Opposition Organizer Olga Romanova on Russia’s Rotten Justice System

Olga Romanova’s husband, Alexei Kozlov, was sentenced Thursday to five years in prison. The opposition activist on how she learned his verdict a month early—and how the courts don’t even try to pretend justice exists.

03.18.12 9:40 PM ET

Russian journalist and human rights activist Olga Romanova’s husband, Moscow businessman Alexei Kozlov, was sentenced to five years in prison for fraud and money laundering March 15. Human rights defenders believe his case was fabricated on the orders of his former partner, former Russian Sen. Vladimir Slutsker. Romanova is an organizer of the opposition movement against Vladimir Putin.

I found out my husband’s sentence a month before a judge delivered it in Presnensky Court. Just the same way, we discovered four years ago that a judge would sentence him to eight years in prison, even before the first hearing. The judges and prosecutors in the Russian court system don’t even try to pretend that justice exists. Typically, a more powerful person puts in an order to have somebody locked up. And it turns out, if they can do that, they are also interested in spreading the word of their mighty influence to decide human fate as broadly, and as early, as possible.

For three months, I helped organize street protests in Moscow. Then, on March 15, my husband, Alexei Kozlov, was sentenced to five years in a labor colony for a business transaction that took place four years ago. Naturally, neither judges nor prosecutors feel concern about any negative consequences of making information about sentencing available to the public early. On the contrary, the defendant’s judges and prosecutors are granted promotions for successful prosecutions, a signal to the entire court system and the community that following orders will be approved of and rewarded.

The upper echelon of court bureaucrats, normally appointed by and dependent on the president, also cover up the wrongdoing of judges and prosecutors. But the president’s influence is not always significant—since Dmitry Medvedev has been president, the community of Russian judges and prosecutors have wholly ignored both his words and his initiatives in making liberal amendments to existing laws intended to prevent bribery and abuse in the courts. Paying no attention to the president’s words and remaining unpunished for their ignorance, both courts and prosecutors have demonstratively acted independently from the Kremlin.

That’s exactly why one of Moscow’s prisons—pre-trial detention center No. 5, nicknamed “Vodnik”—began preparing a cell for my husband four days before his verdict, on the first day of his hearings. We knew about it because the warden told us. We had a meeting with the prison management to talk about my husband’s security, as his is a high-profile case, and the prison guards were concerned about reports he might be abused or attacked. That information, too, was made public. The warden was nervous because Dmitry Muratov, editor in chief of the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, had obtained evidence from a police source that such an attack was in the works. While it led to a meeting with us, we know of no formal investigation.

So, a month before the hearings, a judge who is an acquaintance in the court let us read a draft of the sentence. It said Kozlov would be returning to jail for five years. The sentence we heard in court on Thursday was exactly the same, word for word, as what we had seen. We weren’t surprised. My husband arrived that day in court with his toothbrush, razor, and a change of underwear, ready for prison. He was packed and prepared, because we knew. The sentence was pronounced in the afternoon, so in the morning my husband went to work to finish up a few things.

There were some obvious logical reasons why the judge showed us the sentence in advance.

First, the unusual resonance of the Kozlov case made the court hesitant to wait until the last moment to gauge public opinion; second, by giving us time to think about five more years in prison, the system was pushing my husband to flee abroad, which would have been a less noisy resolution. Finally, they wanted me to stop speaking at rallies. Fleeing abroad was impossible for us—my husband signed a promise not to leave Moscow. Besides, my husband understood that if he left the country, his other business partners or subordinates would be arrested in his place, a common practice in Russia. In other words, the tightening of the bolts would proceed under his name. My husband preferred to go to prison. Because he has already served time for this charge, before being exonerated by the Russian Supreme court, he will spend a year and a half in prison.

When the guards were handcuffing him, he suddenly said to me: “Four years ago I came out of prison a civil activist. Next time I will come out as a politician. There is nothing more important than that.”

But today neither Alexei nor I, not even our lawyers, know what’s going to happen next. Russia is too unpredictable; events take turns independent from the law. Yes, we are going to file appeals and complaints—even if nobody reads them. Decisions on our fate depend on phone calls from above, which, in their turn, depend on whether the caller understands the situation in our country.

In the meantime, at the street rallies in Moscow, protesters came out to the streets to demand Kozlov’s freedom. Dozens of people, including some famous public figures, signed petitions defending my husband’s rights.

Of course, we are preparing to file a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights, and we hope to provide the European court with as many details as we provided the Russian court. In Russia, we published witness evidence and details of the case on the Internet for four years, day after day. We were not doing that for the nonexistent court but for our fellow citizens—we did everything to defend our names and reputations. We are hoping that at the European Court of Human Rights we’ll have our first chance to experience real jurisprudence.