Reporter's Notebook: Slick Justice in Russia

The roads in Russia (search) are hazardous to drive whether you’re a Russian or a foreigner; whether you’re a motorist or a businessperson trying to navigate your way to success.

Take Kalanchevskaya Street (search) in Central Moscow, for instance. It’s closed. Paving and road repair equipment are parked next to the sidewalks, but oddly enough there is no work going on, and it’s been that way for weeks now.

There are many potholes in the city streets, and some argue there are just as many in the administration of Russian justice, too.

Kalanchevskaya street is where Mikhail Khodorkovsky (search), one of Russia’s mightiest oil tycoons, is on trial for fraud and tax evasion involving his once giant oil firm Yukos (search).

The little yellow courthouse is surrounded by dozens of armed police. The road construction equipment that never works just happens to conveniently keep pro-Khodorkovsky demonstrators and the media covering the trial from getting within a block of the courthouse.

Most reporters find it difficult even to get inside the courthouse. I am led inside by one of the defense lawyers who invites me to see “what’s really going on” in the court and in Russia.

In terms of Khodorkovsky’s rights, what in America would be a civil trial is treated here as a criminal action, said defense lawyer Maria Logan (search), in Washington.

“Listen to the evidence, there isn’t any,” she said.

According to Logan, the three justices of the court simply read back the prosecutor's case and add a few comments here and there. Unlike American courts the judges “don’t analyze or interpret the law, because they don’t seem to understand it,” she said.

The Khodorkovsky case has attracted the attention of the West, including the White House, because it’s seen as a political trial.

Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003 on tax charges. Many believe that was because the Kremlin was jealous of his wealth and frightened by his political ambitions. He was funding opposition parties and opposed to some of President Putin's tax reforms.

Robert Amsterdam (search), a Canadian who is part of Khodorkovsky’s legal team, said Yukos, the oil company that is now largely under Kremlin control, was valued at some $40 billion.

"The government of Russia stole from the people and shareholders of Russia; what you have is something called ‘state capture,’ the state being manipulated by a small group within the Kremlin for gains that are not necessarily on the agenda of the government,” Amsterdam said.

The Yukos case “is all about greed,” he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently said the case is also a sign that the rule of law is respected in Russia.

For Logan, the case has been eye-opening.

“I grew up here in St. Petersburg before becoming a lawyer in Washington; this shows me there is no rule of law whatsoever in this country. By any legal standard, when you look at what’s going on in court this is a farce," she said.

The judges have been reading their verdict for more than a week. Some expect they will deliver it late at night; possibly on a Friday when Russians are at their summer residences, and Americans are on a long weekend — keeping many from noticing the closing chapter of the Yukos affair.

Of course the verdict will be guilty. All that’s left is the jail term of somewhere up to 10 years.
The case has damaged Putin's image in the West as well as scared off Western investment.

The Kremlin must be hoping the paving of Kalanchevskaya Street begins soon. That will signal Khodorkovsky is behind bars, the trial is over and then maybe people will begin to forget all those potholes in the Russian justice system — until, of course, they hit the next one.