A Toilet for the Investigator
November 30, 2016
Criminal charges have been brought against the co-owner of the Café Beirut in Petersburg; on November 29, police searched her home. In September and October, the café was searched on several occasions by Investigative Committee, Rospotrebnadzor, and Emergencies Ministry officers.
The café believes the only cause of its woes is a casual patron who tried to use the establishment’s toilet last summer, but was turned away.
There is generally nothing wrong about popping into a café to use the toilet. The employees of the Café Beirut say they would never turn away polite, friendly visitors. But when an individual makes noise, swears, and might make a less than pleasant impression on diners, they do not see fit to let him in. Thus, this past July, they turned away a young man who, they say, behaved just this way.
On September 7, investigators, Rospotrebnadzor inspectors, and Emergencies Ministry officers raided the café and searched it. An employee recognized the young investigator leading the raid as the same young man who had unsuccessfully tried to use the Beirut’s toilet in summer.
Another search took place on September 23, resulting in the completely undocumented confiscation of the establishment’s cash register, computer server, order terminal, and charter documents, meaning everything they needed to stay in business. The café was closed for a whole week, but then it opened again, having suffered considerable losses, of course.
But that was not the end of the matter. On November 29, police searched the home of the café’s co-owner Elizaveta Izvozchikova, who has been charged with violating Article 238 of the Criminal Code (“Production, storage, transport or sale of goods and products, works or services that do not meet safety requirements”). According to Izvozchikova, the female investigator who led the search rang at her apartment at seven in the morning.
“She came to my apartment accompanied by an officer of the economic crimes department district office and two official witnesses. They served me with a search warrant, which made it clear to me that criminal charges had been filed against me under Article 238. The article says nothing about harming anyone, only about providing poor-quality services. To file charges under this article, it is sufficient to record violations of some kind, say, sanitation rules. We quickly fixed all the violations for which we had been cited and submitted a report to the Investigative Committee. After all, we opened just recently, in late February of this year. We did a major overhaul and replaced all the plumbing, sewerage, and electrical wires. The basement was in bad shape. Then we restored the historic storefront, made high-quality repairs inside, and installed new equipment in the kitchen. We wanted to do something good for people, feed them tasty food and give them good service. I am a designer by education, and I really wanted to make the café pretty. I am a responsibe person, so I tried to make sure everything was in order: that the fire extinguisher was certified, that the kitchen was clean, that we followed all the rules. But on September 7 we had our first inspection. The investigator from the Investigative Committee forced everyone outside and demanded we sign papers of some of kind without reading them. Otherwise, he threatened us with immediate closure and put a lot of pressure on my manager, who is fairly young.”
I asked what the reason for the first inspection was.
“My internal investigation revealed that our manager had seen the young man who turned out to be an investigator: he had not let him use our toilet. We had guests, he had demanded to use the toilet in a rude way, waving his arms and cursing, so he was not allowed to use the toilet. The second inspection, headed by this investigator, took place on September 23. He confiscated the cash register and a bunch of other things. The investigation was then terminated. Later, however, the decision to terminate the investigation was annulled, the case file was submitted for an additional investigation, and another inspection was organized. Rospotrebnadzor and the Emergencies Ministry cited us for four violations. We immediately fixed two of the problems: we installed a missing washbasin and a germicidal lamp. But the other two violations were simply nonexistent. We were told our doors had to be at least one meter wide, and we had to have a second emergency exit. According to fire safety rules, however, wide doors and a second exit are obligatory only for premises larger than one hundred square meters, and if there are over fifty evacuees, but our place seats only thirty people. We explained everything to them and attached documents to our reports, including the cadastral passport, which shows we have only sixty-three square meters of space. We also requested that everything they had confiscated be returned to us, as they had nothing to do with the inspection. Instead of a response, however, criminal charges have been filed. The charges are based on those same two violations, turned up by the Emergencies Ministry, but I do not believe that the Emergencies Ministry officer was unfamiliar with the rules in question. The third violation consisted in the fact that, according to Rospotrebnadzor, we had no right to worked with unpeeled root vegetables; this requires a separate bath or even a whole room. So we ordered peeled root vegetables, meaning we started using prepared food, which we immediately reported to the authorities. But it made no difference at all. I was summoned for interrogation on November 29, but I refused to answer the questions in order to better familiarize myself with the charge sheet. So I will be going to the Investigative Committee on Monday, December 5. While the inspections were going on, we made huge losses. We were closed for an entire week, and many of our clients even now think we are still closed. Nothing like this has ever happened to any of my colleagues, and I continue to hope for justice. We have not violated any law. We are conscientious taxpayers and entrepreneurs who are trying to run a small business, and we do no harm to anyone,” says Elizaveta Izvozchikova.
