The Open Trial that Wasn’t

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On Tuesday, it looked as if the Anna Politkovskaya trial would be open to journalists.  Today, the judge Yevgeny Zubov, decided at the last moment that it would be closed.  The reason he gave was that the jury refused to participate if the trial was open to the media.  Zubkov had already warned that he would close the proceedings if “a juror made a single request.”

Nevertheless, there are those that smell something rotten in the Moscow Military District Court.  Karinna Moskalenko, the non-poisoned lawyer for the Politikovskaya family, was disappointed, but not surprised. Is anyone? He says that the Zubkov had “not offered convincing evidence of the need to bar the public for the safety of the jury.”  “I could expect this is there were a threat to the jury,” she told reporters.  Novaya gazeta noted that,

It’s notable that a day earlier when the jurors were sworn in, not a single one spoke out about their safety or suspicions regarding concern for future pressure or threats.  Moreover, none of the 12 jurors said anything about having facts on that nature.

The procecution deined that the closing of the court had anything to do with government pressure from above.  After all, its representatives, Vera Pashkovskaya and Iuliia Safina were all prepared to address the media, which had been assembled for a press conference a mere forty minutes before the trial opened.

So who knows?  The truth of the matter is that some will believe that someone above intervened, others will say that there is a real possibility that jurors could be threatened.  Both are possible, though I have the say the latter is more probable given the nature of the case and the type of people involved.  The funny thing is that the same people who think there is a government hand in the court’s closing are the very same people who would blame the government if a juror was threatened, or worse, ended up dead.  Either way, a conspiracy will be conjured. Given this and the amount of international attention this case is getting, if I was Zubkov I would probably play it safe too.

The Politkovskaya trial is not the only incident hitting the Russian media world. This week, Moscow prosecutors sent a warning to Newsweek Russia over the possibility that its September 29-October 5 issue might incite interethnic and religious strife between Christians and Muslims.  The articles is question are “Who Goes to Mosque with Us” and “Mosque Carriers.”  The complaint was filed by the Russian Mufti Council because the issue contained a reprint of the cartoon of Mohammed which sparked proetsts in 2005.
One wouldn’t think that ethnic strife is a real problem given the results of Levada Center’s recent poll on multi-ethnic tension in Russia.  According to its findings, 26 perecent rarely and 58 percent never feel any ethnic hostility woward others.  Similar percentages were given for the question: Do you at the present moment feel any hostility toward people of a different nationality?”
Still, the visage of the Prophet Mohammad is not the only thing the Russian media has to be careful reporting about.  Apparently, so is the economic crisis.  In Sverdlovsk, the prosecutor began a check of their local media for disseminating information that might “destabilize the [economic] situation in the region.”  Namely, according to Timma Bobina, the head assistant to the prosecutors office, “We were assigned to check information about media attacks via the Internet on credit organizations in Yekaterinburg.  If we establish evidence that the law was broken, we can follow up with disciplinary measures, and even criminal punishment against the perpetrators.”

Sverdlovsk isn’t the only region going through such a “check.” Kommersant reports that all of Russia’s regions will look into how local media is reporting on local banks. According to prosecutors, customers in the Far East received an SMS saying that Dalkombank and Vladivostok banks were going bankrupt.  In three days, clients withdrew $2.4 million rubles. In Yekaterinburg local media started a panic when it reported that Severnaya Bank, Bank, and Ural Bank were to undergo “reconstruction and development.” Apparently the economic crisis has sent many Russians into a panic to withdrawal their savings from banks.

Something must be up because there has been a rash of muggings of people carrying large sums of cash in Moscow.  The Moscow Times reports,

City police on Tuesday alone registered four separate thefts from car drivers of amounts ranging from 300,000 rubles ($10,900) to 3 million rubles ($109,000), state-run Vesti-24 said in a report posted on its web site.

“Police have noted that since the start of the crisis, such crimes have become more common,” Vesti-24 reported. “This is because people are carrying large amounts of cash. Criminals are taking advantage of this.”

Four people attacked the driver of a Jeep Grand Cherokee that had stopped at a traffic light at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday on Aviamotornaya Ulitsa in southeastern Moscow, injuring him with a hammer and baseball bats before taking a bag containing 300,000 rubles, police said.

At about the same time, three men grabbed a bag with 3 million rubles in it from a 32-year-old sitting in a car on Denisovsky Pereulok, near Baumanskaya metro station in central Moscow, before making off in a getaway car, according to police.

On Tuesday evening, three men stopped a car on Slavyansky Bulvar in central Moscow and snatched a bag containing 500,000 rubles from the 45-year-old driver.

Finally, the near death beating of Mikhail Beketov is hitting the international press, as it well should. Provincial reporters bear the brunt of the violence against journalists in Russia. They’re easy targets because they have few resources, little notoriety, and most importantly, less of an international spotlight. A glance at the Defense of Glasnost’s list of attacks on and killings of Russian journalists shows that the vast majority occur in the provinces.

Beketov has had his legs amputated and now lies in a coma with peices of his skull stuck in his brain.  According to a friends Beketov had been recieving threats weeks before his beating.  “He told us about a week before he was attacked that he had been informed that an order to kill him had been taken out,” says Lyudmila Fedotova, a close friend. The hospital doesn’t seem to be a safe place for him either.  Fedotova also said that despite being in a coma, “he was receiving telephone threats even as he was being operated on.”  Callers promised that they would eventually kill Beketov.

If there is anything good out of this, it’s that the brutal attack on Beketov has woken up the Public Chamber.  In response to the attack, the body plans to create a center for the defense of journalists.  Whether this will actually do anything to protect journalsists or even raise Russia’s low standing among international organizations that monitor media freedom remains to be seen.  Given the lackadaisical manner the Russian government tends to have toward violence against journalists, we should be happy that at least this time they took some notice, and perhaps even some action.