A Grim Trial of a Paralyzed Prisoner

January 28, 2014
Justice Neverova

The Russian judicial system is a service that can be extremely intrusive. As the case of Sergei Magntisky shows, exceptions are not even made for the dead. Neither are they made for accused people chained to hospital beds. But why talk about some “system”? Here is a specific judge from the Tverskoy district court in Moscow, Tatiana Neverova. Some time ago she met with the prison doctors, who were accused of involvement in Magnitsky’s death in the Matrosskaya Tishina detention centre. And on Monday, she herself spent the whole day in the Matrosskaya Tishina jail where the defendant, Vladimir Topekhin, is being held. He cannot be brought to the court because Moscow has no prisoner transport for paralysed citizens. Therefore justice Neverova arrived on her own and, in the course of just one meeting, reviewed the case on its merits and issued a sentence: six years in a penal colony.

Vladimir Topekhin has been accused of the classic charge for businessmen, part 4 of article 159 of the Criminal Code – “large scale fraud.” I do not think there is any point in delving into the story of the charge or whether Topekhin is guilty or not. It is obvious that he is accused of committing a non-violent crime, and that the degree of danger he poses to the public cannot be correlated with six years spent simultaneously in a hospital bed and in confinement.

Topekhin wound up in jail in July 2013, a little later he lost the ability to move independently – contributed to by both the trauma of a car accident while outside, and the conditions of detention (for details, see his lawyer’s comments). This didn’t stop the court from extending his term in detention. Well, as usually happens, he could abscond, destroy evidence, and continue to engage in criminal activity…

In December, the Moscow Public Oversight Commission discovered, by chance, the naked man lying alone on a bed in jail. After the intervention of human rights activists, Topekhin was sent to the civilian City Hospital number 20 for a few days, where there is a guarded ward (a paralysed person would, of course, have escaped from anywhere else). But this was not for treatment, only for inspection. The diagnosis was “paraparesis of the lower extremities of unknown origin.” Topekhin was returned to the detention centre, in order to be tried.

The process began at ten past ten. Justice Neverova clearly did not expect the attendance of “superfluous” people – the four members of the Moscow Public Oversight Commission. But she did not close the session. She is an experienced and a confident judge. Her track record not only includes the Magnitsky case, but also the Leninsky traffic accident, and scores of “economic trials,” unknown to the public, but marked, even by seasoned lawyers, for the harsh style of the presiding judge.

A standard investigative office at the detention centre. Topekhin, paralysed, lies in the corner on a gurney. Without bedding. In his hand, lying on his chest, is a bible. During the course of the session, lasting until 9pm, exhausting even for a healthy, free man, he was, at several points, in a terrible state. The prison doctors grudgingly came, took his blood pressure, and administered shots. The judge invariably met all objections, from his lawyer, Svetlana Sidorkina, and human rights activists, by quoting a statement from the detention centre, stating that Topekhin’s temperature and blood pressure were normal and he had no psychosomatic disorders, therefore he could participate in the session. Or she would otherwise read out some document, according to which, Topekhin has “adjustive behaviour.” Or crudely speaking, that he is pretending. It is not his paraparesis, but the accompanying severe pain that is preventing him from taking part in the proceedings.

During one of the short breaks, they bring in jars of baby puree. They have been brought to the jail, along with nappies, by members of the Public Oversight Commission. The spoon is too big; it can’t fit through the opening of the jar. Topekhin, however, eats ravenously from the other end of the utensil.

Justice Neverova drives on with the proceedings, trying not to be distracted by such trifling things. She is clearly not intending to come down here for a second time. She consecutively rejects all requests, including those for the summoning of witnesses and for the possibility of Topekhin to acquaint himself with the case files. At the end of the proceedings, the exhausted defendant declines to participate in the deliberations. In his final statement, he says that he is sick, and does not consider himself guilty.

The judge needs only ten minutes for sentencing, which only seems feasible in the event that, a draft, let us say, has been prepared in advance. Guilty, six years in a penal colony. There and then the civil case is put to rest. The satisfied victim learns that ten million rubles will be transferred to them from Topekhin’s frozen account. But Topekhin himself will be transferred to some zone or other: there are no ambulances for the bedridden, but there are wagons.

Svetlana Sidorkina, lawyer for Vladimir Topekhin:

My first visual impression on meeting the defendant was of a thirty-something elderly man. An unkempt, bearded skeleton covered with skin, a hoarse voice, and the smell of a body that hasn’t been washed for a long time, mingled with the smell of drugs.

From his earliest days in jail, Topekhin had experienced constant pain in his back, head, and burning agony around his lower back due to a spinal injury. He only managed to sleep when his fellow inmates were able to give him painkillers. His cellmates helped him to get up out of bed and walk to the toilet or the table. Despite numerous complaints, the medics at Butyrka only turned their attention to Topekhin when he lost consciousness and, after hitting the floor hard, he lost the ability to move his left leg, then the right, and was subsequently paralysed throughout his entire lower body.

From that moment, all he could do by himself was defecate. He had to feel with his hands to detect the presence of urine or faeces as he could not feel the urge to defecate. Nappies are not permitted in the detention centre, so the only solution was to use any rags that could be found. Topekhin’s state of health was kept hidden from his relatives; his letters for them were not passed on. His relatives knew only that he was in Butyrka.

His cellmates simultaneously pitied and hated him, as sharing a room with a bed-ridden patient makes conditions in jail doubly strenuous. He yielded to making what arrangements he could with his cellmates in exchange for caring for him.

They were forced to take care of him in the prison hospital when Topekhin contracted hepatitis C, with trophic ulcers on his legs, upon which he could barely walk.

The final nail in the coffin of Topekhin’s agony was the attempt to transfer him to the Tverskoy district court for his hearing in October last year. They grabbed him by his arms and legs and dragged him, in his pyjamas, through every level of the detention centre from the beginning to the assembly. While doing this, they simply threw him, on his aching back, onto the floor, whenever they needed to open a door. They struck his head several times on the stairs while carrying him. The pain was unbearable and he shouted, only making his carriers angry. On the assembly, Topekhin was stripped naked and pricked all over his body with conventional medical needles, so as to prove he wasn’t pretending.

He was bundled into a paddy wagon, in a small compartment with bars, and was, to his horror, planted sharply on a seat. It was, in his words, the worst pain he had experienced in his life. He cried and could not remember at what moment he had fainted from the pain. He was woken by bright light; they were filming him, it is unclear why. He heard them saying to him: “You’ve made your point.” They didn’t take him to court. They dragged him out of the paddy wagon and threw him, still in his pyjamas, onto the cold ground. He lay on the ground for a long time, until people came for him and moved him to a room to lie on the top bunk. When they shifted him off this bunk onto a stretcher, they failed to steady him and he fell onto the floor, striking his back hard. He only regained consciousness two days after this impact. The first thing he noticed was that he had lost sensation in the right side of his body, and could not move his hand. Then followed a heart attack, pneumonia (coughing, chest pain and a temperature,) and everything got worse and worse… So, Topekhin entered Butyrka on his own feet, and was moved from Butyrka to Matrosskaya Tishina while semiconscious on a stretcher.