‘The judge hears all of it’ How Russian police officers use compromised witnesses to frame innocent people — and keep getting away with it
Reporters from iStories and Meduza examined Moscow court documents and found more than 140 “professional witnesses” — people who regularly testify in court cases related to drug charges. The practice is blatantly illegal, but judges send people to prison for years based on these witnesses’ testimonies.
In May 2018, thirty-five-year-old Natalya Goloborodko reached out to Moscow police in an effort to “expose a dealer of illicit substances.” The officers decided to conduct a “test purchase” — Goloborodko would buy drugs from the dealer under officer supervision. The police found two witnesses, and together they all went to the home of Nikolai Grigoryev, the alleged drug dealer. As soon as the deal was made, the officers arrested Grigoryev. Back at the station, they confiscated the money Grigoryev had allegedly gotten from Goloborodko for the drugs, and — in the presence of witnesses — they found MDMA, amphetamines, and hash in his apartment. The authorities charged Grigoryev with two counts of selling drugs and one count of attempting to sell (they discovered information about future drug deals on his phone). He confessed to everything upon interrogation.
In court, however, Grigoryev maintained his innocence, saying that the police forced his confession and that Natalya Goloborodko framed him. He admitted to knowing Goloborodka, but insisted that he never sold her amphetamines. The police planted the money on him, he said. Nikolai’s mother and sister said in court that they had “never suspected him of dealing drugs.” The crime’s only witnesses were the police officers, Goloborodko, and the two official witnesses.
Grigoryev happened to meet one of them in a police car before his sentencing hearing. Thirty-eight-year-old Mikhail Rakhmankin, whose responsibility as an official witness was to act as an independent observer during the search, had already been tried twice for dealing drugs himself. He was in the police car with Grigoryev because he was simultaneously under investigation, and the two men were being kept in the same pretrial detention facility.
Nonetheless, the judge ruled that “the defense’s opinion that the search involved witnesses who were dependent on police officers is unsubstantiated.” On August 1, 2019, the Kuntsevsky District Court convicted Nikolai Grigoryev and sentenced him to 11 years in prison.
iStories and Meduza’s investigation found that Grigoryev’s story is just a drop in a larger sea of fabricated drug cases. We analyzed tens of thousands of sentences and discovered more than 140 “professional witnesses” in Moscow alone; many of them were officers’ acquaintances, drug addicts, or people who had previously been convicted. Police officers regularly used these people to fabricate criminal cases, ultimately sending defendants to prison for years, despite their lawyers’ protests.
“Forced to help imprison innocent people”
“When Grigoryev told me he had met one of the witnesses to his case in the police car, I started running through all of the names of witnesses in the Moscow City Court database. It turned out that Mikhail Rakhmankin, who’d previously been convicted, was himself under investigation for large-scale drug trafficking. So was the second official witness. So how could they be impartial?” asks Andrey Tolstykh, Grigoryev’s lawyer.
It turned out that twice-convicted Mikhail Rakhmankin had helped the police multiple times: a month before Grigoriev’s arrest, he’d acted as a buyer in another case.
Rakhmankin is now in prison for dealing drugs, following a third conviction. According to Yekaterina Selivanova from the Andrey Rylkov Foundation for Health and Social Justice, to which Mikhail Rakhmankin reached out for protection, the evidence against him consisted of testimonies from police officers and a woman arrested for drug possession, as well as video footage.
“I know he reached out to the Internal Security Office [of the Moscow City Police], he tried to work with them, and he told them he needed to tell them something about the police officers in the Western Administrative District. He hoped they could influence his case somehow and get him a shorter sentence. But it didn’t happen, and he got 11 years,” says Selivanova.
Later on, Natalya Goloborodko, the buyer in Grigoryev’s case, reached out to the Internal Security Office herself, setting this story in motion. In Goloborodko’s own words, her story sounds quite different. She claimed that two police officers beat her up outside her home on the evening of May 19, 2018, before dragging her into a car. One of them was Yegor Farmanin. When they let her make one phone call, Goloborodko called another police officer she knew in the Western Administrative District. She says the officer drove up, spoke to Farmanin for 10 minutes, and then took her to the Kuntsevo precinct, where officers found amphetamines in her purse.
“The officers took advantage of the fact that the threat of imprisonment was hanging over me, and started trying to get me to help them out and cooperate. They told me explicitly that if I refused, they would send me to jail, but if I agreed, I could remain free. […] I agreed. Maxim Umetbayev was behind everything. He told me to testify against Nikolai Grigoryev, and also to help out with some other case. I agreed because I have a kid, a son who’s still a minor,” Goloborodko wrote in her statement.
