This work is an excel­lent exam­ple of an ongo­ing inves­ti­ga­tion. After all, while it is often dif­fi­cult to put an end to a good jour­nal­is­tic inves­ti­ga­tion, to con­sid­er it ful­ly com­plet­ed, authors rarely have the oppor­tu­ni­ty or desire to delve into a worked-out top­ic again, to fol­low fur­ther events relat­ed to it. Not in this case.

Alesya Marokhovskaya, a jour­nal­ist with ISto­ries, tells us how it all began. A col­league from Meduza, Ivan Gol­unov, called her. Ivan, who once almost went to jail because of a police provo­ca­tion, is nat­u­ral­ly close­ly watch­ing the tri­al of those who plant­ed drugs on him. He noticed in the case a strange wit­ness, with whom the cops were talk­ing like an old acquain­tance.  And, going deep­er into the case mate­ri­als, he found out that all the wit­ness­es and the cops real­ly knew each oth­er for years, and the wit­ness­es were even paid. More­over, read­ing oth­er ver­dicts, IvanI real­ized that his sit­u­a­tion is not unique. After that he asked Alesya, one of the few Russ­ian jour­nal­ists who had mas­tered pro­gram­ming for work­ing with big data, to check how things were going with so called “staff” or rent‑a mob wit­ness­es all over Moscow.

Marokhovskaya wrote a script that down­loaded all the ver­dicts relat­ing to the 12 drug abuse arti­cles in the Crim­i­nal Code from the Moscow City Court’s web­site. It yield­ed 56,000 doc­u­ments, from which anoth­er script was able to extract names and see which occur more often than in a sin­gle case. She designed a table with a per­son­’s name and the num­ber of doc­u­ments where that name appears. And then the jour­nal­ists start­ed read­ing the doc­u­ments and check­ing the role these peo­ple played, which took much more than a month. The result: they found 142 “staff” in Moscow. The authors of the inves­ti­ga­tion learnt that some of them had been pre­vi­ous­ly con­vict­ed or detained under the drug abuse arti­cles. Which made them essen­tial­ly depen­dent on the cops and ready to con­firm every­thing “that was nec­es­sary”. Final­ly, the jour­nal­ists had “only” to find wit­ness­es who would agree to talk. And they found them.

The first — Moscow — part of the inves­ti­ga­tion titled “I am a Wit­ness!” Who Helps Cops Fal­si­fy Crim­i­nal Cas­es on Drug Abus­es” by Alesya Marokhovskaya (ISto­ries), Ivan Gol­unov, (Meduza) was released in Feb­ru­ary and already received a high rat­ing from col­leagues — the “Redkollegiya”award. One can also view its video version

So, here we will ana­lyze and assess the sec­ond – Sama­ra region – part of the sto­ry pub­lished at the end of March (authors Alesya Marokhovskaya, Iri­na Dolin­i­na, ISto­ries). Actu­al­ly, it con­tin­ues from the point at which the Moscow inves­ti­ga­tion end­ed. And as it is always the case with ISto­ries one can not only read, but also watch the inves­ti­ga­tion, which makes the jour­nal­is­tic work even more convincing.

The Jour­nal­ists of ISto­ries went to Sama­ra to study on the spot how anoth­er tri­al is going on. The tri­al is unique in its way, since not only six for­mer drug con­trol police­men are accused of plant­i­ng drugs, tor­ture, fraud, and fram­ing up crim­i­nal cas­es for two years, from 2015 to 2017, but also 15 local res­i­dents – so called “staff” or rent-a-mob wit­ness­es who helped fal­si­fy cas­es by act­ing as false wit­ness­es and pro­cur­ers are in the dock. All of them, in the words of one of the vic­tims, as well as the vic­tims them­selves, are “expend­able mate­r­i­al” of the num­ber games sys­tem designed to show “effec­tive­ness” of the police and also used against the regime critics.

