Friday, February 27, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Moscow to Seek Change of Venue in Cases Involving Extremism or Terrorism

Paul Goble

Vienna, February 27 – With the explicit support of President Dmitry Medvedev, Russian officials plan to ask the country’s Supreme Court to establish a special set of rules under which prosecutors will be permitted to see a change in venue, particularly in the North Caucasus, in cases involving extremism or terrorism.
Aleksandr Bastrykin, the head of the procuracy’s investigations committee, told a meeting of senior judicial officials in Moscow on Wednesday that prosecutors would seek such changes only “in exceptional cases,” but he said that such authority was necessary in order to assure that justice is done (
Medvedev supported Bastrykin saying that it was essential that cases be removed from areas where judges, witnesses or juries might be subject to “crude pressure.” In fact, the threat to juries in such cases might be moot given a law Medvedev signed in December that eliminated jury trials in many of these cases. observer Sergey Petrunin said that this superficially attractive idea, one he indicated was originally proposed by television broadcaster Maksim Shevchenko, in fact was extremely dangerous and testified to “the complete collapse of the ‘Caucasus policy’ of the current powers that be” in Moscow.
The idea that trials involving such serious crimes should be moved out of the North Caucasus to Russian regions, he argued, rests on the notion that “in the Caucasus, the entire system of relationships is so dependent on local clans” that any case will inevitably involve one or more of them, making a change of venue the only possible course of action.
On the one hand, the writer said, if the prosecutors and judges are of the same clan as the accused, they are unlikely to press all that hard for conviction, thereby allowing a kind of court nullification that the elimination of jury trials for terrorism or extremism was clearly intended to prevent.
And on the other, if the prosecutors and judges are of one clan and the accused is a member of another, no one who is a member of the clan of the accused will be convinced that justice can or will be done. Instead, he is likely to assume the reverse and thus take action outside of the court room regardless of the verdict.
Thus, Petrunin said, holding a trial in Rostov or Stavropol rather than Makhachkala or Nazran would seem at first glance to be an extraordinarily good idea. But there are several reasons why that is not true. First, moving the trials will lead to new charges of “Russian colonialism,” and thus further undermine Moscow’s control in the region.
Second, such arrangements will destroy something Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has made a central policy – the recreation of a common legal space across the entire country. If some cases can only be tried in some places, there is no such space, however much officials in Moscow may try to insist otherwise.
Indeed, Petrunin argued, the absence of such a common legal space is shown by Grozny’s demand that a Russian officer who had served his sentence be returned to jail and Makhachkala’s effective blocking of the appointment of an ethnic Russian as the chief tax inspector of Daghestan.
And third, what happens in court will not stay in court. The recent history of Ingushetia is evidence of that. Under former president Aushev, the people were able to participate in more or less open politics. When they came up with the idea to legalize polygamy, Moscow was so angry that it sacked Aushev and replaced him with Zyazikov.
Zyazikov for his part did whatever Moscow wanted and ignored the Ingush people. As a result, Petrunin said, that “formerly peaceful republic where there were practically no terrorists became even less subject to control than neighboring Chechnya!” And Zyazikov’s replacement is now trying to find a new balance between Moscow’s requirements and his nation’s demands.
If Moscow decides to change the venue of a case initiated in Ingushetia, Petrunin implied, that will not only undo whatever progress has been achieved there since Zyazikov was removed but also intensify anti-Moscow and anti-Russian movements not only in that republic but across the entire North Caucasus and possibly further afield.

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