False Confessions and Coerced Incriminations
Alexey Pichugin was prosecuted and convicted in two court cases, both of which were not only procedurally flawed and marred with human rights violations, but were also based on coerced “layered hearsay” testimony (much of which was later officially recanted) and fabricated evidence.
The prosecution’s case in Mr. Pichugin’s first trial rested largely on testimony provided by Igor Korovnikov. Mr. Korovnikov was a convicted serial killer from the Tambov region, serving a life prison term for a series of rapes and murders committed in 1998/1999. In 2003, he suddenly “recalled” his involvement in the 1998 attacks on Mr. Victor Kolesov and Ms. Olga Kostina, commissioned by third parties who allegedly had told him that Mr. Pichugin had ordered the attacks. He also “remembered” an in-person conversation from 1999 with Mr. Pichugin during which Mr. Pichugin allegedly asked him to murder Sergey Gorin and his wife Olga, although he later was unable to identify Mr. Pichugin in a photo array, and had to be shown his photograph alone.
Mr. Korovnikov’s testimony was colorful and at times subject to change. In one instance, when his accounts had changed again, Mr. Korovnikov explained that his future was now “in the hands of the President of Russia.” Meanwhile, when Mr. Pichugin’s counsel attempted to cross-examine Mr. Korovnikov to get to the bottom of his changing recollection of events, the judge cut off questioning – a circumstance that ultimately led the European Court of Human Rights to rule that Mr. Pichugin’s rights to a fair trial had been violated.
Several other key witnesses on which the prosecution relied in both of Mr. Pichugin’s trials have subsequently admitted that they had been coerced by Russian authorities to incriminate Mr. Pichugin.
Among them was Alexey Peshkun, who had implicated Mr. Pichugin in the Kolesov and Kostina attacks, saying that Mr. Gorin had asked him to intimidate Mr. Kolesov and Ms. Kostina at the request of Mr. Pichugin. Mr. Peshkun later retracted his statements in a hand-written and signed document in which he outlined that he had been coerced by investigators to provide false testimony against Mr. Pichugin.
Gennady Tzigelnik — who had implicated Messrs. Pichugin and Nevzlin in all the crimes he had been charged with along with the underlying charges in Mr. Pichugin’s second trial — later testified that he had written out a false confession and provided false testimony at the request of investigators who had offered him a reduced sentence for incriminating Messrs. Pichugin and Nevzlin.
Mikhail Ovsyannikov, who had implicated Mr. Pichugin in the murder of Valentina Korneyeva, later testified that he had been coerced into making incriminating statements against Messrs. Pichugin, Nevzlin and Khodorkovsky under threat of a higher prison sentence for himself, as well as under physical pressure, i.e. deprivation of medical treatment for an acute kidney condition during the interrogations.
Vladimir Shapiro and Evgeny Reshetnikov, who also testified against Messrs. Pichugin and Nevzlin, also later recanted and stated that they had been told by Russian investigators to falsely implicate Messrs. Pichugin and Nevzlin.
Viktor Kolesov, former head of the property management division at Rosprom, a Yukos-affiliated company, was assaulted by two armed unknown men on his way home from work in the evening of October 5, 1998. The perpetrators stole his watch and the cash he was carrying. Labeled an “armed robbery” at the time, the case was closed on December 1998 due to the lack of evidence.
The Russian General Procuracy revived the case in 2003 based on testimony provided by Mr. Korovnikov, the above-mentioned convicted serial killer, and reclassified it as “attempted murder.” Mr. Korovnikov claimed that in August 1998, he had been approached to beat up Mr. Kolesov. The hearsay-chain of command, as theorized by the prosecution, went as follows: Allegedly, Mr. Peshkun had asked Mr. Korovnikov to assault Mr. Kolesov at the request of Mr. Gorin, and either Mr. Gorin or Mr. Peshkun had told Mr. Korovnikov that Mr. Pichugin had ordered the hit. Mr. Pichugin, in turn, was said to have acted at Mr. Nevzlin’s request, who supposedly saw Mr. Kolesov’s career aspirations as a hindrance to his personal business interests.
Mr. Kolesov himself told the prosecution during a hearing that he did not consider the 1998 attack an attempt to kill him. He also testified that he was fully content in his job at Rosprom, had no higher career aspirations and did not personally know Mr. Nevzlin, who at the time of the 1998 incident served as Deputy Director at the news agency ITAR-TASS – not Yukos. There was no testimony corroborating the purported motive and Mr. Kolesov’s co-workers and superiors confirmed that he sought no promotions.
