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St. Petersburg Jews Jolted by Stiff Sentence for Local Big

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The stiff prison sentence handed down to Russian businessman and Jewish leader Mikhail Mirilashvili is sending shock waves through Russia’s second-largest Jewish community.

On Aug. 1, the Leningrad District Military Court in St. Petersburg sentenced the local business magnate and Jewish philanthropist to 12 years in a high-security prison.

Mirilashvili, 43, has spent the last 30 months in jail on charges of creating a criminal gang, kidnapping and attempted murder.

The verdict, handed down the same day as the sentencing, cleared the businessman of the attempted murder charge but found him guilty of trespassing, kidnapping and detaining persons against their will.

The court acquitted Mirilashvili’s six suspected accomplices after prosecutors failed to establish their role in the murder of two alleged abductors of Mirilashvili’s father, Mikhail Mirilashvili, Sr.

After the sentencing, St. Petersburg’s chief rabbi, Menachem Mendel Pevzner, told JTA that Mirilashvili’s “family, friends and the whole Jewish community are devastated.”

Some observers said the long jail term was disproportionate to the gravity of the crimes.

The episode that sparked Mirilashvili’s arrest followed the August 2000 abduction of his father, also a businessman, who was released two days after his kidnapping in central St. Petersburg.

The identities of the abductors were not established. But months later, when two ethnic Georgians were gunned down in broad daylight outside the Astoria, Mirilashvili’s posh St. Petersburg hotel, police quickly pointed the finger at the younger Mirilashvili.

“I found this quite strange that for the people who had allegedly organized the crime, the court hasn’t found enough proof of guilt, and for him,” — meaning Mirilashvili — “it has,” Pevzner said.

Meanwhile, Mirilashvili insists he is innocent.

Jewish leaders following the case said the stiff punishment came as a complete surprise.

“Those who were well-informed suspected a guilty verdict, but when a few minutes before the sentence was pronounced someone said quietly, ’12 years,’ I thought this was a bad joke,” said Eugenia Lvova, executive director of the local Russian Jewish Congress chapter and president of Adain Lo, the St. Petersburg Jewish Family Center.

Mirilashvili has served as president of the RJC’s St. Petersburg branch since the group’s founding in 1996. He retained his post after he was imprisoned in January of 2001.

The group says that despite his imprisonment, Mirilashvili still remains the largest local supporter of the Jewish community.

Last year, the RJC raised $350,000 in St. Petersburg, according to the group’s 2002 annual report. RJC president Yevgeny Satanovsky said most of the money had been a donation from Mirilashvili.

“Despite his imprisonment, he remains one of the most affluent people in St. Petersburg,” Satanovsky said.

A native of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, Mirilashvili is said to have a wide range of business interests in St. Petersburg, including casinos, real estate, retail, entertainment and hotel businesses.

The businessman, who has never been shy about his Jewish background, holds Russian and Israeli citizenship and used to divide his time between St. Petersburg and Tel Aviv.

His 18-year-old son, Slava, recently graduated from an English-language high school in Israel and will attend Tufts University near Boston this fall.

Mirilashvili spokesman Dmitry Miropolsky said in an interview that the guilty verdict and the tough sentence proved that the “target of this hunt is specifically Mikhail Mirilashvili and no one else.”

Alexander Afanasyev, Mirilashvili’s defense lawyer, called the sentence “enormously unjust, enormously severe.”

Mirilashvili’s defense filed a 37-page appeal to a higher court on Aug. 11.

“I hope the high court will reconsider” the verdict, Pevzner said.

For their part, prosecutors asked that Mirilashvili get a 15-year sentence.

Jewish leaders in St. Petersburg have said repeatedly that they didn’t believe anti-Semitism had a role in the guilty verdict or the sentence.

But Mirilashvili’s supporters — including Jewish leaders — believe the case might have been the result of competition inside the business community or the result of a payoff or pressure from public figures who wanted to get rid of Mirilashvili.

Satanovsky said the criminal case probably represents the “old war of oligarchs,” as Russia’s largest business leaders are often called.

Mirilashvili’s lawyers said the case also highlighted the high level of corruption within the city’s law enforcement system.

According to Miropolsky, Mirilashvili’s final statement to the court on July 25 alleged that the city’s deputy prosecutor, Boris Salmaksov, was demanding a bribe of $1 million to close the case. Salmaksov categorically denied the accusation.

A week before his sentencing, Mirilashvili became embroiled in a public argument with another powerful Russian Jew, exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky — who in the mid-1990s unsuccessfully tried to take over a local television station Mirilashvili ran.

In an open letter published July 24 in the Moscow newspaper Kommersant Daily, Berezovsky accused Mirilashvili of being involved in an underhanded deal in the early 1990’s to privatize a St. Petersburg-based alcohol producer.

Berezovsky alleged that Mirilashvili was helped in the deal by President Vladimir Putin, then head of the St. Petersburg Administration’s External Affairs Committee. Berezovsky called Mirilashvili a “criminal authority.”

Mirilashvili responded with an open letter in the daily Izvestiya a few days later accusing Berezovsky of lying. He denied any business dealings with Putin, saying he had never met the future president when he worked in St. Petersburg. He also denied accusations by Berezovsky and others that he has ties to the criminal underworld.

In the same letter, Mirilashvili accused Berezovsky of converting to Orthodox Christianity after Berezovsky failed in an alleged attempt to become a leader of the Russian Jewish community.

Mirilashvili and his lawyer have asked Jewish leaders not to intervene in the case while his appeal is pending, Lvova said.

That decision stems from the understanding that if the Jewish leadership comes out in his defense, the case would acquire a “political dimension,” Lvova said.

In his public letter, Mirilashvili wrote, “The norms of the Jewish faith in which I was raised teach: It is not enough when you know yourself that your are honest and clean. You ought to make it clear so that those around you know that you are a decent person.”

“Therefore I state it for all to hear that I am not involved in the criminal world,” he wrote.

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