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    Russia's Supreme Court acquits 2 suspected cigarette smugglers

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    MOSCOW, September 21 (RIA Novosti) - Russia's Supreme Court upheld Thursday the acquittal of two businessmen charged with smuggling about $9 million worth of cigarettes into Russia and other economic crimes dating back to 1999.

    Prosecutors had charged Igor Poddubny and Yevgeny Babkov with contraband, forming a criminal group, fraud and money laundering. The prosecution said the defendants had smuggled cigarettes into Russia via bogus companies and seized $2 million from an off-shore company, Gloria Trade.

    The businessmen, who have been in custody since 2001, were acquitted three times in jury trials that have been plagued with scandals.

    The Moscow City Court cleared the businessmen of the charges February 16. A jury decided the businessmen had only committed minor customs clearance violations to cut taxes, and maintained contacts with Gloria Trade in line with their contract. The jury also said the defendants had fallen victim to rivals who had orchestrated the investigation.

    "I am glad the jury has sorted out this complicated case and made a fair decision," a lawyer acting for the defendants said at the time.

    The first jury in the trial was dissolved the day before they were to issue an acquittal. A jury member's illness was cited as the formal reason behind the dissolution, but jurors complained of pressure from the prosecution.

    The second jury acquitted the defendants unanimously in February 2005. But the prosecution circulated a videotape showing the jurors, Babakov and his lawyer celebrating in a restaurant after the court session. The lawyer was charged with hampering the prosecution, and the acquittal was overturned.

    The jurors published a letter to President Vladimir Putin, asking for protection from pressure for themselves and nascent jury trials in Russia. They also complained that prosecutors had infringed on their privacy by following them in the restaurant.

    "The Moscow Prosecutor's Office is persecuting us and has discredited us on the central television and in newspapers," they said in the letter.

    Today's acquittal of Poddubny and Babakov means the businessmen could demand compensation for the five years they spent in jail.

    Trials by jury were cautiously introduced in modern Russia in 1993, but the law defining the role and status of jurors received presidential approval only two years ago.

    The number of acquittals in jury trials is considerably higher (20%) than in courts presided over by judges alone.

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