Protests over jailing of 'scapegoat' driver

A SIBERIAN railway worker jailed for a car crash that killed a senior official has become a people's hero for working-class Russians who feel the chauffeur- driven elite is riding roughshod over them.

Oleg Shcherbinsky was sentenced last week to four years in prison for failing to give way to a speeding Mercedes carrying the regional governor, Mikhail Yevdokimov. The limousine careered off the road and into a tree, killing the governor.

Across Russia this weekend, thousands of people are planning to protest by driving in convoy through cities with slogans including "Today it's Shcherbinsky. Tomorrow it will be you!" draped on their cars.

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The case has tapped into simmering anger at a system that allows bureaucrats in chauffeur-driven black limousines to weave dangerously through traffic while other motorists are fined for the smallest violation.

"It is time to stop dividing people into first-rate citizens and third-rate, into serfs and nobles," said Vyacheslav Lysakov, head of the "Freedom of Choice" motorists' lobby group that is helping organise the protests.

Shcherbinsky's supporters in his home city of Barnaul are planning a rally today. On Sunday, protests are planned in cities across Russia.

"Every person in Russia understands they could easily find themselves in Oleg Shcherbinsky's shoes," said Vladimir Ryzhkov, a member of parliament who represents Barnaul.

"People are upset that bureaucrats break the rules and an ordinary person ... through no fault of his own, gets four years in prison. That is why there has been such an uproar."

There are thousands of government cars on Russian roads, marked out by special licence plates and a flashing blue light on the roof.

Carrying on a tradition since Soviet times, they routinely jump traffic lights, avoid queues by driving into oncoming traffic and break the speed limit.

Other common practices are parking illegally and driving along pavements. Traffic police nearly always ignore them.

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On 7 August last year, Shcherbinsky, 36, was driving with his family to a local beauty spot in his second-hand Toyota Marino. He indicated, then turned left off the main road.

Mr Yevdokimov's car came over the brow of a hill. It swerved to avoid the Toyota but clipped it and hit the tree. The governor's driver and bodyguard also died.

Police told the trial the Mercedes' speed was not less than 149kmph (92mph).

Shcherbinsky's lawyers are preparing an appeal.