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‘Do you know what memes are?’ Billionaire Alisher Usmanov's lawsuit against opposition leader Alexey Navalny goes to trial

Source: Meduza
Photo: Evgeny Feldman / Project “This Is Navalny”

On Tuesday, May 30, a Moscow court convened to consider the merits of a defamation lawsuit brought by billionaire businessman Alisher Usmanov against opposition politician Alexey Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK). Usmanov is demanding that Navalny retract multiple accusations he made in a recent investigation into corruption allegedly involving Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, as well as allegations Navalny has published on his website and Facebook page. According to FBK, Usmanov “donated” a mansion outside Moscow to “Sotsgosproekt” (a charity tied to people close to Medvedev), paid a bribe to Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, introduced censorship at the Kommersant Publishing House, and in the 1980s went to prison “either for rape or for fraud.” Meduza reviews the first hearing in this hotly anticipated trial.

Alisher Usmanov’s civil suit against Alexey Navalny got started 30 minutes late. The plaintiff — Usmanov — didn’t appear. Instead, he sent two of his lawyers, Heinrich Padva and Eleonora Sergeeva, who were the last people to enter the courtroom. Once everyone was seated, the bailiffs allowed photojournalists and TV cameramen to take a few pictures, while the other reporters had to watch from the corridor, where the proceedings were also broadcast.

Alexey Navalny, his attorney Ivan Zhdanov, and Vyacheslav Gimadi, a representative for the Anti-Corruption Foundation, asked Judge Vasina to allow a live broadcast from the courtroom. The plaintiffs did not object, but the judge nonetheless rejected the motion. “It’s the same thing every time,” Navalny told the court. “First the court refuses to allow a broadcast, then it says no to petitions, then it rejects our witness list, and then it says that I’m guilty.”

Generally speaking, Navalny wasn’t wrong. The judge then rejected all his motions, including a request to call Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as a witness.

Ivan Zhdanov argued that only Medvedev can confirm or deny the essence of Usmanov’s claim that he “donated” almost 7.5 acres of land and a mansion in a prestigious residential area known as “the Rublyovka” to the “Sotsgosproekt” charity. FBK says the value of Usmanov’s “gift” was 5 billion rubles ($88.4 million). Zhdanov pointed out that Medvedev was the chairman of the board of directors at the state-controlled corporation Gazprom at the time of the donation, when Usmanov managed Gazprom’s mining-assets acquisitions. In other words, Navalny’s lawyer said, Usmanov and Medvedev share a business relationship.

Navalny claimed that the hearings are meaningless if the court rejects his motion to call Medvedev as a witness. “I understand that this witness is a busy man with a complicated schedule, but in this trial Usmanov wants to refute our investigation into Medvedev, not defend his own interests,” he said.

Heinrich Padva called Navalny’s request “a political statement,” arguing, “First, there needs to be evidence and information presented that Medvedev is somehow related to the foundation, and only then can we consider calling him as a witness.” 

The court also ignored Navalny’s request to call to the stand Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, though Navalny insisted that only Shuvalov can refute FBK’s claims that he received a bribe from Usmanov. 

Navalny also asked the court to call as witnesses several other figures from FBK’s Medvedev investigation: Ilya Eliseev, the chairman of the supervisory board at the Sotsgosproekt Foundation, Alexey Chetvertkov, the foundation’s director, and Vitaly Golovachev, its founder. Navalny’s legal team said these people can explain the circumstances of Usmanov’s sizable donation in 2010.

After Judge Vasina denied all his motions again, Navalny accused her of depriving him of an opportunity to defend himself. “This trial is very similar to all the previous trials that I’ve already attended at this court. By the way, you’ll recall that I did win in one of your cases: it was the hot water case!”

Explaining why he accused Usmanov of censorship, Navalny asked the court to introduce into evidence an interview the businessman gave to the website, where Usmanov admitted that he fired the general director of Kommersant Publishing House, Andrey Galiev, and the chief editor of the magazine Kommersant-Vlast, Maxim Kovalsky, for political reasons in 2011. Once again, Judge Vasina said no.

When Navalny started on his 11th motion, the judge became noticeably agitated, telling the defendant to move more quickly and list his petitions all at once. Navalny and his lawyers asked the judge not to rush them, however, and they continued offering motions at the same pace. “What happened when you left the courtroom for a recess? A fire? Another hurricane? We’ve got a whole day of proceedings here, and nobody has asked to expedite things,” Navalny told the judge, moving on to his next request.

Navalny asked to introduce as evidence the testimony of the late oligarch Boris Berezovsky from a trial in Great Britain, where Berezovsky described how Medvedev, then the head of Gazprom, allegedly helped Usmanov create his own “illegal corrupt mining and refining empire.” The court denied this motion, too.

