Dispatch

The Wheels of Injustice Grind Slowly

Why did the Kremlin once again postpone the verdict in the trial of Russia's No. 1 dissident?

MOSCOW When journalists showed up to hear the judge read the long-awaited verdict in the case of jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, they found a note on the courthouse door. The reading of the verdict, it said, would be postponed. It was still early in the morning, though, and the note -- unsigned and typewritten -- seemed like it could easily be fake. This was, after all, the denouement of a highly politicized, hyper-publicized trial, both in Russia and abroad. So one of the puzzled journalists called Khodorkovsky's lawyer, Genrikh Padva, who had not yet heard of the note's existence. "I might have expected this," he said. "But no one warned me about it ahead of time."

By the time Padva got to the courthouse, there was a scrum of reporters and elderly Khodorkovsky supporters by the door. They swarmed him, demanding an explanation. "Apparently the court just didn't have enough time to write the verdict," the lawyer explained. He also had not gotten an official explanation (just an official version of the note on the door) but Padva and the rest of the legal team tried to play it down. This happens all the time, they said. Only Khodorkovsky's father, Boris, had a more probing -- and Russian -- explanation: After the delay, he said, "a lot fewer people will come" for the actual verdict.

The date was April 27, 2005.

Five and a half years later, on December 15, journalists awaited another Khodorkovsky verdict; the scene was almost identical, with a few names and details changed around. It was a different Moscow courthouse and a different case in question, this one brought in 2007 when Khodorkovsky and his partner Platon Lebedev were just about to be up for parole. The new charges alleged that the two stole all the oil their company Yukos ever produced and then laundered the ill-begotten proceeds. (The first case was that they neglected to pay taxes on this laundered oil money. The apparent contradiction between these two cases has yet to be explained.)

Just as in 2005, a mass of journalists and supporters arrived early in the morning (this one sub-zero) to get seats in the courtroom. And once again, they found an unsigned, typewritten note taped to the courtroom door, informing them that the verdict would now be read on Dec. 27, when most of them -- and most of the people watching and reading about the case abroad -- would be away on winter vacation. And, as before, the lead lawyer (now Vadim Klyuvgant), expressed a weary frustration: "I just heard there's a piece of paper hanging there, with no explanation, not even to me," he said in a phone conversation on his way to court, "This is not the most unexpected scenario."

There was no explanation from the court this time, either, and Khodorkovsky's legal team attributed the delay, once again, to a procrastinating judge. "The judge didn't have enough time to finish writing the decision," Klyuvgant said later. "What can I say?" He and his team refused to speculate on just why a judge who had six weeks to prepare a decision appears more like a stressed college sophomore who sends a twelfth-hour pleading email to his professor about computer problems. "I'm an attorney! Stop asking me provocative questions!" Klyuvgant barked when pressed.

This left the explanation, once again, to Khodorkovsky's parents. This time, it was his mother, Marina, who broke it down. "This was all done on purpose," she told reporters. "Many journalists and politicians planned to come to court. And when you move everything close to New Year's, everyone will be gone."

She has a point. A verdict in a Russian court is not a quick, decisive paragraph, but a lengthy rehashing of the entire trial, as well as a delivery of the sentencing. The ruling is not clear until the end, though delivering a verdict can take weeks of deadly, monotonous reading from the bench. (At a press conference yesterday, Klyuvgant noted that the judge, Viktor Danilkin, is "a professional." That is, he reads really, really fast, "almost like a tongue-twister.") Given that the decision in this case -- as in the first one -- has long ago been decided in the Kremlin rather than within the courthouse walls, it's strange that Danilkin would need extra time to finish writing a pre-decided decision.

What Danilkin really needs is time for the people who are interested in reporting and reading about his pre-fab verdict to be less interested, like when they are skiing in the Alps or sunbathing in Thailand or getting chronically drunk over the holidays. (When the first verdict was postponed, the Kremlin needed time to host foreign leaders like George W. Bush for the 60th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany. Why give the foreigners cause to complain on such a sacred day?) People are already starting to leave Moscow for the winter break, and many of them won't return until the country gets back to full-time mode on January 10. By then, they'll come back to find that nothing's changed -- that Khodorkovsky is, as always, guilty in perpetuity. And if there was any question on that matter, there are rumors circulating that there is a third set of charges being prepared.

If any more proof were needed that justice and politics in Russia is all form and no content, it came in today's statement from the court's spokeswoman, Natalia Vasilieva. Someone asked her for an explanation and, unintentionally echoing Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov's infamous quote that the Russian parliament "is not a place for discussion," Vasilieva answered with a familiar herniation of the state's disdainful subconscious. "The court does not explain itself," she said outside the courthouse, and quickly ducked back inside.

DMITRY KOSTYUKOV/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Strange Days, Indeed

Scenes from Julian Assange's WikiCircus in London.

Julian Assange won two victories in London today. First, of course, there was the matter of his bail, which was granted by a British judge -- pending an appeal by the Swedish government, which wants to extradite Assange on sexual assault charges. The Wikileaks founder surrendered himself to police a week ago, and has been in jail since.

His second victory, however, may have been more important, if less tangible. I witnessed it a few minutes before 3:30 p.m., Greenwich mean time, outside the Westminster Magistrates' Court, where I was uncomfortably squeezed amid dozens of news photographers, reporters, and producers from around the world -- representatives of the old media in all its myriad forms. Suddenly a great whooping went up from a huddle of the Assange faithful across the street, penned in by wary police officers and metal barricades."He got bail!" someone shouted.