I Sto­ries reminds us that in Rus­sia, near­ly half a mil­lion peo­ple were con­vict­ed of drug sales and pos­ses­sion in the five years from 2015 to 2019. This is the most mas­sive arti­cle of the Crim­i­nal Code. Almost all of the vic­tims of the “Sama­ra case”, once detained by these oper­a­tives, are still serv­ing prison terms. At the moment they are try­ing to prove that they con­fessed under threats and that the cas­es against them were framed up by police­men and so called “wit­ness­es”. Jour­nal­ists were able to speak both with those who have already served their term and now act­ing as vic­tims and with those whose efforts put them in prison. 

Oleg Pokash­lev does not deny that he “occa­sion­al­ly used drugs”. He served his first term for car theft and worked as an elec­tri­cian when he was arrest­ed on drug charges. He tells the author of the inves­ti­ga­tion how he was detained. “When they take you there [to the police sta­tion], and there is no lawyer, no one — just a gang of five peo­ple — you know you won’t get out of there”, Pokash­lev recalls. — I said: “Draw me up the first part of it (arti­cle 228.1 of the Crim­i­nal Code — ille­gal drug pos­ses­sion) and they draw up sales laugh­ing: “We have noth­ing to do with pos­ses­sion. We either have sales or major sales”. Nat­u­ral­ly, I will sign what they say, only in a small­er amount. Why? I’m a con­vict­ed felon. Oth­er­wise, they’ll kick you and dis­fig­ure and you’ll sign not the first part [of arti­cle 228.1], but the third or the fourth (sale on a large or sig­nif­i­cant scale — Ed. note), or even the fifth (sale on an espe­cial­ly large scale — Ed. note).

Pro­gram­ming skills allowed the authors of the inves­ti­ga­tion to go beyond a sin­gle, albeit unique, crim­i­nal tri­al. After study­ing all the drug con­vic­tions in the Sama­ra region, jour­nal­ists dis­cov­ered that the “staff” wit­ness­es from the “Sama­ra case” were only a small part of the sys­tem used by oper­a­tives through­out the region. Tak­ing advan­tage of the fact that court clerks do not always remove wit­ness­es» names from ver­dicts, the jour­nal­ists ana­lyzed doc­u­ments with names and found 86 “reg­u­lar” wit­ness­es and buy­ers, who signed the pro­to­cols in 269 cases.

For the sake of clar­i­ty, the authors drew up a graph — a net­work of “staff” wit­ness­es. Most of them turned out to be relat­ed to each oth­er: their names appeared in var­i­ous com­bi­na­tions in the doc­u­ments of dif­fer­ent defen­dants. One “record-break­er” was brought in by the cops about 50 times.

Jour­nal­ists cite the ver­sion of the offi­cial “Sama­ra case” inves­ti­ga­tors, accord­ing to which, in exchange for sig­na­tures in the pro­to­cols and the nec­es­sary tes­ti­mo­ny in court, the drug-depen­dent wit­ness­es received mon­ey and drugs from the cops. In addi­tion, in exchange for their ser­vices the police offi­cers did not ini­ti­ate crim­i­nal pro­ceed­ings against them. The vic­tims remem­ber try­ing to draw the atten­tion of the judges to the “strange” behav­ior of the wit­ness­es. Thus, the moth­er of Alexan­der Sharo­mov, sen­tenced to 10 years in prison for drug traf­fick­ing, in her con­ver­sa­tion with ISto­ries men­tioned how dur­ing the break in the ses­sion on her son’s case one of the wit­ness­es, Alex­ey Mesch­eryakov, drank alco­hol on the bench, fell asleep and fell on the floor. The defense coun­sel brought this “inci­dent» to the atten­tion of the judge, but the inter­ro­ga­tion of the wit­ness con­tin­ued, and his tes­ti­mo­ny was accepted.

Dur­ing the inves­ti­ga­tion the jour­nal­ists failed to get an answer from the Kirov Dis­trict Court as to why the judges were not con­fused by the same wit­ness­es in dif­fer­ent cas­es. And already after the sto­ry was released, they received the answer from the court: “The judge is not oblig­ed to give any expla­na­tions on the mer­its of the cas­es con­sid­ered or pending”.

