UPDATE (August 24, 2012): After 16 months in Moscow’s infamous Butyrka prison, Alexander Egay was finally released yesterday. Hurray! Long before the Pussy Riot injustices captured the public’s attention, Egay’s wife Nelli went from a normal modern day cosmopolitan woman to involved crusader against Putin’s corrupt regime. Injustices in Russia obviously steamroll on, but once in a while comes some good news!
Here’s a true story that bears witness to a disturbing reality overlooked by the western media: Russia’s ongoing imprisonment of tens of thousands of businesspeople on fabricated charges.
Last April, Alexander Egay – who until then had been living with his wife and daughter in Berlin – became one of them. His wife Nelli is now immersed in a fight for survival, torn between her motherly duties in Berlin and the surreal existence of a woman whose husband sits without trial inside Moscow’s most infamous jail.
Nelli’s in a hurry. Although she knows damn well there are still seven hours until she departs the tiny flat in northern Prenzlauer Berg for the airport. First she will give a kiss to Glasha, who will be asleep, or pretending to be, or crying or stoic, emphatically stoic.
“Mama, don’t forget to kiss me before you leave. I’ll cry. Still, you’ve got to. You promised.”
“Oh yes, Glashenka,” I say, “you’ll cry, torrents, cats and dogs, you surely will, you wicked little drama queen.”
The three of us laugh as if there were something funny about it. Glasha is a 13-year-old ballet pupil always praised for her dramatic expression. Her parents moved to Berlin last year after she was accepted at a prestigious Berlin ballet academy. That’s when we met and became close friends.
Now Glasha’s father is in a Moscow prison and her mum’s about to fly there to take care of things. Glasha can’t go. A ballerina must work hard. Like last time, no one’s really sure how long Nelli will be gone.
“When I came back, she cried the whole day. She said she thought I’d never return, poor thing,” Nelli told me. As for Sasha, no one knows when he’ll be back. It might take years.
On April 24, Alexander Egay (Sasha) – a sales representative for a Belgian architecture lighting company – was on a business trip in Russia. It was Easter Sunday, a day when most Russians go to church with holy cakes and coloured eggs.
Sasha was about to board a train from Moscow to Kiev when two policemen irrupted out of nowhere and clicked handcuffs around his wrists. He was immediately brought to a police station. There, he was stripped of all his personal items – including his glasses (he has -7 eyesight) – then escorted, half blind, to his cell and charged with fraud.
“I said that I did not understand the charges they presented,” said Sasha in the first of a series of letters to Nelli. “It was completely absurd. When I asked to call my lawyer, they smiled.”
He was consequently delivered to the Petrovka detention centre and thrown in a cell without windows lit by a glaring surgeon’s light, night and day. During his transfer to Petrovka, a policeman whispered to Sasha his one and only right: “You’ve got to ask for your one telephone call to your family”. That’s how Nelli found out.
Two days later, Sasha was brought to Moscow’s Khamovniki District Court, the place where Mikhail Khodorkovsky was sentenced to 13 years in prison. Like the famous oligarch, he was arrested under article 159 of the Criminal Procedural Code, whose wide-ranging provisions have made possible the arbitrary prosecution of thousands of entrepreneurs across Russia on dubious charges.
There have been about 100,000 of them, according to Yana Yakovleva of Business Solidarity, an NGO fighting unlawful detentions and rampant judiciary corruption. According to the NGO, some 15 percent of Russia’s registered businesses faced criminal charges between 2000 and 2009. As a result, an estimated one in six Russian entrepreneurs is currently in jail (one in three prisoners in Russia is a businessman!)
They fall victim to corrupt officials, competitors and former associates, are typically arrested and prosecuted on trumped up charges and ultimately kicked out of the free market into a new one: the parallel economy of a thoroughly corrupt judiciary, in which prison officials and law enforcement bureaucrats live off of bribes at every level. Doing business in Russia has become risky, especially if you’re any good at it.
