Fighting the legal battles of Russians in Goa

Vikram Varma. Source: Alexandra Katz

Vikram Varma. Source: Alexandra Katz

Vikram Varma, a well-known advocate has been representing many Russians in Goan courts. In this exclusive interview, he talks about wrong impressions created by the media and the changing nature of cases involving Russian citizens.

After spending most of his life and carrier in Delhi, advocate Vikram Varma moved to Goa with his family to enjoy a more peaceful life. In spite of yoga in the mornings and the “sussegado” lifestyle of Goa, his professional life turned out to be as busy in Goa as it was in Delhi. Thanks to old connections with the Russian Embassy in Delhi, since 2007 Vikram Varma has been appointed by Russian Consulate to assist cases involving Russians in Goa. In this exclusive interview, he talks to RIR about the legal issues Russians face in the state.

Is public opinion still influenced by old stories about the “Russian mafia” invading North Goa?

It was in 2007 when I took up this matter about the media reports that Russians in Goa were involved in Mafia-like activities, on the request of the Russian Consulate who I hold in high respect. We had a situation when false information was given by some local persons and a couple of police officers that the Russian mafia had taken over Morjim and that the area had become difficult for locals to live in. The idea of the Russian mafia taking over Morjim was taken up by media with all TV channels and newspapers, from national to local level doing multiple reports.

When we started investigating the matter we found out that a number of restaurants had additional menus which were in Russian, but to my mind it’s just a way for the owners to communicate with the Russian Tourists who did not speak English or Konkani, it was a natural commercial step. We also found out that in one incident, several young Indian boys, not locals but from Karnataka, were thrown out of one of the restaurants owned by a Russian with Indian partners, for misbehaving with Russian girls. The case was clearly due to a difference in cultures.

It’s not only the menus in Russian or the property deals Russians are blamed for, but mainly the prostitution and drugs…

Yes, in 2008-2009 there was a lot of noise about narcotics and prostitution done by Russians in Goa. There was a serious investigation conducted and we found out that narcotics were controlled not by Russians but by a few local policemen from anti-narcotic cell. Then the Goa police gathered the evidence and arrested eight police officers from the Narcotic Cell including the senior inspector in charge. That was a big step for Goa police to arrest an officer of their own department. It just means that the evidence was so clear that they had no choice but to arrest these people.

Prostitution is another thing. We analyzed information on all the girls arrested in Goa on the charges of prostitution. There were no Russian girls, till last year. All the girls were either from Ukraine or Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan, who had been trapped by Indian prostitution chains through internet advertising, offering attractive jobs with good salaries and paid accommodation.

Even before rape became a much-talked about issue in India after the horrible case in Delhi there were numerous reports of sexual abuse of Russian women in Goa, and even deaths.  Were all these cases investigated thoroughly?

There were a few cases with Russian girls beaten up badly and sexually abused, with their passports taken by criminals who then informed the police that girls were roaming around without passports and visas. There was large number of deaths from 2006 onwards. But the standard procedure police followed in most of the cases was to declare it as a case of unnatural death or drug overdose.

For example, the case of Elena Sukhanova who died in 2009. She was molested, thrown on the rail tracks near Thivim station, her body chopped into pieces. The police claimed that she went to a disco at 2 am in Baga and 4 am her body was found chopped on the Railway Tracks near the Thivim station 20 kilometers from the disco. According to police officer investigating the crime, she had fallen down from the train while it was moving. In fact there was no reason for her to be in any train as her passport and money was all in her hotel room. I could not believe that. But investigating officer of the case closed the case saying it was an accidental death.

Didn’t parents of dead victims or Russian Consulate ask for re-investigating, re-opening the cases?

Parents of dead victims can approach the authorities to re-investigate a case, but this has never happened with any Russian’s deaths till now.

Should girls be also blamed for getting into wrong situations or mingling in wrong circles?

Many girls coming here with pink glasses become perfect victims for narcotic gangs. Normally when any of us go to another country there is a strong sense of trust. I found that a lot of young Russian girls are completely trusting local boys. There are a lot of good boys in Goa but sometimes the criminals make all efforts to get friendly with the Russian girls. There were a number of incidents where the boys got friendly with a girl, told her they knew important people, told her to come to the beach shack and eat whatever she wants without paying... Later she will be asked to accompany a boy to South Goa or even to Nepal not knowing that the boy is carrying some narcotics, but she anyway thinks she is having a very adventurous life. When her visa expires the boy would tell her that he knows people in the home ministry, she would hand over the passport to him. After that the control of her life shifts to the criminals and in any situation if she does not agree with instructions then the result has been sexual abuse, beating up, police custody, and deportation. 

Do you think dressing up more conservatively can help Russian girls stay safer?

See… you cannot relate the fact of sexual abuse to the way someone is dressed. Every man, woman or child has a legal right to dress the way they want to, when they go to the beach or a party. Dress codes are normally for special establishments.

We had an incident when a nine-year old Russian girl was sexually abused in Arambol in 2009. There was outrage in the Indian Parliament because one Member of Parliament tried to voice the argument that “she was not dressed properly”. A nine year old girl? Nonsense. We had to petition the government very seriously in that case to admit that the problem was in the mindset, and not the dressing. The criminals were arrested and brought to trial.

Russians commit crimes too, it’s a fact. What kind of crimes are you dealing with more often?

There are lots of technical crimes involving Russians, mostly related to overstay. Someone has lost his passport, somebody had a medical condition few days before the visa expired. We have about 14-15 such cases a season.

There were also a few cases where people did not lose passports but actually threw them. These all were mainly psychiatric cases. We had to admit these people to the Institute of Psychiatric and Human Behaviour (IPHB) where the doctors had to provide them complete treatment for their mental condition after which we helped them to return to their homes in Russia.

How can you help in such cases when one has lost a passport or the visa has expired?

We need to obtain an exit visa, the permission to leave the country. And we have to record the background of the case for that, what were the circumstances, why the person has overstayed his or her visa, we have to convince the government. Earlier all the clearances had to be taken from the Home Ministry, now it’s the responsibility of FRRO.

It is important to understand that the legal system in India is very slow and all legal problems are best resolved if handled immediately, before the charges are brought, as after that the person has to go through a legal process which can take even five years or more. If we resolve the matter at the earlier stage, the person can get out within a month if it is not a serious crime, of course. We have a very vibrant and helpful team at the Russian Consulate in Mumbai and I do hope that all Russian Citizens in Goa approach them for advice and assistance in case of any serious legal problem as soon as it happens. 

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