On the con­trary, Sergei Khra­novsky, a for­mer cop, now one of the defen­dants in the “Sama­ra case”, pre­ferred to explain him­self to jour­nal­ists, and emo­tion­al­ly. He did­n’t deny that he used “pro­fes­sion­al tricks” while col­lect­ing mate­ri­als on “these con­vict­ed per­sons”. He admit­ted fal­si­fi­ca­tions, but stressed that “every­one who was detained is a huck­ster, a drug deal­er, pre­vi­ous­ly con­vict­ed of a bunch of crimes”. In his opin­ion, it is unre­al to find “inde­pen­dent wit­ness­es” in such cas­es, much less the buy­ers. Khra­novsky, how­ev­er, denied that the police­men intim­i­dat­ed the wit­ness­es and nev­er beat or tor­tured the detainees in order to make them sign con­fes­sions. “Only occa­sion­al­ly”, “like any oth­er police­man”, he “would threat­en a buy­er to go and buy drugs from a sus­pect”. The vic­tims, how­ev­er, have a dif­fer­ent opin­ion. Their tes­ti­mo­ny, avail­able, as not­ed in the jour­nal­is­tic inves­ti­ga­tion at the dis­pos­al of ISto­ries, indi­cates that their con­fes­sions were knocked out of them with beat­ings, a bag on their heads, and threats of rape with a baton.

Andrei Zlenko, a for­mer police offi­cer who is now on tri­al, assured ISto­ries that such fal­si­fi­ca­tions and the use of “reg­u­lar” wit­ness­es is com­mon prac­tice, but he and his col­leagues were made scape­goats: “Yes, not every­thing was per­fect with the doc­u­ments then. Do you think they [the man­age­ment] did­n’t know about it? Every­body knew! All the boss­es are hap­py now, and we are here in court to take the rap for them”.

The men­tioned boss­es, as well as the inves­ti­ga­tors at the time, are wit­ness­es in the “Sama­ra case”. In their tes­ti­mo­ny, the heads of the Sama­ra depart­ment of the Min­istry of Inter­nal Affairs deny that any stan­dards (plans for arrests) were set before the cops – no num­ber games. Nobody forced them to tick the box­es. The boss­es speak high­ly of the pro­fes­sion­al­ism of their for­mer sub­or­di­nates insist­ing that the min­istry was not aware of any falsifications.

And here’s how anoth­er defen­dant and for­mer police­man Sergei Hra­novsky describes his ser­vice in an inter­view with ISto­ries: “The boss­es demand­ed that every week we arrest the hus­tler… The one who did more is the best…The sys­tem ate itself up, rep­re­sent­ed by us… Nev­er in my life will I go back to the police, because it’s all rot­ten… They make you tick the box­es every day… it does­n’t mat­ter how — go do it”. “I went there as a young kid from a nor­mal fam­i­ly, my rel­a­tives served in the police, — Hra­novs­ki con­tin­ues. — Hav­ing served for the state, I broke my life.… And yes, I framed up the cas­es — let us be con­demned for that! I want it to be over soon. I will take care of my chil­dren, so they don’t become drug addicts and nev­er go to work for the police in their lives”…

Search tech­nolo­gies used by the authors: writ­ing a script to work with big data; study­ing crim­i­nal case files and jour­nal­ists own sources.

Tech­niques used: analy­sis of the received infor­ma­tion and mate­ri­als of the crim­i­nal case; a series of inter­views with char­ac­ters and experts.

Expert Analy­sis and Assessment
Galina Sidorova
Gali­na Sidorova
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Pub­lic Value
100 /100
Entire­ty of the Investigation
95 /100
100 /100
95 /100
Reli­a­bil­i­ty of Sources
95 /100
100 /100
Strengths & Weaknesses
The spe­cial­ly designed script and pro­fes­sion­al work with big data, which allowed to present a broad and high-qual­i­ty analy­sis of the top­ic; a strong report­ing part; well writ­ten text; inter­est­ing info-graph­ics; mul­ti­me­dia, excel­lent video.
- A lack of expert opin­ion from among the judges.