Trudy Rubin: Russian justice often depends upon a bribe

Businessman Alexei Kozlov (right) and his wife, Olga Romanova, a Russian journalist and opposition activist, speak with journalists outside a court in Moscow. Kozlov spent two years in jail and is headed there again. MIKHAIL METZEL / Associated Press

MOSCOW - Two weeks ago, during a trip to Moscow, I visited an amazing family that symbolized the dynamism of the new Russia. On Thursday the husband, Alexei Kozlov, was sentenced to five years in prison.

The story of Kozlov and his journalist wife, Olga Romanova, is one of hope that Russia can change, and of despair that the old order will crush reformers. His case is a grim reminder that Russia will never reach its full potential as a developed nation until it institutes the rule of law.

We met in the couple's comfortable Moscow apartment, where china cabinets and bookshelves lined the walls. As we sat at the kitchen table, the tall, boyish Alexei (who spent a month at Penn State in 1994) pored over legal papers while the short, vivacious Olga told me their story, interrupted by frequent phone calls from supporters.

In 2007 she published an unflattering newspaper article about a Russian oligarch who was close to the Kremlin and also knew her husband's business partner. The partner argued with her husband about the article. Shortly afterward, Alexei was arrested and jailed on charges of money laundering and fraud; he believes the business partner paid someone to have charges brought against him.

Sadly, in Russia's weak court system, where police, prosecutors, and judges are susceptible to bribes, this kind of story is all too common.

Olga fought back, using her journalistic skills to embarrass officials by writing story after story. She and Alexei passed through the many stages of hell that compose the Russian prison system: she had to shell out thousands of dollars in bribes in order to visit him or get him moved to a decent cell.

"If the head of the jail saw a businessman, he put him in very bad conditions," she told me, "because he understood that his relatives would pay to transfer him." Olga had to get Alexei transferred 11 times, paying around 100,000 rubles ($3,300) every time; a visit cost $2,000.

At one point, Alexei shared a cell with Sergei Magnitsky, a tax lawyer who had discovered that officials had stolen tens of millions of dollars from the international firm he worked for. In this infamous case, the officials then accused Magnitsky of stealing the money and had him jailed for fraud. He later died in agony when officials failed to get him medical treatment for pancreatitis and the effects of a beating in prison. His relatives may not have realized, says Alexei, that a huge bribe might have gotten him medical care.

Ironically, the head of the Interior Ministry "investigative team" that prepared the case against Alexei was the same woman who investigated Magnitsky, Col. Natalya Vinogradova. She is one of 60 officials now banned from entering the United States for their role in the Magnitsky case.

Alexei's case appeared headed for a happier ending. Due to Olga's efforts, it went all the way to Russia's Supreme Court, which overturned his conviction last September. It then set him free, and sent the case back to the lower court for reconsideration. Despite the absence of new evidence, he was sent right back to jail.

When I met Olga and Alexei two weeks ago, they were apprehensive, but hopeful about the way things were changing in Russia.

Olga told me that while waiting in endless lines to visit Alexei, she had met desperate families of other prisoners, some of whose relatives had also been railroaded; most wives despaired of ever getting to see their husbands. She began to organize meetings for relatives of prisoners, spreading the word by the Internet. These groups spun off to other prisons until around 6,000 family members were involved. In Moscow, the core group meets every Wednesday night; many wives also joined in protests during the last four months against rigged elections.

The women all dress in red, said Olga. A red dress is a reminder that if you must go to the prosecutor, you have to be strong and not beg. That confuses the prosecutors, she says, "because it is new for them that you don't beg."

Alexei talked of the positive changes in the Russian system of arbitrage courts, a separate court system that handles business cases and has become much cleaner over the last five years. Unfortunately, those who seek to bring fraudulent charges against businessmen now bribe the police to switch the case from arbitrage to criminal court. That is what happened to him.

Yet he was heartened by the new civic activism of young Muscovites. Olga's 18-year-old student daughter was closeted in a bedroom with a group of young friends, all planning to work as election monitors in the presidential elections the next day. Olga's 25-year old journalist son had just returned from an assignment in Africa because "it's more exciting now here."

"Businessmen want change, too," Alexei told me passionately. "If they would all stop paying bribes, this system would collapse.

"We should teach the generation who comes after us not to make the mistakes we made."

But it takes immense courage to buck the system in Russia. Now Alexei is back in prison, where his very survival will depend on bribes. Opposition leaders believe his second arrest is payback to Olga for her activism in organizing demonstrations against rigged elections.

By returning him to jail, Russian authorities have put on display a corrupt legal system that undermines their economy and their children's future. That system imprisons not only Alexei Koslov but the whole of Russia as well.

E-mail Trudy Rubin at