For the past 28 months, Mikhail Mirilashvili has remained incarcerated in the Kresty prison, a gloomy red-brick penitentiary built during the czarist era.
One of St. Petersburg’s most influential businessmen, he was detained on suspicion of involvement in contract murders and kidnappings, charges he fiercely denies.
Despite his forced absence from normal life, the 43-year-old magnate known for his support of Jewish causes is still widely regarded as one of the most prominent members — and the primary local donor — of St. Petersburg Jewry, Russia’s second largest Jewish community.
Like many other members of the Russian business elite, Mirilashvili, who is a native of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, took only short time following the fall of communism in 1991 to amass a large fortune.
Today, Mirilashvili is probably one of the wealthiest prisoners in Russia. From his prison cell, he controls large chunks of St. Petersburg’s gambling, hotel and retail industries.
His fate also remains a cause of concern for the Jewish community.
Mirilashvili has been president of the St. Petersburg chapter of the Russian Jewish Congress since the charity group’s inception in 1996– and despite his imprisonment, he retains his post.
Since Mirilashvili has been under arrest, “not a single program he supported was closed or downsized. His donation has even increased,” said Eugenia Lvova, executive director of the local RJC chapter and president of the St. Petersburg Jewish Family Center known as Adain Lo.
One of the programs that was started with Mirilashvili’s funds — and which he still supports — is a Jewish community-run soup kitchen that feeds 250 elderly and needy citizens, including 150 non-Jews.
“Yet any organization needs a functioning leader. His absence has created tremendous problems, as we do have a leader who is inaccessible,” Lvova said.” As a result, the organization does not develop, and no new members join it.”
Criminal charges pressed against a Jewish leader would likely cause deep embarrassment for a Jewish community. But not in Russia, where people have a deep distrust of the nation’s police and judicial systems — an attitude developed during the Soviet era in response to the capricious behavior of authorities.
Russian Jewish leaders believe Judaism is playing no role in the case, which is currently being tried in a local court.
“I’m convinced that the Jewish theme has nothing to do with” Mirilashvili’s trial, Mark Grubarg, chairman of the Jewish community of St. Petersburg, said.
Jewish officials here never questioned Mirilashvili’s innocence.
“This is an unfortunate situation that became possible in a country where the rule of law has not become the norm yet,” Grubarg said. “And unfortunately it happened to a respected member of our community.”
St. Petersburg has acquired a reputation of the “criminal capital” of post-Soviet Russia, a city where organized crime has used violence and official connections to dominate the city’s underworld before gradually moving into various legitimate businesses.
The media frequently called Mirilashvili the leader of a crime gang whose members originate from Kutaisi, the town in the western part of Georgia where Mirilashvili lived before moving to St. Petersburg in the late 1970s.
Jewish leaders give little credence to these reports, calling them “nonsense.” Some say Mirilashvili’s business competitors paid for these negative reports. Similarly, many assumed the whole criminal case may have resulted from business competition.
“When he got arrested, everyone thought it had to do with the competition in business. But now when his business operation seems to be more or less intact, it appears that there should have been another reason,” said Alexander Frenkel, director of the St. Petersburg Jewish Community Center.
In August 2000, Mirilashvili’s father, also a businessman, was kidnapped in St. Petersburg, but released within two days.
The identities of the abductors were not established, yet when within months after the incidents two ethnic Georgians were shot and killed in broad daylight outside the posh Astoria hotel, which is owned by Mirilashvili Jr., the police quickly pointed at him.
The younger Mirilashvili, who holds joint Russian and Israeli citizenship and divided his time between Russia and Tel Aviv, was arrested in January 2001 in St. Petersburg.
Mirilashvili’s defense insists on his full innocence. They say the investigation has been virtually deadlocked as of six months ago, and the trial that opened last November brought little progress to the case.
Eight other defendants in the case — most of them Mirilashvili’s former bodyguards — have all been released on parole.
On a recent weekday morning, the courtroom of the Leningrad District Military Court was filled with a couple dozen of relatives, business partners and lawyers.
Two policemen led Mirilashvili into the room and locked him inside a metal cage opposite from the prosecutors. Other defendants sat on a bench outside the cage.
The businessman, dressed in light green long-sleeved polo shirt and black dress pants, looked relaxed.
Inside the cage, he smiled and waved to his parents and his 18-year-old son, Slava. While the prosecutor questioned his former chief bodyguard, Mirilashvili took notes on a thick notepad, using the breaks to speak with his lawyers through the metal bars.
“Objectivity requires that Mirilashvili is released and fully acquitted, but the trial has little to do with an attempt to establish the truth. The goal is to sentence Mirilashvili,” said Dmitry Miropolsky, a spokesman for the businessman.
Following his detention, the businessman’s associates launched a Web site, www.mirilashvili.ru, that publishes reports on the case and updates on the trial in Russian and English.
“Had the investigation quickly and successfully substantiated its charges and had he been found guilty, then this would have possibly compromised the Jewish community,” said Leonid Kolton, executive director of the St. Petersburg Jewish Welfare Center Hesed Avraham, who has a picture of himself with Mirilashvili hanging on the wall in his office. “But now even if he is declared guilty, everyone would feel the verdict is baseless.”
Mirilashvili Sr. told JTA that the trial would result in Mirilashvili’s release this summer.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.