This was the news everyone had been waiting for -- and it came not from any of the media organizations camped outside the courthouse perimeter, but from one of the twentysomething demonstrators following the court proceedings via Twitter on a mobile phone. As soon as the cheers quieted, a TV newsman turned to face the camera and relayed the news, citing Twitter as his source. The implication couldn't have been clearer if Assange himself had scripted it: The WikiLeaks model of information distribution -- an unmediated firehose, arriving via many outlets and with zero vetting -- had triumphed. The old media, as it had been since WikiLeaks first began dumping heaps of U.S. government documents into the public domain this summer, was adrift in a world suddenly run by computer science majors.

I had arrived at the courthouse -- arguably the least architecturally impressive one in London, located between Westminster Cathedral and the Thames -- a few minutes after noon to find the hearing room already packed. "You could do something to get extradited," a television cameraman cheerfully suggested, when I asked how to get inside. "Or show up drunk." The press photographers, with their cigarettes, tiny coffee cups, and North Face jackets, lined up in the middle of Horseferry Road, facing the courthouse. They were joined at first by just a handful of protesters; many more arrived later, after the police finished barricading both sides of the road, segregating the press on the north side from the protest on the south side.

Aside from the few protesters who'd shown up early, the dozens of reporters on hand had no one to interview and no pictures to take. Out of habit, the journalists shoved and jostled one another. It was, as one newswoman put it, "a shit fight -- a quality shit fight." Throughout the afternoon, I watched TV reporters perform multiple takes of the same stand-up, dutifully reporting the non-news in various languages. The sign-offs, invariably, went something like this: "One thing is clear: the intense worldwide media interest in the case of Julian Assange will continue. His fate, however, is unknown."

There was some jealous grumbling that the Sunshine Coast Daily, a 22,000-circulation paper in Queensland, Australia, had scooped the world by publishing Assange's statement from jail. Rubbing salt in the wound, one of the paper's reporters had apparently accompanied Assange's mother into the courtroom. Outside, everyone else waited amid the millions of dollars of broadcasting equipment. "This is really when you want to have Twitter," a TV reporter said to her camera-toting colleague. "To know what's going on."

In the information-starved environment of a media scrum, the arrival of an important-looking outsider can spark a stampede. Twice I was nearly crushed by the camera mob as it swarmed around a person entering the courtroom. Once, I recognized the face at the center of the scrum: John Pilger, the documentary filmmaker who has made himself an apostle of Assange's information revolution. ("That mindset that only authority can really determine the truth on the news, that's a form of embedding that really now has to change," he told a reporter elsewhere on Tuesday.) It was an odd sight: News organizations that could no longer properly fund a bureau in Baghdad throwing their limited resources at a mad scramble for soundbites from a man predicting their extinction.

Occasionally, protesters tried to take advantage of the information vacuum. At one point, a man wearing a police-style fluorescent vest -- stamped instead with "POLITE" across the back -- planted himself next to the wall of photographers and began rambling into a bullhorn. After the real police shooed him from the sidewalk, he began heckling the media from across the street.

"Look at all these press people!" he said. "Highly intelligent people, afraid to say what they really think!"

He was half right -- at least there was more life on the protesters' side of Horseferry Road. The crowd numbered a few dozen and was notably younger and more bohemian than the relatively straight-laced press pack. The protesters' chants -- "Exposing war crimes is no crime!" "Free Julian now!" -- provided the afternoon's only soundtrack. Their signs variously labeled Assange "Australian of the year," a "political prisoner," and the personification of "truth."

It was an item of gospel truth among the pro-Assange demonstrators that the charges against him, based on the testimony of two women in Sweden who wound up in bed with him (separately) after a seminar last December, were part of a conspiracy of one sort or another. "I strongly believe this man is innocent," declared David McCann, a self-described independent protester who was standing alone at the courthouse when I arrived.

"I'll tell you, it's the Freemasons," McCann added, growing more animated. "They're all ganging up on him." Shutting down Wikileaks was just the beginning, he explained; the Freemasons were out to control the whole Internet. This was why he didn't have faith in the traditional news media: "Because a great many of the proprietors are Freemasons," he said with authority.

McCann's lecture was soon interrupted by a policeman, who grabbed him by the arm and shoved him down the length of the sidewalk, away from the courthouse. Later, I found him across the street, giving interviews. "He just ripped the button off my jacket," he was telling two cameramen. "Twisted my ankle." A man who'd been listening to McCann handed me his high-end digital camera and asked if I would take his picture with the protester. "I'm a journalist," he told me when I returned his camera. He said he'd come all the way from Libya.

As the afternoon wore on, the protest gained numbers but lost energy. I came upon a demonstrator wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, signaling his allegiance to Anonymous, the online hackers' community that launched Operation Payback, a campaign of retribution for the attempts to stifle WikiLeaks. "I think it is a complete setup," he said of Assange's charges. The timing "just seems a bit too dodgy," he said, "and we Anonymous think so as well." A young Austrian woman arrived with a sign that read: "Assange: Honey Trapped In Sweden." Another protester carried a hand-written cardboard sign that said, simply, "I am Assange." I didn't quite understand the symbolism of the blindfold he was wearing.

For good, or more likely ill, Assange and his organization are now at the center of what could become a defining First Amendment case, if its protagonist is ever extradited and charged in the United States. But it is awfully difficult to find any heroes in this story. WikiLeaks is shady, unethical, and amoral; its enemies in the United States and other governments aren't much better. And the crowd chanting "Free Julian!" outside the courthouse and the media dutifully recording it from across the street seemed to encapsulate the new, fragmented information landscape in which this drama is unfolding: No one knew the whole story, and many of them wouldn't have been much interested in it if they had found it, preferring their own version of the events at hand. The WikiLeaks faithful brought a lot of signs to the protest, but none of them were particularly hopeful.

Oli Scarff/Getty Images