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Russia: Judicial Reform Under Way, But For The Right Reasons?

  • Claire Bigg --> Russian citizens are increasingly taking their government to court in Strasbourg (epa) October 24, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- In a televised meeting in early October, Russian President Vladimir Putin received the head of the country's Supreme Court, Vyacheslav Lebedev, in his Kremlin office.

The two men agreed on the need to overhaul Russia's justice system and improve its performance in redressing violations of basic judicial and human rights. Such a reform, they said, would help unburden the European Court of Human Rights, which is constantly snowed under with applications from Russia.

"Most complaints to the European Court concern two types of offenses: violations of detention conditions or violations of judicial procedures," Pavel Odintsov, the spokesman for Russia's Supreme Court, told RFE/RL. "It would be easier for the Supreme Court's presidium to deal with the lion's share of these issues within its own, national, judicial system. This would also simplify the court's work."

The proposal broadens the Supreme Court's authority to consider cases connected to human rights abuses or violations of judicial procedures, and speeds up the process. It is currently being drafted by the Supreme Court and needs to be approved by parliament before being signed into law by the president.

But the proposed reform has met with skepticism from human rights lawyers. "In principle, I don't see anything wrong with citizens getting the necessary legal assistance in their own country," says prominent Russian lawyer Yury Shmidt. "But I know very well how dependent our justice is on the authorities nowadays. It's quite hard to even call it justice. So I don't believe any reforms in this area will prove efficient."

Shmidt says the European Court of Human Rights' frequent rebukes of the Russian government, which he says are causing "extreme displeasure" in the Kremlin, are more likely to be the true motive behind the proposal.

Mara Polyakova, another respected Russian human rights lawyer, shares this view. "Our courts don't want their judgments to be challenged, and that's the real reason why our judicial system has come up with this initiative," she says. "I have very serious doubts about this idea. I know our judges, I know their mentality, and I doubt very much that this will promote the observance of human rights."

Justice From Strasbourg

It might seem odd that this court sitting thousands of kilometers away in the French city of Strasbourg has emerged as one of the most powerful checks on Russian authorities. But lax justice and unabated red tape are driving growing numbers of Russians to pin all their hopes on the court.

In 2006, Russian citizens alone lodged as many as 12,000 complaints with the court -- one-fifth of all applications filed by the Council of Europe's 47 member states.

Predictably, the unrelenting string of guilty verdicts coming out of Strasbourg has ruffled feathers in Moscow. Rulings forcing the government to acknowledge atrocities committed by federal forces in Chechnya particularly irk Russian officials. Both Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have accused the court of handing down "political" rulings against Russia.

In September, Putin signed a decree allowing the Justice Ministry to send five people to work with Russia's permanent delegation to the Council of Europe and Russia's representative to the European Court of Human Rights. The decree said the measure is meant to "enhance the protection of Russia's interests" at the court.

The Russian Constitutional Court's chairman, Valery Zorkin, in July called for legislation barring Russian citizens from appealing to the Strasbourg court before exhausting all legal avenues at home. His comments came just days after the court found Russia responsible for the murder of Ruslan Alikhadzhiyev, a former Chechen parliament speaker, and ordered Moscow to pay his mother 40,000 euros ($57,230) in moral damages.

Supreme Court spokesman Odintsov, however, says the current draft law won't affect the right of Russian citizens to apply to the Strasbourg court either directly or after unsuccessful appeals in Russia.

Russia has shown some measure of goodwill toward the European Court of Human Rights in recent years, including improving conditions in pretrial detention centers and prisons at the court's request. But more often than not, Russian authorities fail to cooperate.

"On the one hand, Russia always pays the money it is ordered to pay," says Bill Bowring, a professor of international human rights law at the University of London's Birkbeck College. "But when it comes to further incompliance with enforcement, that is, carrying out an investigation where there's been a failure to investigate, prosecuting people from the government who appear to have committed crimes, and changing the law in practice, Russia is simply not doing it."

Moscow Blocking Reform

Like other human rights experts, Bowring says Russia's refusal to ratify Protocol 14 -- a document intended to help the court speed up the processing of cases -- casts doubts on its stated efforts to improve its rights record and help out the overburdened Strasbourg court. Russia is the sole Council of Europe member to have rejected the document, preventing it from coming into effect.

"The Russian representative who had been at the court from the beginning was recently sacked and replaced by Mrs. Milinchuk, a career prosecutor," says Bowring, who has helped many Russian citizens take their case to Strasbourg. "I think this is all part of Russia trying to improve the quality of its representation at the court. But it looks extremely bad to be saying: 'We're going to carry out these reforms' when Russia is the one country that is preventing the court from carrying out its own reforms."

In February, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) published a report singling out Russia and Turkey as the two member states least cooperative with the court. The report cited frequent instances of harassment, coercion, and intimidation of plaintiffs and lawyers, particularly in Chechnya.

Bowring himself was deported from Russia in November 2005 on his way to monitor the trial of Stanislav Dmitriyevsky, the editor of a newspaper charged with inciting ethnic, racial, and religious hatred after he printed articles by Chechen separatist leaders. Dmitriyevsky was later given a two-year suspended prison sentence. The newspaper was published by the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, an organization monitoring human rights violations in Chechnya and helping Chechens sue Russia at the European Court.

After formally seeking explanations for his deportation from a dozen Russian state bodies, Bowring was told he had failed to hand back the second half of his landing card.

One year later, a Russian court shut down the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, ruling that nongovernmental organizations cannot be headed by a person convicted of "extremist" activities.

Further articles in this series: Taking Your Country To Court and From Electric Shocks To The European Court

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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to​