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Russia's rough and ready justice

By James Rodgers
BBC News, Moscow

The unpredictability and corruption of the Russian legal system can baffle investors, and lead others to offer bribes to try to get things to go their way.

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev
Mr Medvedev has pledged to improve Russia's shadowy justice system

Since coming to office, Russia's new President, Dmitry Medvedev, has promised to change things.

Near his flat in an ordinary street in the sprawling suburbs of northern Moscow, I met a man with a horrific tale to tell of what can happen when the system of backhanders backfires.

Mikhail Yatsyk's mother was a lawyer. She agreed to pay a bribe to an investigator.

Broken deal

The deal was that her client would face trial on lesser charges. But it did not work out so Mr Yarsyk's mother, Yelena, asked for her money back.

"My mother called me in the middle of the night," he says. "She said this police investigator she'd been working with was driving her out to the country.

"Apparently, he'd agreed to pay back the money she'd given him as that bribe. Next morning, I called her mobile - and a police officer took the call. He told me my mother had been shot."

Mikhail Yarsyk
Mr Yarsyk says his mother was taken away and killed

The investigator in question was found guilty of her murder.

He is now serving 15 years' hard labour.

It is not just criminal cases affected by this phenomenon.

Paul Melling is a partner at the law firm Baker and McKenzie in Moscow.

He has worked in Russia since the late Soviet period.

He explains the possible pitfalls of going to court.

"The commercial court system has improved really out of all recognition," he says of the changes he has seen.

"But of course it's the case that if you're litigating against the politically influential, or if you're litigating against the extremely wealthy, then your chances of getting a fair result from the court are less."

Poor reputation

Mr Medvedev has conceded that there are massive failings.

Shortly after taking office, he spoke of a legal system where courts reach verdicts under pressure, or for money.

Vladimir, east of Moscow, was one of the centres of political power in medieval Russia.

Yury Bespalov
Mr Bespalov's efforts to clean up the courts have not been popular

Today, apart from the historical buildings at its centre, it is a typical collection of Soviet-era tower blocks, and tumbledown wooden houses.

Things have changed here in the last 12 months - since Yury Bespalov became chairman of the regional court and set about sacking the people who were lining their pockets.

"Today, officials can't control the courts here," he told me, his pronunciation becoming more precise as he became increasingly emphatic.

"The courts are now working efficiently and honestly. Of course there are people in very high offices here who are unhappy about it.

"These people need to be educated. They need to be told that the courts are no longer their servants. It's something officials find difficult to accept."

The severity of Russian laws is softened by the fact that obeying them is optional
Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, Russian 19th Century satirist
You can understand why he might face opposition.

Earlier this month, one of Russia's most senior prosecutors, Vasily Piskaryev, put the illicit revenues of corrupt officials at $120bn (60bn) a year.

Paul Melling says the element of uncertainty in the legal system can make foreign businesses worry.

"There's still this fear, particularly at boardroom level, of many multinationals, that you can't be confident of getting the correct decision out of a court.

"And for every time one case goes wrong in a highly publicised way, it has an incredibly adverse impact."

Mr Medvedev clearly sees the shortcomings of his country's legal system as an obstacle to its continuing enrichment.

He faces a battle with those who are already doing very well under the current, rotten, system.

"The severity of Russian laws is softened by the fact that obeying them is optional," the Russian satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin observed in the 19th Century.

In the 21st Century, his words still ring true.




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