She says the police “fabricated all the materials related to Grigoryev.” “I realize that I’ll have to continue ‘helping’ them send innocent people to jail if I don’t report on the police officers’ criminal actions,” wrote Goloborodko.
The second official witness in Grigoryev’s case, Dmitry Chuprin, had also served as both a buyer and a witness in other drug cases. The same police officers who arrested Grigoryev later arrested Chuprin. They found amphetamines in his sweatshirt, where he’d allegedly tucked it away “for personal use.”
At the appeals hearing, Grigoryev’s lawyer Andrey Tolstykh testified that Goloborodko was a provocateur and that the official witnesses, Rakhmankin and Chuprin, were police informers. Umetbayev (who had participated in the case) and four other officers from that precinct were already suspected of participating in fabricating a drug case against Meduza journalist Ivan Golunov.
The court of appeals acquitted Grigoriev on two of the three counts, reducing his sentence from 11 years in prison (the maximum penalty for selling drugs) to six and a half years behind bars. Andrey Tolstykh, his lawyer, hasn’t ruled out the possibility of a retrial as a result of Ivan Golunov’s high-profile case.
It’s a small world after all
In order to find the witnesses who regularly work with police officers, journalists at iStories and Meduza examined the official witnesses mentioned in the Moscow City Court’s database. Most past sentences and rulings are publicly available on the Moscow City Court website. iStories reporters downloaded 56,860 documents related to drug charges and found 142 people whom the police used repeatedly as allegedly independent witnesses.
Sentence and ruling documents usually contain testimonies from witnesses, buyers and police officers, or at least mention their names and roles. In most cases, court secretaries redact people’s names, as is required by law — but sometimes they forget.
In the cases where the names weren’t redacted, we used a program to extract them from the documents and select the names and surnames found in documents from various cases. Publicly available lists of judges, secretaries, lawyers, prosecutors, and assistants helped us immediately exclude them. The rest of the names were studied manually by journalists from iStories and Meduza over the course of three months: they read the documents and recorded the dates, districts, circumstances, courts, police departments, employees, investigators, prosecutors, lawyers, and judges. Then they searched for the witnesses and studied their connections to the police officers.
Eighteen of these people have apparent connections to the Moscow police department in the Western Administrative District — the same department where officers arrested Ivan Golunov (and Nikolay Grigoryev before him). Immediately after the Golunov case, President Vladimir Putin dismissed the head of the Internal Affairs Department, Andrey Puchkov, and five of his former subordinates are now being tried for abuse of office, fabricating evidence in a criminal case, and illegal drug possession.
The Eastern Administrative District Internal Affairs Department came in second place: 13 witnesses there had either participated in multiple investigations with the same police officers or been convicted on drug charges (making it impossible for them to serve as independent witnesses). According to court records, the witnesses took turns helping officers with investigations. Oleg Kokerov, for example, was a witness four times, a buyer twice, and was given three years of probation for the purchase and possession of drugs.
Oleg Kokorev crossed paths with other “professional witnesses” in at least three different cases. On one occasion, he worked with Pavel Ilyin, who had recently been given a year of probation for the purchase and possession of drugs. On another occasion, he worked with two other witnesses at once: Victoria Molokanova and Alexey Khrenov. Kokorev and Khrenov worked together at least one other time, and Khrenov also worked on a different case with three other compromised witnesses. Ultimately, at least seven witnesses crossed paths in at least four investigations, which were being conducted by the exact same police officers. Officer Yevgeny Matitsyn was involved in three out of the four cases, and Aleksey Mazin and Vitaly Belikin were involved in two. iStories was not able to get in touch with the officers.
The defendants in these cases were given sentences ranging from eight to 12 years in prison.
Before the Internal Affairs Department took over drug enforcement, this area of policing belonged to the Federal Drug Control Service’s Moscow Department. When that agency was dissolved in 2016, the Internal Affairs Department continued using the same witnesses. iStories counted five “professional witnesses” who worked together with the Federal Drug Control Service’s Eastern Administrative District Branch; for example, the very same Oleg Kokorev assisted with cases that the Moscow Department was investigating, as well. The other four also crossed paths with each other while working on various cases.
Almost all of the witnesses refused to speak with reporters. After learning about this report, most stopped answering phone calls. Some stated that they “no longer want to be involved.” But Ilya Orel, who served as an official witness at the request of police officers at least six times, agreed to talk.
“A sense of duty”
Unlike a lot of the witnesses, Ilya Oryol doesn’t have a criminal record. According to his VKontakte profile, he’s 30 years old and he attended Moscow Polytechnic University, where he worked as a technician in the protocol department. It’s also clear from his social media that he was a member of “Nashi,” a youth political movement created by the Putin administration.