Sasha was a successful businessman in the 1990s as manager and co-owner of Labirint, one of the first companies on the Moscow furniture market, with an annual turnover of $6 million and 150 people on payroll.
Sasha’s luck turned when the company’s controlling shareholder decided to throw in the towel and sell the business. Following a long dispute and a doomed attempt to save the company by buying it over from his partner, Sasha had lost it all: the company he helped found and had been managing – and his faith in doing business in Russia.
So he did what more than 40 percent of Russian businesspeople said they’d like to do, according to an April 2011 study by the Levada Center think tank: leave the country for good.
What he didn’t know was that it was already too late: an investigation for fraud was opened in 2008 and an arrest warrant against him had already been signed. Sasha believes he is the victim of another case of JOD or “Justice On Demand”, a common business practice in Russia these days when one wants to dispose of undesirable ‘business partners’.
Four years have passed since Labirint closed down. Sasha had left, conceding the Moscow business pond to bigger, mightier fish. But the contract had been sealed; money had been exchanged. Law enforcement authorities might be corrupt, but they’re utterly dependable, no matter how flimsy the charges – according to Sasha’s lawyer, there is no incriminating evidence.
Yet, Sasha could be sentenced to four to nine years out of a maximum of 20. That’s the average in similar cases.
“The longer they keep you in investigative custody, the worse,” Sasha said. “They’ll have to justify prolonged pre-trial detention with a proper sentence. If you’re there, you’ve got to be guilty. If you’re there for a long time, you’re even guiltier.” Sasha’s prospects are bleak.
Despite President Medvedev’s amendments to the Criminal Code last year, eliminating pre-trial detention for most white collar crimes, Sasha’s investigative detention has been prolonged from month to month.
Nelli goes to Moscow to attend each hearing – her only opportunity to catch a glimpse of her husband, be it for a short public moment. These moments have become a depressing routine, in which procedural details rule over a theatre of the absurd.
“Last time, on September 24, they first delayed the trial by one day. For no reason. The next day we waited for over seven hours,” said Nelli. It was 7pm when they finally brought Sasha. “He was handcuffed and he smiled when he saw us.”
The whole procedure was pure rhetoric. It was yet another new judge, the third in five months. Representatives for the prosecution and investigation (an ever-rotating cast) were asked the reason for Sasha’s ongoing detention. Everyone agreed they didn’t know anything about the Egay case but that investigation was positively underway.
The outcome was a foregone conclusion: “Good,” said the judge. “Detention prolonged by one month!”
“We left the court room – I felt like dying – my husband was handcuffed again and taken away – he gave us a sign with his hand. He was not smiling anymore.”
In the first six months of his custody, no one seems to have done much to investigate the case.
“No one’s come to ask me any questions!” wrote Sasha in a letter in October. “Keeping you in jail is the most efficient way to ensure you won’t be able to do anything to prove your innocence. I can’t give power of attorney without authorisation by the investigator. My lawyer can’t access the documents that would immediately clear my name. All you can do is wait… and you know the result will be bad news.” Some of his fellow inmates have been there for up to four years without trial. “The average seems to be two years,” writes Sasha.
Once inside Butyrka, your chances of getting out quickly are indeed remote.
Tonight Nelli won’t sleep until it’s time to leave for the airport. “I’m too nervous.” She talks fast with that aloof cheerfulness you see among survivors. She giggles often. “You know, since it happened, nothing really matters…”
Instead, she’ll stay up writing to Sasha – like every night since the ground opened up beneath her feet six months ago. Not that Nelli’s feet were ever grounded in earthly matters. A graduate of the prestigious Moscow Film School, she’s always been an artistic soul, a buoyant mind filled with literary quotes and movie references.
Sasha dealt with the day-to-day stuff. He speaks English. He gets things done. Since she’s been in Berlin, Nelli’s window to the world has been the screen of her Mac: Facebook and the 650+ friends, mostly Russian intellectuals and artists, who’ve been populating her exile. She used to spend her days with them, punctuated by chatter with Sasha.