The smoky room in a small basement cafÃ© in downtown Moscow is filling up, mostly with women of all ages, well made up or washed out, noisy and animated. An outsider might be tempted to call them desperate, but they don't want to come across as such. In Russian folklore they are known as zechki (wives of prisoners). They have come for a weekly gathering of "Rus Sidyashaya" (Russia in Jail), to share their sorrows and problems, to have some food and a chat, to listen to some music by a friendly guest musician and to see Olga Romanova, the opposition journalist and civil rights campaigner, in the hope she can help.
Most of these women, like Romanova, have fallen foul of Russia's justice system and have nowhere else to turn. With all eyes in the room on her and her phone ringing every minute, Romanova sits at the small round table in the middle of the room smoking and listening to everyone in turn, offering comfort and advice where she can.
This feisty journalist became well known during her campaign to free her husband Alexei Kozlov from jail. Crossed by a former business partner and ex-senator Vladimir Slutsker, Kozlov was accused of fraud and money laundering, and jailed in 2009 for eight years. Then the Moscow State Court cut the sentence to five years. "The case was ordered and fabricated by Slutsker," says Romanova, who conducted her own investigation and found what she claims is hard evidence proving her husband's innocence.
Unwilling to accept such a blatant miscarriage of justice, Romanova wrote multiple complaints and appeals to the higher courts, to the supreme court and to the general prosecutor's office, and her campaign grew as others in a similar position joined her.
Kozlov was briefly released in September last year and immediately started publicly campaigning for the release and new trials for other victims of fabricated cases he met in jail. He arranged for a letter to be sent to the General Prosecutor's Office that listed the details of the legal violations of several high-profile cases to be published in the Russian biweekly Bolshoi Gorod. Readers were asked to cut them out and post them in an attempt to raise public awareness of mass violations in the justice system. But Kozlov didn't stay free for long. Despite the ruling of the Supreme Court in 2011 to dismiss all previous charges and review the case due to numerous procedural and legal violations, in March he was tried and convicted again on the same charges for another two years.
"Rus Sidyashaya" was born out of the conversations that Romanova had passing tedious hours in queues outside pre-trial detention centres where she and other relatives had gone to deliver parcels or have a rare meeting with their loved ones awaiting trial. Instead of crying and complaining about their lot, Romanova and the other zetchki clubbed together to offer comfort and legal advice to those caught in similar traps. In the last four years, the group has grown to number 6,000 members and the ad hoc meetings have become an organised network that increasingly includes concerned members of the public.
Romanova is fighting back with the only weapon the opposition has: publicity. She writes almost hourly on Facebook, laying bare the details of private lives. She blogs, she speaks, she writes articles. She is a co-founder of the Voters League, set up to monitor elections. She helps raise financing and helped organise the December demonstrations in Moscow. A pugnacious campaigner, Romanova likes to say: "I live in live broadcast", and is in the face of the system every waking moment.
Her campaign is a constant embarrassment for the judiciary. The most effective tactic the group employs is simply showing up for each other's trials. "If a group of 200 strangers all wearing their uniform white 'Rus Sidyashaya' scarves suddenly come to the courtroom, which is usually empty, it makes a profound impression and applies moral pressure on the judge," says Romanova.
In her fight against corrupt judges, Romanova does not hesitate to make them look ridiculous and immoral. Recently, she has published pictures of a state prosecutor in his swimming trunks, holidaying with his wife, lifted from his own social network pages. "I can post such pictures of myself, but he shouldn't. He represents the state."
On another occasion, Romanova asked online how a young judge that had sentenced her husband could afford to buy a country house in a prestigious development outside of Moscow just a week after the sentence was handed down.
The second conviction of her husband was especially galling. Romanova had gotten hold of a copy of the pre-arranged verdict before it was delivered and had to sit in court listening to the judge read out the staged sentence word for word. "The judge is reading exactly this verdict, word for word, without even changing a word! How dare she!" Romanova wrote on Facebook as the sentence was being read. Emulating the mother of jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky at his sentencing, Romanova said loudly as the judge was leaving: "I curse you, bitch."
Romanova uses her acquired and now extensive knowledge of the law in her fight and acted as a defence witness for her husband, and later others, in the battle with the system. "The purpose of 'Rus Sidyashaya' is to put itself out of existence," she continues. "When people start getting fair trials, there won't be any need for us... In the four years I've been going to courts, I only met one judge who knew the laws."
The Russian legal system is heavily biased towards the prosecution, with 99% of all cases that go to court in Russia ending in conviction. The presumption of innocence, hard evidence, witness testimony, alibis, correct legal procedures and even not-guilty verdicts in previous trials of the same case carry little or no weight. The law is secondary to processing the person who has been categorised as a criminal as soon as he or she enters the system.
The graduates of prestigious Russian law schools usually do not work in the courts, but typically end up as corporate lawyers. Russia's judges are drawn from the secretaries of the court. And it is a good job. A typical judge earns on average RUB200,000 a month (just under $7,000) and about RUB60,000 a month on retirement ($2,000) against the average Moscow salary of RUB45,000 ($1,500) a month.
Romanova tried to persuade her husband to leave the country before both of his convictions, but he refused - the emotional cost of leaving Russia and never being able to come back was too high. "Also, he didn't want to harm the other businesspeople in similar circumstances. If he ran away from bail, the others would have to go straight to jail for economic cases," says Romanova. "I am proud of my husband. Before his first sentence he was just an ordinary businessman, nothing interesting. But on the day of his second conviction he told me: 'I go in as a businessman and will come back as a politician'."
As she was giving this interview, at Romanova's house lay sleeping a teenage boy, the now homeless son of a recently convicted businessman she had been campaigning for.