In two of the criminal cases where he played a role, the officers, prosecutor, and judge were exactly the same individuals. The same police officers led two more of the cases where Oryol served as a witness. Oryol says he performed this role in more than six cases — and not only drug cases. He’s also witnessed cops “arresting someone who was under the influence of alcohol,” for example.
“How many times have you been a witness?”
“I can’t tell you exactly. I mean, do you count the number of times you breathe in a minute?”
“No, but that’s not exactly the same thing.”
“How is it not the same thing? The everyday things that fill up your life — most people don’t count them.”
“So you serve as a police witness every single day?”
“It’s not that I do it every day. I just don’t keep track, and I don’t get worked up about it.”
Oryol also claimed that every one of his meetings with the police has happened accidentally.
“Well, it makes sense when you live next to the police station or have business near it.”
“So you just live near the police station and happen to run into them?”
“In some cases, yeah. Sometimes, I was just running errands. I live, study, work — I’m constantly near the police station.”
Ilya Oryol says he doesn’t know any of the officers personally. “The police are just police,” he explains.
Akop Khachatryan, another witness in Grigoryev’s case and a student at the Russian Presidential Academy, told a similar story about his involvement with law enforcement.
At Grigoryev’s trial, Khachatryan claimed that officers had pulled up to him in a police vehicle at night and asked him to go with them to the forest along the Simferopol highway to search for drugs that Grigoryev had allegedly hidden with the intent to sell. Despite being on his way to a friend’s birthday, Khachatryan agreed to go with the police. He didn’t know any of them, and he agreed to serve as a witness “as a result of his upbringing,” since he’d “studied at the Russian Academy of Civil Service” and it was “something akin to a duty” for him, he told iStories.
In reality, Khachatryan had already met with the same officers a week earlier at a gas station, according to sentencing documents from a different case. In his testimony, he told the court that when he was passing by the police station when officers approached and asked him to serve as a witness as they searched a detainee. Khachatryan agreed. Six months later, he served as a witness at least twice more (on November 1 and November 3, 2018) for the same officers: Maxim Umetbayev, Yegor Farmanin, Denis Konovalov, and Akbar Sergaliyev. When asked how it was possible for him not to know the officers he’d worked with on multiple occasions, Khachatryan didn’t answer.
According to court documents, Yakob Chyorny served as a witness in Moscow even more times than Ilya Oryol. He participated in seven sting operations with officers from the Federal Drug Control Service’s Northwestern Branch, the Eastern Branch, and the Northwestern and Zelenograd Branch. In these three departments, iStories found 22 “professional witnesses.”
In 2016, at one of Chyorny’s drug trials, he stated explicitly to the Butyrsky District Court that he was a witness more than once, which defense attorneys called to the court’s attention. The judge, however, ruled that “the witness’s participation as a witness to the conduct of other procedural actions involving Federal Drug Control officers cannot prove that his testimony didn’t correspond to the actual circumstances, or that he has a personal interest in the case’s outcome.”
A year later, the case was returned to the appeals court and brought before a different judge. This time, Chyorny said in his testimony that “he and officers V. V. Gaidukov and F. N. Gorchakov did not know each other before [that case].” According to sentencing documents, however, he had already served as a witness for the officers thrice previously. One of the officers, F. N. Gorchakov, even testified that “the inspection was assisted by the witness Ya. A. Chyorny, who shows reasonable initiative and provides free assistance in exposing drug dealers. Ya. A. Chyorny had previously assisted with two-to-three similar test purchases.” These contradictions didn’t bother the judge; the defendant was still sentenced to 10 years and nine months in prison. A year later, Chyorny testified again as a witness — this time in a different case, but in a trial with the same judge.
Over the course of three and a half months, the Main Department of Moscow’s police department failed to respond to questions about the officers’ use of witnesses.
“Nothing else happens”
Lawyers almost always draw judges’ attention to suspicious witnesses, and Nikolai Grigoryev’s lawyer Andrey Tolstykh is no exception: “With their silence, the judges make the problem far worse in future cases. I told the court that it’s only a matter of time before this turns into a huge problem. Sooner or later, something’s going to happen that everyone will regret.”
Lawyers also spoke up in the case that holds the record for most “professional witnesses.” In 2016, five defendants accused of illegally selling psychotropic drugs as an organized group were sentenced to 10-12 years in prison. At least four of the witnesses in the case had either already served as witnesses for officers in that precinct or had themselves been convicted on drug charges. The buyer, meanwhile, had also been convicted and had helped the police conduct several other sting operations. One of the witnesses said during the trial that he couldn’t remember anything from the case because he’d been under the influence of drugs at the time.
