Witnesses for the Prosecution Surprise Navalny

May 16, 2013
Alexey Navalny

The trial of Aleksey Navalny in the Kirovles case resumed in Kirov on Wednesday. Judge Sergei Blinov heard the testimonies of 12 witnesses. Although they were all announced on the side of the prosecution, their testimonies frequently sounded as though they were in favor of Navalny. The opposition leader himself was puzzled after the hearing as to why his case has still not been returned to the prosecutor’s office.

After a 19-day break, the agitation around the case of Alexey Navalny has quieted down – no more than 30 journalists gathered outside the Lenin District Court building in Kirov before the opening of the session. A woman who had been making a list for entry to the trial since its opening on April 17 now casually reassured those who gathered: “Form a line now. There will not be any lists. We will let everybody in, don’t worry.” In order to gain entry to the first sessions of the Kirovles case, reporters and photographers got in line overnight, six or seven hours before the opening of the trial.

On Tuesday, the session began with Navalny’s lawyer making a request for the judge to issue a private determination regarding the Interior Ministry in Kirov, due to a search that took place on the night of 8 May into the early hours of the morning of 9 May at Navalny’s political headquarters in Kirov.

The police explained their attention to the building on Orlov Street by saying they were looking for extremist materials (under this pretext, the newspaper Za Navalny! [For Navalny] was confiscated, with a print run of 100,000, which supporters were planning to distribute in post office boxes in the city.)  Police also went into the lawyer’s office at the headquarters and thus violated Navalny’s right to legal defense, according to his attorney, Olga Mikhailova. Under a ruling by the Constitutional Court of 8 August, 2005, entry by third parties to law offices can be made only by court order, making the actions of the Kirov police who broke into the headquarters unlawful. “This is evidence of an attempt to pressure lawyers and requires an immediate reaction on the part of the presiding [judge],” Mikhailova stated in her petition.

Although they admitted that what had happened violated the rights of attorneys, the prosecutors dismissed Mikhailova’s petition, explaining that it “has no relationship to the subject of this proceeding.” Judge Sergei Blinov agreed with this position, adding that Navalny’s defense had not provided any proof that the search had taken place, and that the judge himself did not know anything about what had happened.

After this, Judge Blinov began to hear the testimonies of the witnesses for the prosecution. On Tuesday, 12 people spoke in court, only one of whom was not related to the lumber business in Kirov region. The majority of the witnesses for the prosecution in Navalny’s case were directors of lumber businesses that were branches of the Kirovles regional enterprise who, according to the investigation’s claim, had suffered from Navalny’s actions.

Navalny was accused of coercing directors of lumber businesses in 2009 to sign contracts that were disadvantageous to them with the Vyatsk Lumber Company, which belonged to his acquaintance Peter Ofitserov, and which led to the embezzlement of 16 million rubles. The bulk of the charges are built on the testimonies of Vyacheslav Opalev, former head of Kirovles, who made a deal with the investigators to plead guilty to the misappropriation of property in an organized group, and was last year handed a conditional sentence of four years.

Sergei Shcherchkov, deputy chairman of the regional government was the first witness questioned on Tuesday. Shcherchkov, who has held this position since 2009, described how Navalny could not have controlled the activity of Kirovles because he was not an official, and had only fulfilled the assignment of Nikita Belykh, the governor of the region, in reorganizing the work of the enterprise. Therefore, Navalny would not have been able to create special terms for Kirovles and forgive its overdue rent payments, for example (although Opalev claimed the opposite). By the time Navalny went to Kirov and began work in the post of advisor to the government, the enterprise was already in severe financial trouble. “There were a fairly large number of reasons for this. The main reason was the world financial crisis and the lack of a market for lumber production,” Shcherchkov explained.

According to Shcherchkov, when Opalev was director of Kirovles, he repeatedly asked Governor Belykh and representatives of his administration to organize sales for his production. It was recommended that he begin trading with the Vyatsk Lumber Company. Even so, there were no meetings attended by Opalev, Shcherchkov, Belykh and Navalny at which sales between Kirovles and the Vyatsk Lumber Company were discussed. “That was not related to the issues of the lumber enterprise, therefore these questions were not raised at the meetings,” said Shcherchkov. He also said that he did not know if Navalny had received any presents, money or any other form of compensation from the Vyatsk Lumber Company.