Ultimately, the jury in Mr. Pichugin’s trial found the 1998 incident to not have involved “attempted murder” but rather “banditism.”
On November 28, 1998 a small homemade explosive device detonated in the hallway outside Olga Kostina’s parents’ apartment, which was listed as one of her home addresses.
Ms. Kostina was, at the time, a functionary in the public relations department at Moscow City Hall. Years earlier, she had interned at Yukos. According to Ms. Kostina’s mother, the explosion did not damage the apartment door and nobody was injured.
Due to the lack of evidence, the investigation into the explosion was closed on January 29, 1999, but was reopened later in 1999 when Mr. Korovnikov implicated himself in the case. It was not until 2003 – almost four years later – when Russian authorities began their vedetta against Yukos – that Mr. Korovnikov implicated Mr. Pichugin and “remembered” his involvement.
Mr. Korovnikov himself was acquitted of the attempted murder of Ms. Kostina because an intent to kill could not be proven. In spite of this fact, Mr. Pichugin was still convicted for “attempted murder.” As with the Kolesov mugging, the alleged motive for the “attempted murder” of Ms. Kostina was an alleged dispute between her and Mr. Nevzlin – who at the time of the incident served as deputy director at the news agency ITAR-TASS. Meanwhile, there is no physical or other admissible evidence linking Mr. Pichugin to the explosion other than Mr. Korovnikov’s hearsay testimony.
On November 20, 2002, Sergey Gorin and his wife Olga disappeared from their home in the central-Russian town of Tambov.
A business man by trade, and associated with the local police in the City of Tambov, Mr. Gorin had briefly served as a senior manager at Bank Menatep. For at least three years before his disappearance in 2002, Mr. Gorin had been unemployed. Mr. Pichugin was friendly with the Gorins, and was the godfather of one of their children.
Mr. Gorin was notorious in the Tambov region for his organization of a pyramid scheme called “Algorithm” during the mid-1990s. Algorithm had gone out of business quickly, but it had cost roughly 9,000 people who had made investments through Mr. Gorin’s scheme significant amounts of money. He was also known to owe money to a number of people from Tambov, Moscow, and Volgograd. Several witnesses questioned during the investigation described Mr. Gorin as often using money borrowed from one person to pay off other outstanding debts, and using collected information about people as leverage in blackmail attempts.
The Gorins disappeared after a group of armed men reportedly stormed their house and locked the couple’s three minor children in the bathroom. They were not seen since, nor were their bodies found.
The prosecution argued, based once more on Mr. Korovnikov’s unsubstantiated testimony, that the Gorins were killed at Mr. Pichugin’s behest because Mr. Gorin could have implicated Mr. Pichugin in the other incidents in which he had been charged. However, once more, the prosecution did not produce any physical or other admissible evidence to corroborate Mr. Korovnikov’s testimony. A folder with alleged documents and a photograph of Mr. Nevzlin’s Mr. Korovnikov claimed to have deposited at his grandmother’s house was never found. Also, Mr. Korovnikov, who claimed to have met with Mr. Pichugin face to face in 1999 to discuss the murder of the Gorins, was unable to identify Mr. Pichugin’s face from a group of pictures presented to him. Notwithstanding, the supposed Korovnikov-Pichugin meeting in 1999, three years before the Gorins disappeared, Mr. Korovnikov did not claim to have been involved in the actual Gorin disappearance and there was no evidence at Mr. Pichugin’s trial of who was involved.
Meanwhile, before the anti-Yukos campaign began, investigators themselves had compiled a lengthy list of possible motives in the Gorin case that did not involve Mr. Pichugin or Yukos. Among them were explicit theories that the Gorins might have been abducted/killed by:
– construction workers to whom the couple owed money;
– former business associates or shareholders in “Algorithm”;
– debt holders;
– a criminal society run by a man named N. P. Kriukov, against whom Gorin had testified.
