MOSCOW, February 5 (RIA Novosti)
Freedom for Speech
Yekaterina Smetanova, a suspect in the Oboronservice fraud case, has been given a conditional release with restrictions after providing testimony incriminating her friend, former Defense Ministry property department head Yevgenia Vasilyeva.
Smetanova, the head of the Expert Center for Legal Support, arrested on November 1 on charges of fraud and bribery, was released on Monday and placed under protection since her life could be in danger, Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin said.
She was released after she signed a pretrial cooperation agreement with Deputy Chief Military Prosecutor Alexander Arutyunyan. However, sources claim that she still could not provide investigators with enough evidence to prove former Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov’s involvement in the embezzlement case. Smetanova, who was hired as a commercial agent to help sell the Defense Ministry’s non-core assets, had no direct contact with the minister. Meanwhile, she knew Vasilyeva, who was a ministry official and friends with Serdyukov. Vasilyeva regularly contracted Smetanova and charged her center with implementing various property deals.
Smetanova told authorities about the commercial schemes and kickbacks the two women conceived to sell property.
Importantly, the decision to cooperate was not easy for Smetanova, who friends describe as a decent and scrupulous person. According to sources, she was actually pressured into turning in her friend. Investigators never stopped telling Smetanova, a mother of two young children, how perfectly Vasilyeva was faring in her 13-room luxury apartment, surrounded by her solicitous service staff. Smetanova’s husband, who was also involved in the illegal property deals, was also arrested. They kept working on her until her sense of justice prevailed over her loyalty and her determination to save her friend.
After she signed the bargain agreement, her case was separated from the Oboronservice proceedings. She will receive a milder sentence in exchange for her cooperation. As a bonus, she has been released on a restricted basis instead of waiting for her trial in detention.
She was also given state protection to avoid any influence on the part of the other suspects, which is routine practice in such cases. A source close to the case said she has asked for protection, saying “they” could find her anywhere.
At the same time, her friends and relatives note that the protection is more like surveillance. Neither her mother nor her lawyer was informed about a release date. “The investigator told me she will call me herself on Tuesday and explain,” her mother said.
Her family anticipates that her security guards won’t allow her to go home to St. Petersburg, but will rent her an apartment in Moscow or a room at an out-of-town hotel so that her children and her mother can stay with her – officially, to keep her safe.
Sources claim that investigators need her kept safe because it was her testimony that helped bring charges against Vasilyeva and to clarify Serdyukov’s role in the fraud case. Until recently, the former defense minister was questioned only as a witness.
Ministry to Reclaim Krymsk Disaster Victim’s Surplus Aid
The Regional Development Ministry is planning to file a claim for overages mistakenly paid to the victims of the Krymsk floods. The total being sought is about 30 million rubles ($1 million). A source at the Ministry told Izvestia that the overpaid amounts were too large to be written off.
“The Krasnodar Territory administration is proceeding with this, and we’re keeping tabs on the process,” Regional Development Minister Igor Slyunayev confirmed to Izvestia. “Many residents have already been sent notices. If they fail to refund the surplus amounts, we’ll go to court,” he said. He declined to comment on the likely outcome of a trial.
Meanwhile, officials in the Krasnodar Territory are proceeding with their efforts to get the money back. They say they have managed to persuade many people to return the surplus money, although the local authorities are preparing for court action just in case.
“The number of people returning the money is increasing as the commission works with people, but of course there will be some who will fight it in court; that’s their right,” said Anna Minkova, secretary to Krasnodar Territory Governor Alexander Tkachev.
News of the error and a public notice that recipients should settle the matter with the authorities broke in January. A total of 30 million rubles was paid to the public over and above the necessary amounts, according to local authorities. The error stems from a misinterpretation of the house damage compensation policy (officials paid for the total floor space of a property not simply for the damaged part of the house). However, it is also possible that some Krymsk residents deliberately overstated the size of their houses.
Some cases involve large sums. The Zaikin family, for example, received a letter requesting the return of 412,000 rubles of the 700,000 granted, the media reported.
Some families have been sent notices regarding much smaller amounts. Anna Zagurskaya, a Krymsk resident, described how she got a notice stating that her daughter received 10,000 rubles twice. “At the time I had only 15,000 rubles and had to take 10,000 to our welfare service center,” she told Izvestia.
Attorney Yury Padalko says the authorities have every right to claim the money back, but the fault, he says, should still be laid at the feet of officials.
“In legal terms, the authorities are right, but in human terms, they have some explaining to do,” he says. “In this situation a court claim may not be the best approach. The authorities are to blame. If people don’t want to return the money, their only defense is to go to court.”
The flooding that occurred on the night of July 7, 2012 destroyed about 1,700 houses in Gelendzhik, Krymsk, Novorossiysk and nearby villages. The disaster claimed 168 lives. By the end of July the territorial authorities had estimated the damages at 20 billion rubles.
Russian Pirate Party Launches Pirated Content Host Site
Since last November, a government webpage listing banned websites has included over 3,300 website addresses that do not contain any controversial content, but accidentally have the same IP addresses as the blacklisted websites. The Russian Pirate Party, a movement seeking reforms in intellectual property rights and freedom of speech, has come up with a response to the tough online content regulations recently introduced by the government.
For both ideological and commercial reasons, the Pirate Party plans to launch Piratehost.net, a paid host site open to content that is prohibited in Russia or abroad. Aside from websites that violate copyright laws, the host site could be used by political movements that are not favored by the government.
“There is no banned information. Banned content is content that the government wants to conceal, or content the free distribution of which runs counter to the interests of various corporations,” says Stanislav Shakirov, vice chairman of the party.
Nevertheless, certain types of content will still be barred. The pirate host site will exclude spam, skimming and phishing websites, and child pornography.
The party has rented web server capacity at some foreign data centers, but Shakirov refused to reveal the location. He would not disclose the source of funding either.
To prevent the pirate host site from being included in the register, Shakirov plans to block access to client websites from the official IP addresses for particular government agencies.
“We’ll respond to this blacklist with our own blacklist. Whoever visits our client’s websites from government IP addresses will be traced and blocked,” reads a statement on the party’s webpage.
“Many public officials have strong moral values and they should be restricted from accessing content that might offend them,” a source that works closely with several online companies says ironically.
Irina Levova, an analyst from the Russian Association of Electronic Communications, says they aren’t surprised by this reaction. The increasing number of laws restricting the free search and distribution of information is due to inadequately stringent regulations which also lack technical understanding.
This host service would not violate any existing laws. It could, however, be an annoyance that will prompt the government to tighten the screws even more. Also, if the host site is used for distributing illegal content in other countries it will have to deal with European and American copyright holders.
State Duma Deputy Speaker Sergei Zheleznyak believes a solution needs to be found by countries working together to please both copyright holders and users. It has been suggested, for example, that royalties could be included in internet charges. At any rate, it must be an across-the-web decision.
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