Enduring Legal Nihilism


Susan Scholl, who is an author and the Moscow burueau chief of Austrian public television, has a comment piece on Project Syndicate (Daily Star is running it) about the ongoing abuses of human rights and deepening legal nihilism as characterized by the second trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky.  Scholl asks when we can expect the Russian president to stand up and prove his intentions – or whether or not anyone will ever give him such a benefit of the doubt if this travesty is allowed to pass.

When Dmitry Medvedev was elected as Russia’s president a little more than a year ago, he promised to do away with the “legal nihilism” in Russia. Although he was a close confidante of Vladimir Putin and probably was able to assume presidential office exclusively for that reason, many dared to hope that he would stop the vendetta against Khodorkovsky and all those who had been close to him.

Disillusion fully set in only one year after Medvedev’s election, when a new case against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev was brought, this time for embezzlement of billions and for money laundering.

A cynical observer remarked at the preliminary hearing that by the looks of it the Russian authorities couldn’t make up their mind: either the former Yukos bosses didn’t pay taxes or they embezzled money. But since when does one pay taxes on embezzled funds?

The courtroom where the new trial against Khodorkovsky and Lebedevis taking place is slightly larger than a spacious classroom. And it isfull of heavily armed guards. Despite this, the two defendants areforced to sit inside a narrow cage whose glass front has only two smallholes through which their lawyers can communicate with them. Every day,they are brought into the courtroom handcuffed like dangerous felons.One cannot help but contrast this with Budanov, the rapist and murdererwho is now free to move about Russia at will.

The judge refused without comment requests by the defense to removethe cage and to replace one of the prosecutors, who had already been aprosecuting counsel during the first trial. So the authorities’ aimseems clear: to put Khodorkovsky and Lebedev away for a much longertime – more than 20 years if they are convicted. Few doubt that theywill be.

Still, this new trial of course is also a test case for Medvedev’spresidency. So far, he has done nothing to counteract the legalnihilism against which he himself has spoken. But maybe he will in thecourse of this trial, which resembles a personal vendetta even morethan the first one did.