There are several other credible scenarios involving other possible perpetrators of this crime. There is evidence that Mr. Gorin was trying to raise a large sum of money on the day he disappeared. During a previous incident in 1999 when people from outside Tambov came to Mr. Gorin’s doorstep to collect outstanding debts but were forced to leave by local police, an eyewitness overheard one of the debt collectors saying that they would “settle things” with Mr. Gorin later. Mr. Gorin also associated with a criminal named Alexander Ladexin, who was nicknamed “Kaban.” During the 2002 home invasion, of the Gorin children overhead one of the invaders addressing someone via cellphone as “Kaban.”
Mr. Pichugin’s name did not come up in the context of the Gorins’ disappearance until the spring of 2003, when the anti-Yukos campaign began to gain steam. However, in spite of a clear lack of an evidentiary basis, Mr. Pichugin was found guilty and sentenced.
The second case against Mr. Pichugin involved a number of co-defendants who claimed to have committed the underlying crimes. The “confessors” further stated that third parties had told them that the crimes were commissioned by Messrs. Pichugin at the behest of Mr. Nevzlin. The above-mentioned Messrs. Tzigelnik, Ovsyannikov, Shapiro and Reshetnikov later recanted their implication of Mr. Pichugin and Mr. Nevzlin and confirmed that they had been to coerced by Russian authorities to falsely incriminate the two.
Mr. Pichugin was accused of organizing two alleged attempts on Evgeny Rybin, a Russian business man and executive manager of Austria-based “East Petroleum Handels GmbH.”
The first alleged attempt on Mr. Rybin’s life took place on November 24, 1998 when Mr. Rybin left a friend’s house and a gunman fired at him and his bodyguard. The friend was the then Yukos-EP Vice President, for whom Mr. Rybin provided contract services. During the second incident on March 5, 1999, Mr. Rybin’s driver was killed and two bodyguards were injured when a bomb detonated in the road as Mr. Rybin’s car drove over it and masked gunmen opened fire on the passengers.
According to the prosecution, Mr. Pichugin – allegedly through Mr. Gorin – had contracted Mr. Tzigelnik and others to carry out the attacks on Mr. Rybin.
The prosecution argued that Yukos – and specifically Mr. Nevzlin – had a motive to attack Mr. Rybin (and thus enlist Mr. Pichugin to organize the attacks) based on arbitration claims Mr. Rybin had filed in a commercial dispute with Yukos. This despite evidence that Yukos itself had encouraged Mr. Rybin to make his claims to resolve the dispute.
Rather than producing credible testimony or physical evidence connecting Mr. Nevzlin or Pichugin to the attacks, the prosecution offered and the court relied on unsupported opinion evidence in the form of Mr. Rybin’s assertions that Mr. Nevzlin “must have been” behind the attacks, as well as his attorney’s suppositions that he “believed” Mr. Nevzlin had orchestrated the crimes. The prosecution also relied on the later recanted testimony of Mr. Tzigelnik to the effect that others had told him that Mr. Pichugin and Mr. Nevzlin were behind the underlying crimes.
The case file includes a letter from Mr. Pichugin dated April 30, 2004, stating that during a “line up proceeding” with Mr. Rybin, Mr. Rybin told Mr. Pichugin that the “power is now on my side” and that he would use political connections to convict Mr. Pichugin and Mr. Nevzlin. Mr. Rybin’s lawyers made a similar, prior threat to Mr. Nevzlin, demanding payment from Mr. Nevzlin or else they would utilize political connections to ensure a criminal case against him. That extortion attempt is evidenced by a July 21, 2003 letter from Mr. Nevzlin to authorities requesting that they open an investigation into Mr. Rybin. That letter was ignored.
Valentina Korneyeva, director and majority owner of “Phoenix TC LLP”, which owned a small portion of a building in Moscow that housed a tea store, was shot and killed in the hallway of her apartment building in Moscow on January 21, 1998.
The prosecution’s theory was that Ms. Korneyeva’s alleged refusal to transfer her tea store space to Bank Menatep became the motive for bank management to conspire to have Ms. Korneyeva killed. Bank Menatep, which was associated with Yukos leadership including Messrs. Nevzlin and Khodorkovsky, allegedly had plans to buy the tea store space as part of a building reconstruction plan for said building the adjacent one. According to the charging documents, negotiations with Ms. Korneyeva went nowhere, leading Mr. Pichugin to offer $80,000 to Mr. Gorin, who in turn offered $5,000 each to Messrs. Ovsyannikov and Shapiro for the murder of Ms. Korneyeva. Both Mr. Gorin and Mr. Ovsyannikov allegedly assisted Mr. Shapiro, who ultimately shot Ms. Korneyeva in front of her husband, who remained uninjured.
