Justice is a trial for witnesses in Russia

Valery Kazakov was almost to the prosecutor's office when the killers caught him. He was shot as he cut through an alleyway, and when he stumbled bleeding into the street, a man bent down to stab the final breaths out of him.

It was 3 o'clock in the afternoon, in the heart of the sleepy town of Pushkino. As far as the townspeople were concerned, it was a public execution. Kazakov, a former police officer, was believed to have been on his way to testify in the corruption case against the former mayor.

It has been a year now, and Kazakov's widow holds out little hope of justice, shrugging off the idea with weary skepticism. Police recently arrested the alleged killer, but that's just a "technical detail," Maria Kazakova says. She wants to know who put the hit on her husband, who ordered and paid for it.

"Maybe we'll find out, if the killer isn't killed before he starts talking." Kazakova pauses, staring down into her coffee cup. "Nothing is clean in Russia."

This is the "legal nihilism" that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has famously decried: an epidemic of witness tampering that bedevils courts across the country, little abated by an Interior Ministry reshuffle and the recent creation of a fledgling witness protection program.

The dysfunctional nature of Russia's legal system is legend -- crooked cops and judges; bribery and corruption; endless corridors and inexplicable verdicts. When Medvedev, a career lawyer, made the wildly ambitious pledge to mend the cracked wheels of justice, he set himself a test that will determine whether he can have any sway over the kind of country he leads.

Through the collapse of communism, the wild swings of the 1990s and long years of the oil and gas boom, Russia's failure to establish the rule of law has lingered as one of the great impediments to development. It is a problem that infects the texture of daily life, running much deeper than high-profile tragedies such as the killing of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and other Kremlin critics.

When it comes to witness tampering, the inertia of the status quo is crushing: According to police statistics, 10 million people testify each year in criminal trials. Half of them are threatened, police say.

Of those 5 million, just 20,000 are protected, leaving the rest to fend for themselves against kidnapping, arson, break-ins, street attacks, and attempts on their lives. There are no reliable statistics detailing how many come under attack.

"They either don't inform us of the danger signals, or they don't realize the scope of the threat," says Col. Oleg Zimin, head of the Interior Ministry's witness protection directorate.

But lawyers and victims' advocates tell another story. They say that people are often more frightened of police than of criminals, and view them, with no small justification, as potentially linked to the same gangsters issuing threats.

"Citizens correctly believe that cooperation with law enforcement will bring them nothing but trouble," says Olga Kostina, a lawyer who works with witnesses and crime victims for the Resistance human rights group.

Created in 2006, Russia's first witness protection program is run by the Interior Ministry's organized-crime division, which hoped to get witnesses to stick to their stories.

At the time, Zimin says, "very, very many people were recanting their testimony during the course of investigations. Some of them changed testimony right in court. They were threatened, they were bribed, they had property destroyed."

He bridles at the suggestion that people are afraid of police, saying that many would-be witnesses are criminals themselves, and therefore avoid contact with police. More witnesses will be protected, he says, as soon as the public learns more about his program.

When Medvedev took office and launched his campaign against the legal chaos, the organized-crime division was broken into two units: a "division to combat extremism" and what is now the witness protection program.

These changes were accompanied by a hearty propaganda push. Eager to drum up confidence in the witness protection effort, state news has held up Vera Bobryakova as a success story.

The short-order cook's troubles began when gangsters hired her husband to drive a car freighted with stolen gold to the restive province of Ingushetia. On his way south, he absconded with his cargo, went into hiding and stopped answering his phone.

Infuriated, gangsters stalked the couple's home, kidnapped their 2-year-old daughter, threw a fake grenade through a window and slit the throats of their dogs. The child was set free, but for months she cowered from men and remained silent, too traumatized to talk, her mother says.

When the gang hunted down Bobryakova's husband, he called the police and cut a deal. He agreed that he and his wife would testify against two members of the gang, and they were moved into the witness protection program.

The Bobryakovs sent their children to live with her parents, sold their house and took up residence in a police station. The head of the gang was sentenced to five years. Spotting Bobryakova in the courtroom, he said to her, "Some time will pass and I'll get out, and we'll meet again."

Once the trial was over, the Bobryakovs said they received a letter informing them that they'd been dropped from the witness protection program.

"Then we lost all hope of ever getting our life back," Bobryakova says. "We realized that the government had washed its hands of us, and didn't really want to protect us."

The danger is compounded because the couple is still expected to testify in a second trial.

"They'll come back sooner or later, and they'll find me," Bobryakova says of the gang members. "They know where I am. And I know I'll get no protection this time."

Bobryakova was particularly outraged when Russian state television featured her family in a documentary about Medvedev's push for witness protection.

"The program was totally outrageous," she says. "The point of it was that the state saved us and helped us in everything, and that it was only because of the witness program that we survived."

Worst of all, despite the assurances she says she received from the film crew, the couple's faces and voices appeared unaltered on national television.

The Bobryakovs' tale is a cautionary one and hints at the reasons for the nervousness of Maria Kazakova, the policeman's widow.

Sipping coffee in a swank cafe near the Kremlin, she says she has taken over her husband's "business interests," but won't say what kind of business he was running.

The 30-year-old looks like a young Christie Brinkley, swathed in designer black, fingers and throat covered with diamonds and cranked up on heels.

She is nervous, she says, because the former mayor's trial has ended. The man she describes as her husband's "enemy" was handed a suspended sentence.

In fact, she's so nervous that she doesn't like people saying that her husband was on his way to testify. There's no proof, she insists. True, she allows, her husband had detailed knowledge of the power struggles that gripped Pushkino in recent years.

"There were open wars. People were beaten up with baseball bats, cars were burned down, shops were torched," she says. "Of course, he knew all about it, and he didn't conceal that he knew."

But she's got a family to raise, so she'd rather keep quiet and move forward. Russia is a rough place, she says. Her children will have to know that, too, one day.

"For us, this is a normal state," she says. "Nobody expected anybody to be killed, but . . ."

She trails off, and shrugs, again.

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megan.stack@latimes.com

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