Reprieved from Russia's death row

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The Independent Online
AT FIRST glance, he looks like many a provincial lad. He has a hesitant manner, a sudden and pleasant smile and an air of clumsy naivete that suggests he is younger than his 26 years.

But look deeper. Take note of the large fretting hands, the prematurely thinning hair and a perplexed expression that plays beneath Yevgeny Mednikov's dark eyes. This is a disturbed and unusual man.

Disturbed because he has been sentenced to death not once but twice for the most horrible of crimes, the murder of two small girls. Unusual because he was finally freed from the hell of a Russian death row after a campaign to prove his innocence, a rarity in a country where the concepts of human rights and public pressure groups are so under-developed.

And still more unusual because leading those who championed his cause, and that of two other young men ensnared in this case, was the victims' mother. Mr Mednikov speaks falteringly of his ordeal: it was "psychologically very difficult", especially when the death sentences were passed. "Very tough, very hard. At first, I felt my life was simply over."

This story is set in Archangel in the far north-west of Russia, 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Apart from the majestic Dvina river, which winds into the White Sea, it would be hard for a place to look more mundane. Soviet planners made no aesthetic attempt to compensate for the endless benighted winters, or the short mosquito-blighted summers when the sun barely sets. Monotonic, graffiti-blotched concrete apartment blocks vie with junk-yard factories to offend the eye.

It was in this backwater that, on the afternoon of 24 September 1993, Galina Gavrilenko's home was broken into. A handsome and well-spoken Russian woman, she was a kindergarten teacher who was considered better off than most because her husband had a job with the fishing fleet. She has since learnt that crooks had been eying her house for a while.

But whoever broke in was no mere burglar. They left behind the mutilated bodies of Mrs Gavrilenko's daughters, Anya, 11, and Olesya, 9. One of the girls had more than 70 wounds. Archangel was sickened and outraged. The community demanded convictions; the police and the prosecutors were expected to deliver them.

For Mrs Gavrilenko, this life-wrecking tragedy should have stopped there, but it had much further to run. As her husband was often at sea, her 20- year-old brother, Mikhail Yurochko, a single man and a fireman, had become the girls' second father. The police, lacking any other more convincing explanations, decided he was the killer.

Two weeks after the murders Mr Yurochko was arrested. He says he was beaten into confessing to the killings, and then raped while on remand by a prisoner he believes was working with the authorities.

The result was a second confession in which he implicated two friends, a fellow fireman Dmitri Yelsakov, then 20, and Yevgeny Mednikov, a student. A witness had seen three men on the roof of the home, so the police needed three culprits. The two new suspects say they were also bludgeoned into confessing.

All three later retracted, to no avail. After appearing in a local court in May 1995, before a judge and two lay assessors, Messrs Mednikov and Yurochko were sentenced to death. Mr Yelsakov got 15 years.

The evidence was always shaky. Defence lawyers identified 38 contradictions in the men's confessions. Mikhail Yurochko was in debt, owing several hundred dollars - and thus, prosecutors argued, had a motive to burgle his sister's house. But she points out that he could have borrowed money, and anyway owned a gold chain and a cross worth more than his debt, which he could have sold. She also claims a tuft of hair found in the hands of one of the girls - potentially crucial evidence - went missing. Her brother's fingerprints were found on a hammer at the scene but she said he had used it the previous day. Two of the three had alibis.

She was never in any doubt: "I could imagine the feelings of the mothers of these young men, because I have also lost children." She persuaded the local paper to publish her point of view, linked up with human rights groups in Moscow and went to the court hearings.

Prosecutors in Russia are rarely challenged in this way. Despite widescale corruption in the law-enforcement agencies, many unquestioningly accept the authorities' judgement.

The breakthrough came in October 1995 when the supreme court in Moscow overturned the sentences and ordered further investigations while the men remained in prison. In November 1997, the local court sentenced Mr Mednikov to death anew and commuted Mr Yurochko's sentence to a long prison term. In April last year, the supreme court again overturned the verdicts and by May this year all three were free.

The Archangel prosecutors finally gave up a fortnight ago when they sent the men a starkly worded letter declaring the case closed. In some ways, theirs is a story of astonishing good fortune. Most defendants in Russia do not have the benefit of hard-working lawyers and campaigning relatives. "This sort of thing can happen to anyone here as the use of torture is incredibly widespread," said Diederik Lohman, of Human Rights Watch in Moscow. "Most people are unable to withstand it and will confess to anything in the end. The chances of a miscarriage of justice are large."

In this case, there was never much likelihood of the men being executed. In August 1996 - after executing 53 people in eight months - Russia slapped a moratorium on capital punishment in line with commitments made on joining the Council of Europe earlier that year. In February, the constitutional court banned death sentences unless passed in a jury trial. Last month, Boris Yeltsin commuted sentences on all 716 remaining prisoners on death row - but the next president could easily resort to execution.

But it is also a story of terrible ill fortune. The men spent some five years in jail in conditions that some argue is a worse fate than execution. Mikhail Yurochko contracted tuberculosis; Dmitri Yelsakov suffered pneumonia, and has daily sessions with a psychotherapist. From the authorities, there was not even an apology.

The scars from being ensnared in a ruthless and cynical judicial system will take many, many years to fade. As Yevgeny Mednikov's clouded eyes and wringing hands testify.