Sunday, July 4, 2010

Government Agencies Trample Civil Rights in Russia too!

Russian Mayor Irks Security Agency, and Suffers

Published: July 3, 2010
 Two and half years ago, the village’s mayor, Tatyana Kazakova, had enough. A major construction project at the resort had exposed a hot water main, threatening the heating supply for the entire village as temperatures plunged to 30 degrees below zero.
Ms. Kazakova was not a typical bureaucrat. She was one of the most successful businesswomen in this vast region, a real-estate magnate with a blond ponytail represented a new breed of Russian entrepreneur.
She filed a lawsuit against the resort, and asked the regional prosecutor to open a criminal inquiry. A criminal inquiry was indeed opened — against Ms. Kazakova.

Tatyana Kazakova at her trial in a court in Irkutsk, in Siberia.

The resort belongs to the F.S.B., the main successor to the Soviet-era K.G.B., and the F.S.B. arrested her and had her prosecuted. She is now on trial in a case that has already become a disquieting example of the power of the security agency in today’s Russia.

More than 25 agents have delved into every aspect of Ms. Kazakova’s life, carrying out what they have termed a “counterintelligence operation.” Masked special service officers with automatic weapons have raided her associates’ homes. More than 250 witnesses have been interrogated, and 67 volumes of evidence have been amassed, according to the trial records.

Even a prominent Kremlin official has declared that Ms. Kazakova is being persecuted, and so has the human rights ombudsman here in Siberia, who is a government official. Yet the F.S.B. remains largely untouchable.
“Why are they doing this, who fears me?” Ms. Kazakova, 47, asked in a letter that she passed to her lawyers last year. “Why are they keeping me in jail, when I pose no threat?”

The F.S.B., which protects national security and investigates major felonies, has never publicly explained why it decided to devote such resources to pursuing the mayor of a village of 1,700 people. She was charged with abuse of office and election irregularities, crimes that the F.S.B. rarely scrutinizes at the local level.

After her arrest in March 2008, she was held in a cell at Pre-Trial Detention Center No. 1, a jail in the Siberian regional capital of Irkutsk that was once used by Stalin’s secret police. For nearly two and a half years, she was denied all contact with her fiancĂ©, mother and three children, including a 15-year-old daughter who has a neurological disease.

Late on Wednesday night, after The New York Times made repeated inquiries to the F.S.B. about the charges against Ms. Kazakova, the judge in the case reversed previous decisions and agreed to release Ms. Kazakova on bail. The next day, Ms. Kazakova embraced her family for the first time since 2008.

The judge is expected to issue a verdict in Ms. Kazakova’s trial within the next few weeks. Her lawyers say, based on how the trial was conducted, that the judge does not seem open to the possibility that Ms. Kazakova is not guilty. She could face several years in prison.

Russia is a freer society than its Soviet predecessor, and the F.S.B. is smaller and less intrusive than the K.G.B. But the agency still functions mostly in secret, with an intimidating reputation and almost no oversight from other branches of government.

Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, the country’s paramount leader, is a former director of the F.S.B. and a former K.G.B. officer, and since his rise to power a decade ago, the agency has wielded tremendous influence in government and industry. Mr. Putin has appointed many former agency officers to senior positions. They are known as the siloviki, from the Russian word for “force.”

The agency has regularly faced criticism for undertaking politically motivated inquiries, especially those involving opposition politicians. It has also prosecuted scientists and academics for what it has contended were illegal transfers of classified information abroad.
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