Monday, March 16, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Russian Courts Acquit Smaller Share of Accused than Stalin-Era Ones Did

Paul Goble

Vienna, March 16 – Last year, Russian courts acquitted approximately one percent of those brought to trial, fewer than the ten to twelve percent of the accused acquitted by Soviet courts in Stalin’s time and far fewer than the 20 to 40 percent of those found not guilty in the courts of many Western countries.
According to the Russian Supreme Court, Russian judges found 941,933 accused guilty last year, slightly more than the 935,090 they convicted in 2007. And they sentenced 316,000 to incarceration, one percent more than the year before. But they acquitted only 10,027, two percent less than in 2007 (
This tilt toward the prosecution and against the defense was reflected in other statistics as well. Judges “approved nine out of ten requests for arrest warrants” in 2008, 208,000 out of 230,000. Eleven percent fewer cases were heard before jurors. And the courts approved 98 percent of prosecutorial requests for extending the sentences of those incarcerated.
In commenting on these figures, observer Yury Gladysh noted how unfavorably they compared with statistics from Stalin’s time or from foreign countries. But he continued, the statistics by themselves do not say very much about the tragic reality of Russian jurisprudence today (
They certainly do not reflect any direct order from above – the distance from a local judge in a rural backwater to Medvedev or Putin, Gladysh notes, “is almost as far as to God himself” – although Gladysh argued that one should not underestimate the judicial climate that these two leaders and their entourages have created.
But the commentator continued that “many specialists on legal issues consider that the reason[for this pattern] consisted in the fact that the judicial and law enforcement systems in Russia have already for a long time existed in fact outside of the legal field and have only an indirect relationship to jurisprudence as a whole.”
First of all, these experts say, judges and prosecutors “’protect’ above all themselves and their immediate associates,” including investigators and prosecutors, and consequently, they are not inclined to cast “doubt on the quality of the work of the latter,” which they would be doing if they ruled against them.
Indeed, Gladysh continues, “it is possible to speak about the existence of ‘a caste of untouchables’ who gave given to themselves the right to punish or to pardon as they see fit.” And in such an environment, when judges speak about “law and conscience,” they in fact tilt to the latter and its interpretation by “the corporative solidarity” of their associates.
Some people are inclined to view all this as a phenomenon that has always existed in Russia. But Gladysh underscores that “in Rus, it was far from always this way.” And consequently, it is an open question as to whether it will survive into the future. “But on the answer to it depends [not just the fate of the innocent] by for Russia itself.”
Three other reports over the last few days provide support for Gladysh’s contentions on this score. First, today’s “Novaya gazeta” features an interview with two prosecutors in the latest Anna Politkovskaya trial which ended with the jury acquitting the accused (
The prosecutors Yuliya Safina and Vera Pashkovskaya said that one could never really predict what a jury would do regardless of the preponderance of evidence in one direction or another, and they told the Moscow newspaper that they were already preparing to appeal the verdict in this case.
Second, Yelena Ryabina, who heads the refugee assistance program of the Civic Support Committee, detailed for what she said was an unfortunate pattern in which the Russian authorities ignore their own laws, constitution and international commitments, an approach which she labeled “legality a la Russe” (
And third, Lyudmila Alekseyeva, the president of the Moscow Helsinki Group, said on her return from a visit to the North Caucasus that officials not only ignore the law to bring charges of extremism against Muslims but often send those Muslims who are convicted to serve in “Christian” areas where they are subject to abuse (
Alekseyeva’s arguments on both points are supported by others – see, for example, the detailed charges of Sergey Komkov at -- but they are certain to enrage both many in the judicial system who resent any questioning of what they do and also those in power and not a small number of ordinary Russians as well.

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