Paying price in Ukraine for being a rich man's son Man, 20, jailed without evidence

February 01, 1992|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Sun Staff Correspondent

KHARKOV, Ukraine -- This is a city where V. I. Lenin still stands on his pedestal, where the hammer-and-sickle flag still flies and where if you run afoul of the authorities, you're still guilty until proved innocent.

The old ways die hard, Jimmy Koros, a tough kid from Brooklyn, N.Y., has discovered. He is spending his 19th month in jail here.

His case illustrates the strength and resilience of the entrenched old system, in spite of coups and commonwealths and the end of communism.

Koros is a 20-year-old Ukrainian-American. Prosecutors say he's a petty thief. Human rights advocates say that, guilty or not, he's definitely the victim of a judicial system that has little respect for due process, evidence or facts. His father says he is a hostage, caught up in a bald scheme of state-supported extortion.

He is the only U.S. citizen known to be in prison in any of the republics of the former Soviet Union, according to officials at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

Koros went to trial in Kharkov City Court in November 1990, charged with masterminding the late-afternoon burglary of the apartment of Nikolai Korsh, whose son was Koros' best friend. Three pieces of gold jewelry and several video cassettes were reported stolen.

There were two striking features about the trial: All three witnesses who had agreed to testify against Koros recanted on the stand. And no evidence was introduced showing there had even been a burglary in the first place. In most countries that would have been sufficient grounds for acquittal.

Nevertheless, the presiding judge, Alla Grigoreeva, found Koros guilty and sentenced him to four years in prison.

Judge Grigoreeva said the witnesses' testimony at the trial should be given no more weight than earlier statements they had given to police. "They couldn't explain the contradictions, so we found him guilty," she said.

"We never acquit people right away here, the way they do in America," she said.

A rich man in Ukraine

Jimmy Koros never wanted to be in Kharkov in the first place. Although he was born here, he moved with his parents and older brother to Brooklyn in 1977, when he was 5 years old.

On Oct. 4, 1984, he and his parents, Jerry and Linda Koros, became U.S. citizens. But four years ago, sitting around the kitchen table of his Brooklyn apartment, talking long hours with other Soviet immigrants, Jerry Koros began to think there might be an opportunity for him back in the old country.

The family was having a hard time making ends meet. Mrs. Koros was still having trouble with English. Jimmy Koros attended public schools and played linebacker on the Sheepshead Bay High School football team. But he dropped out of the 10th grade in 1986 to devote more time to his Dodge Charger.

Encouraged by more and more talk of something called perestroika, a restructuring of the Soviet Union, Jerry Koros took the plunge, moved back to Kharkov in 1988 and set up a "cooperative" making furs to order.

With the dollars he had saved in the United States, Jerry Koros would be a rich man in Ukraine.

He built a big white brick house on Upper Giev Street, on the leafy hill behind the train station. Two stories tall, with eight big rooms inside, intricate plaster moldings, three bathrooms, a huge blue-tiled bathing area and a porch in back, the house dwarfed its neighbors. A Mercedes was parked behind the big green gate.

Jerry Koros welcomed people to his home. He showed off his belongings. He gave what seemed like lavish gifts.

But in his 11 years in America, the good-natured Ukrainian had forgotten some things about his old country: the envy of neighbors, the distrust of comparative wealth and hard work, and the power of those in charge to smash anyone who would upset the system.

Jerry Koros just didn't understand the resentment he stirred. Bluntly put, he was viewed as a rich American Jew who was going to show up everybody in Kharkov.

The city government began telling him how to run his fur business. The interference grew and grew. Taxes soared higher and higher, as if on a whim. Finally he gave up, exasperated, and walked away from it.

'There were no facts'

Shortly afterward, Jimmy Koros was arrested. Then, in the old way of this place, the offers to fix his case were made.

Kharkov is a tough industrial city of nearly 2 million people in eastern Ukraine. Except for the inflated prices and absence of butter here, a visitor might not realize that much had changed since the heyday of Communism.

To be sure, a new city council that includes reformers struggles for influence. The press is sometimes bolder than the old guard would like. But the old guard holds the power here. No one, for instance, has dared move against Sergei Storozhenko, who officially is deputy city prosecutor but who in fact is the most powerful law enforcement figure in Kharkov.

During the Leonid I. Brezhnev era, Mr. Storozhenko prosecuted several noted dissidents -- with the help of fabricated evidence, according to human rights activists.

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