City's Al Capone in court

By Linda Jones and Mike McCoy

Admirers crowded the public gallery and gleaming black Mercedes automobiles waited outside as the reputed godfather of one of St Petersburg's most feared mafia gangs came to trial.

Alexander Malyshev, 49, faces a catalog of crimes linked with his gang's activities and is joined by 17 fellow defendants -- including two police officers.

It is a case that has taken more than two years to come to court and is expected to last at least six months.

The 400-strong Malyshev gang is believed to be one of the five main cartels in St Petersburg, ranking with such names as the Kazanskaya, Tambovskaya and Velikiye Luki "gruppirovki."

A long list of crimes has been incorporated into one single "banditism" charge. Details of the offenses were not read out to the trial which was last week adjourned until May 11.

Banditism refers to any armed criminal group which has an established hierarchy and a specific aim of "targeting state institutions, state organizations and citizens of the Russian Federation."

Rumors are rife that some of the men will be accused of several killings but court authorities refused to reveal the severity of the alleged offenses.

The Russian press has reported that the gang is also charged with attempting to extort millions of dollars from the Petrovsky Bank and of illegally shipping foreign automobiles into Russia.

The main court room at St Petersburg City Court was packed with wives and girlfriends of the defendants who shouted their encouragement as lawyers made lengthy pleas for changes in custody conditions.

All the applications were rejected by Judge Fyodor Kholodov. However, the defendants remained impassive and relaxed as he announced his decision.

Nine of the accused have been kept in solitary confinement.

Malyshev, dubbed the Al Capone of the city's underworld, was arrested in October 1992 and has been held in custody at the Bolshoy Dom -- the ex-KGB headquarters on Liteiny Prospect.

According to criminal folklore, he lives in a plush, well-furnished cell with a mobile phoneline to the outside world.

But Malyshev's doctors say that his health has seriously deteriorated during his pre-trial detention.

Lawyer, Vladimir Zakharov, said Malyshev had suffered a hernia and could be struck down by paralysis at any time.

He asked unsuccessfully for a delay in the trial so his client could have an urgent back operation.

The case was further delayed by the absence of one of the accused. Andrei Berlin, director of the Ineks Limited computer firm, and alleged "criminal mastermind" was arrested two weeks ago in Germany. He is being held in a Berlin jail.

Other defendants include Vladislav Kirpichev, vice president of Indeks Limited, Gennady Petrov, director of the Krasny Khimik factory and Oleg Romanov, a Moscow businessman.