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Russia's judicial system and the Tower of Pisa -- a shared fate awaits

By JAMES ZUMWALT, UPI Outside View Commentator   |   March 26, 2013 at 12:09 AM   |   Comments

HERNDON, Va., March 26 (UPI) -- It is fairly well accepted that President Vladimir Putin's Russia is a democracy in name only. He controls the legislature, which passes laws aimed at giving him greater powers. He controls the police, who demonstrate a heavy propensity for arresting Putin critics. He controls a judiciary boasting a record of convictions of those involved in opposing Putin's seemingly unlimited authority.

The playing field in Russia has clearly been tilted in Putin's favor. One can only wonder how much more tilting such a system can endure?

Not unlike the Tower of Pisa, the tilting appears to be a continuing process with little hope it will ever abate of its own accord. Nowhere has this become more obvious than in a recent court ruling in the continuing case of the late Sergei Magnitsky.

Magnitsky was a Russian auditor. He was hired to investigate a dubious claim that a company that had earlier been credited with overpaying its taxes was suddenly being accused of underpaying them.

Magnitsky's audit uncovered a massive theft of state assets orchestrated by Russian officials working in collusion with a criminal element seeking to leave the company open for exploitation by government officials.

Magnitsky identified a policeman involved in the scandal who accused the auditor of fraud and theft. An arrest was made on Nov. 23, 2008 -- not of the policeman but Magnitsky -- for fraud and tax evasion. The man who had discovered and reported the fraud was now being charged for committing it!

Russian law required a defendant to be brought to trial within one year or to be released. Coincidently, only one week shy of Magnitsky's 2009 release deadline, he was found dead in his prison cell.

Initially, prison officials claimed his death was caused by a "rupture to the abdominal membrane," later changing it to a heart attack. However, the Moscow Helsinki Group -- a non-governmental human rights monitoring organization -- reported the real cause as beatings and torture inflicted by Russian Ministry of Interior officials implicated by Magnitsky's fraud investigation. They attempted to get Magnitsky to change his findings -- but the courageous auditor refused to do so.

A January 2013 Financial Times news report concluded, "the Magnitsky case is egregious, well-documented and encapsulates the darker side of Putinism."

One would think Magnitsky's death marked the end of his persecution by terminating his prosecution. However, earlier this month, his trial began -- posthumously!

The defense argued the government had no legal right to prosecute a dead defendant; however, this defense was rejected in a ruling by the Putin-controlled judge. No one should be surprised, therefore, what the ultimate outcome of the trial will be. The voiceless ghost of Sergei Magnitsky will be found guilty, leaving Russian officials, unfazed by the blood on their hands and never even investigated by the government, free to enjoy their ill-gotten gains.

For centuries, Italian engineers have tried to stop the leaning Tower of Pisa -- a freestanding bell tower that began tilting as soon as construction started in the 12th century -- from increasing its tilt. Despite modern engineering advances, they have yet to do so. The ground conditions under the tower won't change so that one day, the weight of the upper levels of the world renowned architectural marvel will cause its own collapse.

The Tower of Pisa's tilt was an unintended consequence of its construction. The tilt within the Russian judicial system was just the opposite, i.e. it was built into it. Both the tower and Russia's judicial system will eventually suffer the same fate. It is just a matter of which will collapse first.

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(James G. Zumwalt, a retired U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant colonel and infantry officer, served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Persian Gulf war. He is the author of "Bare Feet, Iron Will--Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam's Battlefields," "Living the Juche Lie: North Korea's Kim Dynasty" and "Doomsday: Iran--The Clock is Ticking." He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.)

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

© 2013 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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