Alexander Lebedev trial: A fittingly bizarre end to court case that felt like a farce


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The Independent Online

The final day of hearings in the trial of Alexander Lebedev was a fittingly bizarre end to a case that has rarely seemed to conform to normal ideas of justice.

Over its duration, the court has heard from martial arts specialists, “witnesses” who had been approached on public transport by the prosecution and asked to testify that they had seen the punches on television, and a succession of “experts” engaging in long and tedious discussions about the meaning of the word “political”.

Hanging over the trial from the start has been the invisible presence of Sergei Polonsky, the man whom Mr Lebedev punched but who has never appeared at a hearing, and instead was represented in court by two lawyers who have often indulged in the absurdity of the case with knowing smiles.

Mr Lebedev’s team has repeatedly argued that it is senseless to try the case without Mr Polonsky present, but his lawyers have said he cannot attend because he is not allowed to leave Cambodia. The court accepted this reason, despite the fact that video footage and Mr Polonsky’s own Facebook page show that he has long skipped bail in Cambodia and fled to Israel.

Much of the trial has revolved round a laboured semantic debate over whether or not the television programme, or Mr Lebedev’s actions, could be classed as “political” in any way. The only witness to state with any certainty that he believed there had been political motivation was a “culturological specialist” called Sergei Komkov, whose academic qualifications became the subject of a lengthy debate between the two sets of lawyers.

Presiding over affairs has been Andrei Bakhvalov, a relatively young judge with an impressive range of contemptuous expressions. At times he chuckled along with the farce, but periodically remembered himself and upbraided those on the spectators’ benches for giggling.

Yesterday morning, the prosecutor, a quiet woman who often seems left out of the testosterone-fuelled debates between the lawyers for Mr Lebedev and Mr Polonsky, had shocked everyone by essentially agreeing with the defence that there was no political motivation in Mr Lebedev’s punches.

It seems likely that a political decision has been taken that it would be unwise to jail Mr Lebedev, and hence the prosecutor’s tone had changed overnight, as she called for the relatively light sentence of 21 months, during which Mr Lebedev would have to register at a police station once a month but would otherwise be a free man.

As the prosecutor was reading her statement, Mr Polonsky posted on his Facebook page that he wanted to fire his two lawyers. One of them, Vadim Samsonov, looked shocked when shown the message. He also had a letter delivered to the court in which he called for the judge to issue an innocent verdict, musing that “in this mad world, official statistics show that 35 per cent of people are psychologically unbalanced” and that given this, clemency should be shown.

“Lebedev won’t survive prison, and a fine is insignificant for him,” wrote Mr Polonsky. “I ask you to recommend that he comes to me for a meeting to discuss all issues.”

“What the hell is this?” barked Judge Bakhvalov as he was handed a copy of Mr Polonsky’s last-minute plea for clemency by a bailiff yesterday afternoon. He glanced at the letter dismissively and ignored it, while Mr Lebedev’s lawyers said that the letter lacked the requisite stamps and authorisation to prove its authenticity and would thus be ignored.

However, unless the judge takes the highly unusual step of imposing a sentence greater than that demanded by the prosecutor, Mr Lebedev will not be going to prison anyway. “The whole pack of documents on which the case was based was a farce from the beginning,” said Mr Lebedev outside the courtroom. “This has been a humiliation for the investigators.”