Understanding criminal cases in Russia : part 1


This article is the first in a two-part series exploring the mechanics and motives of criminal investigations in Russia.

Criminal cases play a major role in commercial and political disputes in Russia. A range of law enforcement agencies and government bodies have the power to open criminal cases and start investigations. When considering the impact of a criminal case, legal counsel must seek to understand who is behind the enquiry and all its possible motives. A probe launched by the regional tax police could have far different implications to an investigation by the FSB (successor to the KGB).

Most criminal investigations in Russia are undertaken by the police with the oversight of a legally trained investigator who is employed by the Interior Ministry but is subordinate to the Prosecutor General’s Office. But the Federal Customs Service, the Federal Fire Service, military commanders, the FSB and the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation (the ‘IC’) also have the authority to launch criminal investigations. FSB and IC investigations are the most serious.

The IC was spun out of the Prosecutor General’s Office in 2011 and is Russia’s main anti-corruption agency. Russians know it as SledKom; in the West it is often referred to as the Russian FBI. It operates independently of the Prosecutor General and is directly answerable to the President. Since formation in 2011 it has been headed by Aleksandr Bastrykin, a university classmate of Vladimir Putin.

There are frequent reports of infighting and power struggles between investigating agencies. In the extreme this has led to raids of one another’s offices. In July 2016 the FSB arrested the deputy head of Moscow’s IC branch. Some observers characterised the raid as a wider attempt by the FSB to expand its investigative powers at the expense of the IC. It is not unusual for an investigation by one agency to be shelved citing lack of evidence while another agency initiates a probe into the same issue.

In the context of extradition, English courts are responsive to these issues and legal counsel should be too. Last month the Westminster Magistrates’ Court refused a request to extradite a Russian businessman having found him to be a “pawn” in a corporate battle who would face “a flagrantly unfair trial” if he were sent home.

The complexities of the system often leave English-language press grasping to identify which agency is behind an investigation, bypassing the issue with the words ‘Russian authorities’ or ‘Russian prosecutors’. But the fact is the who and why are critical to assessing the seriousness for those under investigation and the objectives of their adversaries.

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