People-power triumphs at last over Russia's fat cats

RUSSIA, famous for the colossal power of its billionaires, was yesterday singing a fanfare for the common man after an extraordinary courtroom victory.

Oleg Shcherbinsky, a Siberian railway worker, was last year sent to a labour camp for four years after being involved in a car crash in which a regional governor, Mikhail Yevdokimov, was killed.

Most observers agreed that the case was a travesty of justice. Mr Shcherbinsky was in his Toyota on a country lane and had stopped, with his indicator blinking, waiting to turn into a side road, when the black Mercedes of the Altai provincial governor came roaring up behind him.

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As is the custom with Russia's rich and powerful, the governor had a blue warning light on his car, despite having no police or emergency function.

But the speed of his vehicle was so great, estimated at 93mph, that by the time the governor's driver saw Mr Shcherbinsky's stationary car, there was no time to stop. The governor's Mercedes veered off the road and smashed into a tree, killing all three occupants.

To no-one's surprise, the resulting trial saw Mr Shcherbinsky cast as the villain and sentenced to internal exile, officially for "criminal negligence" in failing to prevent an accident. This was despite the judge being unable to explain how, short of telepathy, he could have seen the governor.

He was jailed, in effect, for failing to get out of the way of the governor's limousine. The court further ruled that the governor had the right to break the speed limit because he was late for an engagement.

Such bizarre court cases are a fact of life in Russia, as the former tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky found last summer when he was incarcerated after a conviction for fraud that human rights activists said was ordered from the top.

But the Shcherbinsky affair was different. For one thing, he was untainted by the high living and questionable deals that crippled Mr Khodorkovsky's attempt to win public sympathy. For another, the sight of this upright and dignified man touched a raw nerve in today's Russia.

Drivers in the increasingly grid-locked big cities are fuming about the special treatment that the rich buy themselves.

While a blue light on the top of the car of the president or even a minister is understandable; seeing them atop vehicles of fat cats whose fortunes are earned in murky ways is too much.

With the Shcherbinsky case, ordinary Russians decided they had reached the final straw. Drivers began to sport bumper-stickers declaring their support and newspapers took up the case.

In February, 1,000 drivers sounding their horns staged a go-slow in central Moscow. More protests took place across Russia and Shcherbinsky fever culminated in a grass-roots movement being born: The Free Choice Motorists Movement.

The result: the Altai appeal court yesterday ruled that Mr Shcherbinsky was not guilty of all charges, and set him free on the spot.

Anatoly Kucherena, a Moscow-based lawyer who was retained for the appeal, said: "Now a citizen in this country can have his or her rights that have been infringed upon restored."