ARCHANGEL, Russia ARCHANGEL, Russia -- They were 20 years old, just setting out on their adult lives, when the darkness of the Russian legal system settled over them, intent on their destruction.
In the ensuing six years, the two young firemen and their forestry-student friend learned some terrible lessons: If the Russian police want you, they can get you; they will beat you and torture you until you confess; they are all-powerful; you are helpless, and only a miracle can save you.
While Russians have achieved a sort of democracy, many of their institutions remain despotic. One of the most menacing, the one that fills the average innocent Russian with dread, is the inaptly named justice system.
"God save us from this Russia abandoned by God, truth and conscience," says Anatoly Pristavkin, who observes the worst of the system as chairman of the Presidential Clemency Commission in Moscow. "Where are you heading, Russia, with so many scoundrels, thieves, beasts? I'm trying to find the answer. Where is Russia going?"
What happened to the three young men from Archangel offers Pristavkin only the gloomiest of answers about the evolution of Russian justice.
On a school day in October 1993, Galina Gavrilenko returned home from her job as a kindergarten teacher to find her two young daughters murdered.
Anya, 11, and Olesya, 9, apparently had surprised an intruder when they came home from school. They were bludgeoned to death. The horrified citizens of Archangel, a city of about 400,000 people 100 miles below the Arctic Circle, demanded action.
Fifteen days later, Gavrilenko's brother, Mikhail Yurochko, was arrested and charged with murder. Yurochko was a much-beloved young uncle to the girls and had lived with the family when the children were smaller. Their father was away at sea for long periods, and Yurochko stood in as surrogate father. From the beginning, Gavrilenko refused to believe that someone who had loved her girls so deeply could have killed them so brutally.
"When the investigation against my brother started, we realized they were making a mistake," Gavrilenko says, "but our attitude toward the police was still one of respect and hope that they would admit the mistake. We didn't realize how aggressive they were."
The police accused Yurochko, who owed a small debt, of breaking into the apartment to steal money. They said the girls stumbled onto the scene, so he killed them. His fingerprints were on a hammer -- no matter that his sister said he had used it to make a repair in the apartment. They found it easy enough to get a confession. "When they arrested me, the state of my soul was very bad," Yurochko says. "It was only a few days after the crime was committed. The tragedy affected me very much."
Yurochko was held for two weeks before his family knew what had happened to him. They were in agony, thinking he simply had disappeared. During that time, he says, he was questioned for hours at a time, deprived of sleep, threatened and beaten. He was not allowed to see a lawyer. The physical and psychological pressures were unbearable. He finally came to believe there was only one way to survive. He signed a confession.
Even that wasn't enough. The police decided they needed two more defendants, says Diederik Lohman, director of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch, who later investigated the case.
"Witnesses said they had seen three men on the roof of the building that day," says Lohman. "And they thought one man couldn't have done it alone. They tortured Yurochko again."
Yurochko was put into a cell where police knew he would be raped, his sister says. Then, the police threatened to make the rape public. Yurochko signed a statement implicating two of his closest friends in the crime.
That's when the young men began the journey to death row, the dark heart of the legal system from which few witnesses have emerged.
Prison life in Russia is unremittingly harsh and punishing. The accused can spend years awaiting their day in court, warehoused in the notorious pretrial prisons.
The prisons are terribly overcrowded, often with 120 prisoners in a cell built to contain 30. The prisoners have to sleep in shifts, no one can ward off the lice, the prison gruel threatens starvation, and tuberculosis is at epidemic proportions.
Those who receive a life sentence rather than the death penalty -- which was liberally used until President Boris N. Yeltsin declared a moratorium three years ago -- say many convicts would gladly choose a bullet to the back of the head.
Sentence of death
Here, a life sentence means death arrives in slow-motion, say human rights advocates, with prisoners dying of tuberculosis and malnutrition instead of the swift action of a gun.
When he accused his friends, Yurochko says, he did not understand the enormity of the danger. He was sure no case could be made against them because he knew they weren't guilty. But the two newly accused men also confessed quickly, even though both had alibis.