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Sentence Quashed in Case of Kazan Blogger Convicted of Libelling Human Rights Ombudsman

30 March 2012

Photo: Rashit Vagizov, former Human Rights Ombudsman 
in Tatarstan, and Asgat Safarov, the Minister of the Interior. 

Ernest Murtazin a magistrate for Court District No.9, in the Sovetsky district of Kazan, has ruled that the sentence be quashed in the case of local blogger Yury Egorov. Egorov had previously been given a six-month suspended sentence in a criminal case of libel against Rashit Vagizov, former Human Rights Ombudsman in Tatarstan. Egorov's computer had been ordered destroyed as "an instrument of the crime." 

The magistrate's court made the new ruling as a result of "an amendment to the criminal law, eliminating such an act as a crime", in other words as a result of the decriminalisation of the article on "Libel" (previously Article 129 of the Russian Criminal Code), reports our Open Inform Correspondent.

Explaining the legal subtleties of the case, Irina Khrunova, Egorov's lawyer and legal analyst at the Agora Human Rights Association, said: "Yury Egorov was convicted of libel on 9 June 2011. The sentence came into force on 18 November. Egorov was deemed to have been given a suspended sentence. But on 7 December libel was decriminalised. In other words it simply no longer exists in the Criminal Code. After that it was just a matter of time before the punishment was waived by a decision of the court as a consequence of this decriminalisation."

"As I said previously, I do not consider myself guilty," Yury Egorov declared. "I did not libel citizen Vagizov. Evidently, they didn't find a good enough investigator, or they didn't want to find one who might have brought this whole story to light. A complaint has been lodged with the European Court of Human Rights on my case. I am confident that this will put everything in its proper place and force this country to respect its own laws. I still don't know what happened to my computer, which the court ordered to be destroyed as an instrument of crime. But I believe that this part of the sentence is possibly the most foolish in legal history."

Readers will recall that, having voluntarily resigned as a member of staff in the Ombudsman’s office in 2007, Egorov was given a suspended sentence of six months’ imprisonment on probation for a statement made on the internet regarding Vagizov's actitivities, and specifically a report on what, in his opinion, was a dubious wage distribution scheme.

According to the indictment, Egorov, "knowingly disseminated false information that discredited Vagizov's honour and dignity and undermined his reputation", by reporting on a web forum that staff at the office of the Human Rights Ombudsman in Tatarstan, "had received the minimum due them... which resulted in the fund making economies in wage payments to the tune of 400,000 to 600,000 roubles a year, which were signed off by the accountant and the office manager." However, the case materials show 11 orders for bonus payments made from February to July 2007 paid to senior specialist (accountant) Lyudmilla Fazlieva and officer manager Musa Ziyatdinov to a total of 355,000 roubles. Each of these orders was labelled with a letter, for example, Order No.145a of 2 July 2007 (to Fazlieva – 15,000 roubles, to Ziyatdinov – 10,000 roubles), Order No.146a of 9 July (to Fazlieva – 30,000, Ziyatdinov – 20,000), Order No.146b of 9 July (Fazlieva – 20,000, Ziyatdinov – 10,000) and Order No.148a of 10 July (to Fazlieva – 20,000, Ziyatdinov – 10,000). Thus, in just 10 days in July 2007, according to the orders in the case materials, two employees at the Tatarstan Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office were awarded bonuses of 135,000 roubles. According to the debit slips and payroll sheets made available to the case, the remaining orders from February to July (of a further 220,000 roubles to Fazlieva and Ziyatdinov) were also only made in July 2007.

When questioned in court Gulshat Nasibullina, Rashit Vagizov's former chief accountant, informed the court that after taking up her job, Rashit Vagizov had personally proposed a scheme to her under which she should award herself bonuses and then pass them on to him. According to Nasibullina's evidence, Vagizov told her that "that was how it had been done previously", that he had a lot of business trip expenses and that he had to bring in academics who he was not officially allowed to pay. Nasibullina informed the court that after she had twice refused to implement this scam, Vagizov began to freeze her out of her job, and after her resignation initiated criminal proceedings against her.

Readers will recall that Nasibullina was accused of embezzling 58,848 roubles of public funds as a result of an investigation into the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office carried out by the Tatarstan Audit Chamber. Vagizov asserted that allegedly after his return from a business trip to the USA in December 2007, Gulshat Nasibullina had debited expenses for the above mentioned trip from the payroll that were in excess of the actual amount. However, the costs of this official business trip had been paid in full to Vagizov by the American Embassy. The defence pointed out that Nasibullina had not embezzled the money but given it to Vagizov with a written acknowledgement of receipt. An expenses cash voucher was checked by the investigation, which showed that Rashit Vagizov had received 59,000 roubles from the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office as compensation for the cost of the trip. An appraisal carried out by a hand writing expert came to the unambiguous conclusion that the signature on the voucher was not a forgery and belonged to Vagizov. The criminal case against Gulshat Nasibullina, whose interests were also represented by the Agora Association, was terminated for a lack of any evidence of a crime.

Rashit Vagizov initially refused to come to court, he even sent a declaration stating that he was undergoing treatment outside the city and asked the magistrate to examine the criminal case against his former subordinate Yury Egorov without his participation. However, on 15 April the alleged victim in the case Vagizov was finally cross examined. He stated that he had not forced anyone to resign and that the questions of bonuses had been discussed collectively with his colleagues. However, according to Yury Egorov's lawyer Irina Khrunova, at the beginning of the proceedings other former employees at the office had given evidence to the contrary and most of the facts stated by Vagizov were not corroborated.

After Vagizov's statement that he had awarded bonuses to all the staff equally and in accordance with their merits and that the bonuses had been agreed with the accounts department, Irina Khrunova asked him two questions: "Why did some staff receive bonuses of 1,500 roubles and others 100,000? What was the procedure for agreeing bonuses and how can you confirm what you said about the accountancy office? Rashit Vagizov answered that to all appearances the differences in the bonuses could be explained by the fact that some of the staff missed work. In addition, one of the bonuses for 100,000 roubles had been awarded to the office manager because he was planning to get married and "it was decided to give him a large bonus". The lawyer for the defence could not understand why Tatarstan's public finances should cover the wedding costs of an employee at the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office. As regards the decisions on making the bonus payments, the former Ombudsman for Human Rights in Tatarstan declared that he did not remember exactly with whom he had agreed these issues and that everything had been done verbally. In other words he was unable to back up his words with documentary evidence.

Irina Khrunova noted that Vagizov answered her questions very nervously, loudly expressing his indignation and complaining that he was being forced to recall incidents that took place a long time ago. He called any requests for clarification "cheap tricks" or "insinuations". He reminded everyone that he had worked as a prosecutor for many years, that he had taken part in many court proceedings on behalf of the prosecution and that therefore "they would not succeed in catching him out". Rashit Vagizov also stated that the words of his former employee Yury Egorov were "utterly libellous". But Rashit Vagizov was not able to explain precisely what in Egorov's internet texts had been libellous, referring to the fact that he didn't remember.

The payment orders referred to above can be seen here.
Rights in Russia,
19 Apr 2012, 06:12