“How about we make another 200 exotic requests? Maybe we can summon Berezovsky’s ghost?” one of Usmanov’s lawyers teased Navalny’s team.

“I’d settle for the living Usmanov,” Navalny answered.

Only by about 1 o’clock in the afternoon, three hours after the hearing got underway, did the judge read out Usmanov’s lawsuit, which cited roughly a dozen different publications calling into question his honor and dignity. The evidence included Navalny’s investigation into Dmitry Medvedev; an interview Navalny gave to Ekho Moskvy, where he described data uncovered by FBK showing links between the Sotsgosproekt Foundation and people close to Medvedev; several of Navalny’s Facebook posts about the bribe Usmanov allegedly paid to Igor Shuvalov; and Navalny’s accusation that Usmanov introduced censorship at Kommersant.

Usmanov wants the court to order Navalny to retract these claims on his website and on social media, and to publish separate refutations on each medium for each supposedly false accusation. The billionaire isn’t asking for any monetary compensation.

Alexey Navalny and one of Alisher Usmanov’s lawyers, Heinrich Padva, in court in Moscow on May 30, 2017.
Photo: Evgeny Feldman / Project “This Is Navalny”

Explaining the lawsuit, Heinrich Padva noted that his client doesn’t deny donating the real estate to charity, but he objects to the claim that it was given as a bribe to Dmitry Medvedev. “Medvedev has no relationship whatsoever to the foundation,” Padva said, repeating once again that Navalny has offered no evidence to the contrary.

“Navalny has called Alisher Usmanov a criminal, though he is himself a lawyer and should understand that it’s inappropriate to say this about someone who was convicted 40 years ago, and in Uzbekistan at that. Navalny of all people should know this,” Padva said, adding that Usmanov was convicted of an economic crime, but Uzbekistan’s Supreme Court subsequently overturned the verdict and expunged his criminal record, admitting that the case against him had been fabricated.

Later, at Padva’s request, the court admitted as evidence a certificate showing that Usmanov has no existing criminal record, along with a document from the Supreme Court of Uzbekistan proving that the court in 2010 overturned Usmanov’s Soviet-era convictions for embezzlement and fraud. Pavda also presented a decision by another Moscow district court, where the judge rejected allegations that Usmanov was ever convicted of rape.

From there, the hearing moved on to Navalny's claim that Usmanov has exercised censorship in his media holdings. Navalny told the court that Usmanov “fired” Maxim Kovalsky, the chief editor of Kommersant-Vlast, in 2011, when the magazine published a photograph showing a ballot cast in the State Duma elections inscribed with an obscene message addressed to Vladimir Putin. Afterwards, journalists at Kommersant and collectively published an open letter in support of Kovalsky, who formally left Kommersant Publishing House voluntarily, “by mutual agreement,” in December 2011.

“This was in December 2011,” Navalny said. “What was happening here around this time? Huge demonstrations in the streets of Moscow! In this way, Usmanov blatantly fired these journalists to prove his loyalty, in order to show once again what a reliable Kremlin lackey he is.” Navalny also warned that Usmanov is suing him to lead the public discussion away from the Russian prime minister’s “corruption and theft.”

“Usmanov hasn’t just filed a lawsuit; he’s also launched a whole sideshow with online videos and meme contests,” Navalny explained, pausing to ask the judge is she knew what a “meme” is.

“He wants us to delete our investigative film about Dmitry Medvedev — a film that pushes [people] to fight the authorities. But it won’t be deleted, and we’ll start sharing it even harder, whether Usmanov likes it or not,” Navalny told the court.

The judge rejected almost all but one of the plaintiff’s motions: a request to call as witnesses Kommersant’s general director, Vladimir Zhelonkin, and its chief editor, Sergey Yakovlev. Kommersant special correspondent Andrey Kolesnikov even attended the hearing to support his colleagues, but Judge Vasina said there was no need to question Zhelonkin or Yakovlev, ruling that that court would evaluate the case evidence. Hearing this from the corridor near the conference room, Kolesnikov turned to the other journalists and said, “I’m going to go cheer up those guys.”

Navalny also tried to get Zhelonkin and Yakovlev called as witnesses, pointing out that both men signed the public letter in 2010 calling Usmanov’s actions “pressure on journalists,” but the judge rejected this request, too.

Fifteen minutes before the court closed for the day, Judge Vasina announced that the trial would move to full proceedings. She then immediately adjourned, telling everyone to reconvene the next day, on May 31.

Russian text by Sasha Sulim, translated by Kevin Rothrock

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