According to Vitaly Sych (one of the defendants’ lawyers), all of the lawyers tried to draw the court’s attention to these clear conflicts of interest:
“We pointed out that these witnesses already knew the investigator and that they might be reliant on the investigator in other cases. We told the court that the same witnesses had already been there, at trials for different cases. Usually, the court responded that this wasn’t relevant to the case. In my experience, these situations can reach the point of absurdity. You ask someone, ‘How could you have been present at that examination if you were at a different examination in a different part of Moscow 10 minutes earlier?’ And the judge hears all of it. But other than it being heard, nothing else happens. The court accepts the witnesses.”
If lawyers point out that the witnesses were either intoxicated, working under officers’ instructions, or had been arrested the previous day, judges usually respond that the defense’s opinion is unsubstantiated and say there’s no reason to doubt the witnesses’ testimonies. Often, the same judge has heard from the exact same witnesses in court multiple times before.
Even in the relatively small number of court documents that contained the witnesses’ and buyers’ names, we discovered at least 38 instances where judges heard testimonies from witnesses they’d previously heard in different cases, but did not react.
The judge who most frequently found defendants guilty after hearing testimonies from witnesses they’d previously heard from in other cases is Anton Filatov, a judge from the Nagatinsky District Court. He heard from witness A. O. Cherkasov at least three times; in two of the cases, Cherkasov had served as a witness for the same officers. The sentences used the same exact language: “the defendant’s guilt is confirmed [...] by the testimony of witness Chekasov A. O., who [...] gave testimony that corresponded to that of witness [officer’s name].”
In the Simonovsky District Court, multiple judges encountered the same witness in different trials for different cases: Alexey Gumbatov appeared in at least six drug cases as either a buyer or a witness. Judges Svetlana Tumanina and Natalya Repnikova each saw him at least twice; the latter recently made headlines when she decided to replace politician Alexey Navalny’s probation with jail time in the Yves Rocher case.
In the appeal for one of the cases involving Gumbatov, the defense claimed that Gumbatov and another witness “repeatedly participated in operational search activities carried out by police officers and illegally served in investigations as witnesses.” But the court decided that the witnesses’ and officers’ testimonies were beyond any doubt, since they were “mutually consistent.”
The Simonovsky District Court didn’t answer journalists’ inquiries. The Nagatinsky District Court, meanwhile, responded that the “assessment of the statement provided by the witness was given by the judge in conjunction with all of the evidence of the case and subject to the rules of assessing evidence provided by the Criminal Procedure Code of the Russian Federation.”
“Did you run out of drug addicts in your neighborhood?”
It’s not just Moscow police officers who take advantage of “professional witnesses”; the practice is widespread throughout Russia. In Samara, for example, six officers fabricated a number of cases with the help of 15 witnesses, most of whom had been convicted on drug charges themselves. They signed whatever the officers asked them to sign, in order to avoid another sentence.
These witnesses are now on trial alongside the officers: they’re all accused of falsifying criminal cases, while the police are also accused of abusing their authority. Officially, the case names 17 victims, but Dmitry Yegoshin — a lawyer from the human rights organization “Public Verdict” — says the real number of victims is likely closer to 100. Most of the identified victims are still serving prison sentences, and several have already died.
“Police officers recruited drug addicts they already knew. They would assign roles: you be a witness, you be a witness, and you be a buyer. Then they would arrest someone, fill out the documents, and take him to be interrogated. Then the materials would reach the investigator, and that would be it,” says Yegoshin. “The witnesses said they were detained by these officers multiple times, or that they lived in their precinct. They said in their interrogations: ‘I’m dependent on this officer. I was afraid that if I refused, a case would be opened against me.’”
Many lawyers agree that the witness system in Russia is a serious problem. It needs to be changed, along with the entire system of evidence-collection in drug cases, argues Vitaly Sych, a lawyer and former investigator:
“Witnesses are required in practically every police investigation, and finding them isn’t so easy. If an honest officer doesn’t come up with any solved cases, his boss will come to him and say, ‘What, did you run out of drug addicts in your neighborhood? You’ve got the best-performing area, do you, buddy? You better stick two witnesses in your car and let them ride with you. And search!’ And so abuse of power is very common here. Officers responsible for policing illegal drugs take advantage of witnesses — like the ones who’ve been arrested previously. They generally attract drug addicts who are ready to say they’ve been everywhere and seen everything for just a small dose.”
That’s why the drug-related statutes in Russia’s Criminal Code are often called the “people’s” statutes: according to the Supreme Court’s judicial department, almost half a million people have been convicted in the last five years. Lawyers say fabricating these cases is simple and that it’s easy to find people willing to serve as witnesses.
“They’re jury-rigging these cases: there’s an interrogation, an examination, and someone goes to jail. I’d like to believe that the [Samara] case might have some effect on the issue,” said lawyer Dmitry Yegoshin.
Translation by Sam Breazeale