Messrs. Ovsyannikov and Shapiro testified that Mr. Gorin had told them that Mr. Pichugin had told Mr. Gorin that Mr. Nevzlin had commissioned the murder. This layered hearsay constituted the basis for the case against Mr. Pichugin in the Korneyeva murder. There was no other witness directly linking Mr. Pichugin to the deed nor was any physical evidence or direct testimony presented that would have implicated Mr. Pichugin. The “confessors” later recanted their testimony and stated that they had been coerced by Russian authorities to incriminate Messrs. Nevzlin and Pichugin.
Meanwhile, there is no physical evidence linking supposed “confessor” Mr. Shapiro to the murder, casting doubt on whether he was actually involved in the shooting. Crime scene photos contradicted Mr. Shapiro’s description of his alleged deed: When reenacting the murder for investigators, Mr. Shapiro indicated that he shot Ms. Korneyeva in the back of her head. However, the evidence, including crime scene photos, as well as post-mortem examination records indicate that she was in fact shot in the face, above her eyebrow. Furthermore, Mr. Korneyeva, who had been with his wife when she was shot, had described the killer as a young man, but Mr. Shapiro was already in his forties at the time of the crime.
Curiously, during the investigation, Mr. Korneyeva had stated that he did not think he could positively identify the man who shot his wife. Then, in October 2004, almost seven years after the incident, Mr. Korneyeva positively identified Mr. Shapiro as the shooter — in spite of the fact that Mr. Shapiro’s appearance differed from Mr. Korneyeva’s contemporaneous description of the killer’s physical attributes.
V. Petukov, the mayor of the town of Nefteyugansk was shot and killed while walking outside his own home in the morning hours of June 26, 1998. His bodyguard, who was with him at the time, survived with critical injuries.
The prosecution argued that Messrs. Nevzlin and other unidentified Yukos executives conspired with Mr. Pichugin to have Mr. Petukov killed. According to the charging papers, Mr. Pichugin, once more acting under alleged orders from Mr. Nevzlin, enlisted Mr. Gorin to find a group of hitmen to carry out the deed. Mr. Gorin supposedly then turned to Messrs. Reshetnikov, Tzigelnik and Goritovsky for the crime, which was to be overseen by Mr. Shapiro.
The underlying motive, according to the prosecution, was a tax dispute between the town of Nefteyugansk and Yukos, in which the company had allegedly failed to pay taxes to the town. However, there is evidence that the dispute had been amicably settled the day before the mayor was killed. Overall, the first deputy mayor of Nefteyugansk testified that the town’s tax authorities regularly audited Yukos operations, and no debt was established. Meanwhile, witnesses have testified that the mayor himself had many conflicts with persons that had no affiliation with Yukos, including a dispute with an organized crime group known to resort to violence.
The prosecution again did not produce any direct evidence linking Mr. Pichugin to Mr. Petukov’s murder. The “confessors” to the crime, Messrs. Tzigelnik and Mr. Reshetnikov have since recanted their confessions and stated that Russian authorities coerced them to incriminate Messrs. Pichugin and Nevzlin.
Alexander Litvenenko, a former officer of the Russian FSB and KGB who is said to have later died of radioactive polonium-20 radiation poisoning administered by Russian authorities, supplied written sworn testimony, based on his personal knowledge, that Mr. Petukov was in fact killed by an FSB assassin, and not by anyone associated with Yukos.
The Petukov murder later became the basis for additional charges against Mr. Khodorkovsky after his brokered release from prison. Brought on as Yukos’s former shareholders initiated enforcement of the $50 billion Hulley judgment, Kremlin agents used the charges against Mr. Khodorkovsky relating to the Petukov murder as a pretext to search the apartments of Mr. Khodorkovsky’s staff at Open Russia, a civil society critical of Mr. Putin. Mr. Pichugin has since been pressured to provide false testimony against Mr. Khodorkovsky, and his refusal to do so has led to further harassment of his family, including the search of his brother’s and his elderly mother’s apartments.
Mr. Khodorkovsky has been granted asylum in the United Kingdom based on the Petukov-based charges against him, a recognition of the politically motivated nature of the case.