x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Kremlin put to the test by calls for jail pardon

Colleagues hold portraits of Svetlana Bakhmina and her children as they protest against the imprisonment of the young mother in Moscow in 2005.
Colleagues hold portraits of Svetlana Bakhmina and her children as they protest against the imprisonment of the young mother in Moscow in 2005.

MOSCOW // She has two young sons, she is seven months pregnant and her supporters say she is a political prisoner serving a six-year sentence on charges fabricated by the Kremlin as revenge against her former boss, one of Russia's richest men.

The fate of Svetlana Bakhmina has become a litmus test on just how far Russian authorities are prepared to go in punishing anyone and everyone ensnared in the Russian state's dismantling of Yukos, once the country's leading oil company under its founder, the jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Bakhmina, 39, who is imprisoned in the Russian region of Mordovia, 350km south-east of Moscow, is one of dozens of Yukos executives, employees and associates that have been caught in Russian prosecutors' crosshairs in the dismantling of Khodorkovsky's Yukos empire.

A former deputy head of Yukos's legal department, she was arrested on suspicion of embezzlement and tax evasion in Dec 2004, more than one year after the legal onslaught against Yukos began. In April 2006, a Moscow court convicted her of tax evasion and embezzling eight billion roubles (Dh1bn), sentencing her to seven years, which was later reduced to six and a half years. But a grass-roots movement pushing for Bakhmina's release has gathered momentum in recent weeks after a court in the Mordovia region's Zubovo-Polyansky district last month denied her parole.

As of yesterday, 44,647 people had signed a petition at the website Bakhmina.ru calling on Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, to pardon Bakhmina. "We understand that you cannot pressure the court. But the Russian constitution gives you the right to pardon," reads the petition. Mr Medvedev, a lawyer by profession, has decried what he calls "legal nihilism" in Russia and said the establishment of an independent judiciary is crucial in cleaning up Russian courts.

Bakhmina's case has become a cause célèbre for Russian liberals. The eight-year prison sentences on tax evasion and fraud charges handed down to Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, his business partner, are comprehensible, if entirely unjust, given Russia's current political climate, they said. But there is no justification for Bakhmina's continued imprisonment, they said. "There are people who are cannibals, and there are people who are not cannibals," said Marina Litvinovich, a prominent Russian opposition activist and associate of Garry Kasparov, a former world chess champion and fierce critic of the Kremlin. "If they do not release her, it will be clear that the cannibals are in control and acting with unbelievable brutality."

Prominent liberal politicians, political analysts and writers have signed the online petition in support of Bakhmina. Yelena Bonner, the widow of Andrei Sakharov, a Russian physicist and dissident who won the Nobel Peace Prize, has written to Svetlana Medvedeva, the Russian first lady, and Lyudmila Putina, wife of Vladimir Putin, the former Russian president and now powerful prime minister, imploring them to use their "high positions so that a future citizen of Russia will be born in freedom".

The latest prominent voice backing Bakhmina's release is that of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, who told the Russian website izbrannoe.ru that she should be pardoned because she has served half of her sentence and because she is due to give birth and has two young sons: Fyodr, seven, and Grigory, nine. "Why keep her behind bars?" Mr Gorbachev said. "I think Russian President Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev in this case can make use of his right to pardon. I would welcome that."

Widely respected in the West, Mr Gorbachev, 77, is a largely irrelevant figure in contemporary Russian politics, though he frequently weighs in on major issues, supporting Kremlin policies in some instances and criticising them in others. Several members of Russia's Public Chamber, a government oversight body made up of prominent artists, journalists, lawyers and social activists, have also petitioned Mr Medvedev to secure Bakhmina's release.

"We ask you to carry out an act of mercy and pardon Svetlana Bakhmina," they wrote in the letter, which was published on the website of the chamber last week. The Public Chamber, whose members are appointed in part by the Russian president, is a consultative body and has no power to implement policy or legislation. One chamber member, Nikolai Svanidze, a television journalist, said in an interview that given the recent campaign in her support, Bakhmina's release either on parole or by pardon is "highly possible" but that it will depend on the political will of the country's ruling elite.

"Parole can only be decided by a court, and no court decision in such a case can be made without the go-ahead from the highest powers in the country," said Mr Svanidze, who has written a biography of Mr Medvedev based on extensive interviews with the Russian president. "If she is released on parole, then we will know that the ruling came down from the top." Attempts to reach Bakhmina's lawyers were unsuccessful.

Ms Litvinovich, the opposition activist, said her release would be "in the best interest" of the Russian government. "They have a chance to show some human decency." cschreck@thenational.ae