Witnesses risk their lives in Russia

In a corrupt legal climate, testifying at trial is fraught with danger: kidnapping, arson, break-ins, attacks. With many Russians also afraid of the police, a witness protection program is little help.

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.

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 made the 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.

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.


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