Lawyer Boris Gruzd argues that criminal prosecution has not been used for its intended purpose in this case.
“I think that criminal charges are sometimes filed on insufficient grounds and used for other purposes, as a means of revenge, for dealing with undesirable persons. I think this is one of those cases. It often happens that, even when criminal law has seemingly been violated, it is extremely hard to file criminal charges. An enormous amount of effort is made to turn even obvious crimes into criminal cases. But here criminal charges have been filed out of thin air, so to speak. Because, when criminal charges are filed, aside from violation of the law, another important element is danger to the public. In this case, however, they have found fault with a telegraph pole, as the saying goes. I am sure you could find a dozen such violations in any small business and major state company. What public good has been violated that it is necessary to resort to criminal prosecution? It is a last resort that should be used very selectively and carefully, when other tools do not work. This is a classic case of ‘nightmarizing business.'”
I asked Gruzd whether there was any hope of punishing those who spin such cases out of thin air.
“It is necessary to take steps in this direction. It produces a particularly sharp contrast with the notorious case of the women who was murdered although she called the police because her [ex-]partner had threatened her. But the dispatcher, the best beat cop in the city, told her that if and when she was killed, they would come and describe her corpse. Here, the Investigative Committee, whose remit is grave and especially grave crimes, has pounced on a café. So they have the time and the energy to deal with this nonsense?” notes Gruzd.
Alexander Kobrinsky, a member of the fifth convocation of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, says the persecution of the Café Beirut’s co-owner is not something out of the ordinary in Russia.
“Recently, everyone watched the video in which security guards tried to keep a drunk man, who turned out to be a police officer, from entering a café. A while later, the riot cops arrived and detained the security guards, who were just doing their jobs. But the situation is understandable, because law enforcement officers consider themselves a superior caste, endowed with special rights, including the right to cook up criminal cases as a means of personal revenge. It is quite widespread, since the law allows them to file criminal charges, suspend business operations, and confiscate tools, computers, whatever. Maybe the charges will be dropped a year from now, but getting a business back up on its feet after such shocks is not always possible. That is why, by the way, prohibiting the detention of people involved in commerce and seizure of their property has now been actively discussed. What point have we reached to openly admit that the vast majority of criminal charges filed against businessmen in Russia is based on mercenary motives and revenge! Clearly there are thieves and con men, but it turns out that they constitute the minority of defendants in such cases. Such is the system and such is the law. We see that a completely peculiar set of circumstances has been established in Russia. I don’t know, maybe Putin was speaking sincerely about the investment climate, but there is no longer any way of manually managing hundreds of thousands of these minor strongmen. In Russia, every police capitan, assistant investigator, and junior assistanct prosecutor is a low-level power broker. They are used to living this way: they have been living this way for a quarter of a century. And they do not want to live any other way, no matter what Putin has said,” argues Kobrinsky.
According to Kobrinsky, this mindset—that I am a landlord, and you are my slaves—is very difficult to eradicate. One has the impression that the head of state seemingly has no leverage over Russia’s law enforcement system, that it must be completely dismantled and reassembled anew.
On November 29, Elizaveta Izvozchikova was released on her own recognizance.
Translated by the Russian Reader