Vladimir Novikov, RAPSI 

A 2012 Moscow Metro station brawl culminating in the firing by a young university student of a traumatic pistol (non-lethal weapon intended to be less likely to kill a living target than conventional firearms) became a high-profile sensation earlier this week when a Moscow court ruled that the 20-year-old shooter would be sentenced to three years in a penal colony for her crime.

Armed with only this knowledge, one could easily assume that she had been targeted for harassing passengers or otherwise engaging in hooliganism.

The facts of the case which ultimately rested on the issue of self-defense are not so watertight.

But the causes of the incident are not so obvious either. What is clear is that investigations often follow the path of least resistance, while the courts do not like contradicting investigators.

Facts of the case

Lotkova, a 20-year old student in her third year of university at the time of the incident, was convicted of having injured Ivan Belousov and Ibragim Kurbanov after firing a traumatic pistol in the metro on May 26.

Lotkova maintained her innocence, claiming that she had only fired the shots in order to prevent an impending conflict between her friends and the two young men, which would mean that her actions should qualify as self-defense. However, the victims claimed that Lotkova's friends initiated the quarrel.

Scuffles in public places are not unusual in Russia, nor are fights involving traumatic pistols. That is why at first the metro incident in May did not appear to be extraordinary in any sense. But as the investigation edged forward, the number of unanswered questions has continued to grow.

Regrettably, the court has failed to come up with answers.

Two groups of young people seem to have clashed on the escalator. As follows from the court file, someone produced a knife. The weapon might have been hanging from the belt of Lotkova’s friend or was whipped out by one of their adversaries, Ibrahim Kurbanov. Both parties have offered differing evidence on this point.

One way or another, only Lotkova ended up in court. Kurbanov and his cronies are victims. But where does that leave her three friends? Or did the investigation decide to disregard the early stage in the conflict?

Facts from YouTube

Aside from the inconclusive evidence offered up by those involved in the case, there is a video of the scuffle has found its way to YouTube. The clip clearly shows several late-night passengers, including two girls, one of them Lotkova. A few seconds later, they are nearly overrun by a group of young men. You can clearly sense their agitation as they disperse across the platform.

After another second or two a young man jumps from behind a pillar and falls on the floor. He is being pursued by another man. It is hard to say who is attacking whom at this point. The camera keeps catching glimpses of Lotkova in the background.

A police officer makes an appearance around 10 seconds after the fight breaks out. At first his moves are erratic; he is clearly at a loss for what to do. He pulls out a mobile phone and seems to be calling for back-up. Finally he tries to break up the fight and detain one of the young people.

While the policeman is fussing about, Lotkova produces a traumatic gun. The defense repeatedly indicated during the court hearings that she fired one warning shot in the air. But this episode was not recorded on the video.

At the same time, the recording clearly shows Lotkova aiming her gun at someone outside of the camera’s range. She would ultimately testify in court that she was firing at the melee without taking aim with the intention of stopping Kurbanov and his friend.

As the fight subsides, one of the participants is left lying on the floor. No police reinforcements have turned up by that point.

The bottom line

Despite visible traces of editing, this video is the only means of assessing the situation as a whole with at least some degree of fairness. You cannot attach the verbal exchanges on the escalator to the case, especially given the fact that each participant has his or her own unique version. As far as the police officer is concerned, he was only slightly more effective than an ordinary bystander. Yes, the recording clearly shows that he was trying to do something. But ultimately he was no more successful than a random passer-by attempting to deal with an unruly drunken brawl.

During rush hours in the metro and in the evening, you can see teams of policemen, often with dogs, patrolling many stations. At the time of the incident in question, however, there was just one officer, who seemed more concerned with safety – that of himself and his gun – than anything else. Had the fighters confiscated his gun, the scuffle could have ended much more dramatically.

So the court disregarded this part of the story and the role of the police in the investigation.

Whatever the case, only Lotkova has been sentenced. The court deemed that she had exceeded the boundaries of justifiable self-defense, inflicting grievous damage to the health of Kurbanov and his friend. She was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment and ordered to pay 750,000 rubles (about $24,000) in damages.

The sentence caused a surge of indignation among the Russian public. After all, why should a young woman, who acted courageously and boldly in a difficult situation, be left with all the blame? The investigation and the court thought it unnecessary to answer this question.

But let us try to be objective. At least some of the shots were fired when there was no direct threat to her life or health. As she herself admitted, she was firing at the fighting group in order to chase away the attackers from her wounded friends. But attempting to bring brawlers to their senses by firing into a crowd is like trying to extinguish a fire with gasoline. The consequences are unpredictable.

Let us also have a closer look at the girl’s weapon. She owned a 9-mm Turkish-made traumatic gun, Streamer 2014, a rather formidable weapon, considering the fact that Kurbanov’s friend ended up with a hole in his lung.

A football fan, Yegor Sviridov, was killed with a similar gun in December 2010. The shooter was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2011. The public met the sentence with ill-concealed jubilation and praise for the “triumph of justice.”

A measure of cruelty

As I see it, the sentence handed to Lotkova, for all the complexity of the circumstances, is unjustifiably harsh.

She was indicted under an article of the Criminal Code on inflicting premeditated grievous harm to health. Both victims, even though they had medical treatment, were not left disabled. This fact alone is enough to cause certain doubts about the fairness of the sentence.

As to the rest, the questions are the same as before. Who started the brawl? Why was it only Lotkova who was made to stand trial? Who inflicted the knife wounds on her friends, wounds that were even more serious than those of the official victims? How should the actions of the official victims be classified, if, as according to eyewitnesses, both men were drunk?

For now, these questions remain unanswered and a person has been sentenced for using a traumatic weapon. The inevitable conclusion that follows is that Russia needs a stricter law on this particular type of weapon. Traumatic weapons are frequently undermined, equated with toys. The man who killed Yegor Sviridov said that the murder was like a game of make-believe. That is why the fight against traumatic weapons is such a thankless task. In 99.9% of cases, anyone with a vague understanding of the “boundaries of justifiable self-defense” and “absolute necessity” could be in trouble.  

In the summer of 2012, the Supreme Court issued a special clarification on how the justifiable self-defense clause should be used, pointing out that “the Criminal Code entitles citizens to use active protection measures against any attackers” and that “criminals can be detained not only by law enforcement officials but also by witnesses or victims.”

But in practice, their advice has failed to make things easier. Lotkova’s sentence is a sign that under identical circumstances you will be safer and freer if you run for your life. How someone may feel in this situation is of no interest to law enforcement officials and the courts.

It is also an additional signal to lawmakers, who seem in no hurry to clarify the notions of justifiable self-defense and absolute necessity.