a priority status – this gives us reason to believe that a decision on the case will be taken in the foreseeable future.

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Sayapin believes that the Savchenko case – taking into account the actual circumstances surrounding it – “will eventually become an important precedent in international humanitarian law and international human rights law.” However, “at this stage it is important to ensure the substantive and procedural rights of one particular person – using all available legal means.”

Taking the initiative, a group of Russian intellectuals sent a letter to the Russian President in connection with the Savchenko case. More than 50 well-known Russian scientists and cultural figures have demanded her release.

“The validity of the charges against Savchenko has not been in any way proven yet,” they write in the letter. “Her defense has evidence of her innocence in the death of Russian journalists in a mortar attack near Luhansk. Savchenko has a solid alibi: she was taken prisoner by separatists well before the bombardment began. Such evidence has not been refuted by the investigation. Moreover, investigators still have not examined the documents provided by her defense attorney.”

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It is expected that on Sept. 29 Savchenko will appear in court and give her testimony. On the eve of that court appearance, Putin, for the first time in 10 years, will address the world community from the UN podium.

And on Oct. 2, a meeting is scheduled in the Normandy Format in Paris. Here, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko and Russian leader Vladimir Putin will discuss the development of the situation in the Donbas.

In this light, the holding of a fair and impartial trial for Savchenko in Russia will be perceived as a gesture of goodwill from the Russian authorities and their willingness to contribute to the cessation of the “hybrid war” in the Donbas, including the use of questionable media assets in the ongoing propaganda war. This can only enhance the already excellent ratings of Putin in his homeland.