Chin in hand, the prosecutor thoughtfully listened to Shcherchkov’s explanations. Shcherchkov’s testimony was the least like any other testimony for the prosecution. Moreover, the bureaucrat said that he was not aware that any of the directors of lumber businesses had complained to him that Ofitserov’s firm was causing damage to Kirovles. But there were several dozen such witnesses for the prosecution from among the heads of lumber yards. After Shcherchkov’s testimony, the court began their questions.

The testimonies of the directors of the lumber yards differed little from each other. They were mainly middle-aged people who had once headed branches of Kirovles, and could not recall what exactly they had said to investigators, and sometimes did not recall whether they had spoken to the prosecutors at all. As a result, the prosecutor asked the court to read out their testimonies. The defense asked that first they be allowed to question the witnesses; however, the court fulfilled the prosecution’s request.

The prosecutor approached the bench, took the files he needed and tried to read all the testimonies of the director of one of the lumber businesses provided to them at the investigation stage. Svetlana Davydova, Pyotr Ofitserov’s lawyer, objected to the fact that the prosecution was trying to read the entire text of the testimonies, and not the parts that had caused difficulty for the witness. Finally, the prosecutor agreed with the defense to read just excerpts from the text. The procedure was then repeated almost without change for each of the witnesses, with the same type of questions from the prosecution, so that many of those who had gathered in the court room from Navalny’s support group who had come to Kirov on the night train began to grow bored and nod off.

The really interesting things surfaced at the hearing only when it was the turn of the defense and the accused to ask questions of the witnesses. For example, Navalny read an excerpt of an interview with the Director of the Podosinov lumber yard, in which she had said she considered the Kirovles case to be political. At the trial, the director tried to refrain from explanations in this regard, saying that it was her “personal opinion.” But when the prosecutor read back her testimony regarding possible harm from the Kirovles sales to the Vyatsk lumber yard, she said that she could only confirm it partially, because her lumber yard supplied an insignificant amount of lumber to Ofitserov’s firm.

Another witness, the Director of the Kotelny lumber yard, said that it would be a “paradoxical thing” if there was any hypothetical demands to give lumber to one of the contracting agents for free. The director of the Vyatsk lumber yard said that he had sold the Vyatsk Lumber Company only 250 cubic meters of lumber and completely painlessly ceased his relationship with Ofitserov’s firm, since there was no order to do business with him. The director of the Nagorsk lumber yard said that there were only a few deliveries to Vyatsk Lumber Company, and that they had paid satisfactorily for all the lumber. (“That’s just wonderful!” Svetlana Davydova, Ofitserov’s attorney commented in reaction to this testimony from the witness for the prosecution.)

The head of the Yuriya lumber yard stated that he regarded cooperation with the Vyatsk Lumber Company (VLC) to be unprofitable for Kirovles since its prices were lower than average. He added that for him, as the director, “it was profitable to cooperate with the Vyatsk Lumber Company since otherwise, the production would have rotted.”Catching a contradiction, Navalny asked, “Have I understood correctly that you regarded cooperation with the VLC neutrally or positively?” The director thought for a moment. Then after a long pause he signed despairingly: “Well, there was only a little of it [lumber] there.”

Even if the heads of the lumber yards had stated that they did not receive enough money from the Vyatsk Lumber Company and had suffered losses from Ofitserov’s company, the pointed questions of the accused forced them to concede that the money they had not received could have been lodged in Kirovles itself, through which all the finances passed, as well as the fact that the exorbitant cost of transporting the lumber could have been connected with Kirovles’ logistical problems in assigning the orders for shipping lumber among various branches.

On the second half of the fourth day, when the questioning of the parade of directors of lumber yards began to provoke feelings of deja vu, the session unexpectedly ended when Judge Blinov called a recess until 9:00 a.m. Thursday. As he came outside, Alexey Navalny told journalists that the latest dozen witnesses for the prosecution compelled him to wonder why the case was still being heard by the court.