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Russia: Judge's Dismissal Underlines Problems

  • Sophie Lambroschini

A respected Russian judge known for his independence has been dismissed from his post for allegedly violating judicial ethics. The action underlines the Russian government's failure to provide the country with independent courts -- the foundation, President Vladimir Putin says, of the economic and other reforms he has promised.

Moscow, 16 October 2000 (RFE/ RL) -- Last week Sergei Pashin, a respected judge, was stripped of his post by Moscow's Qualification Collegium of Judges for allegedly violating judicial ethics.

But it was not for corruption -- generally acknowledged to be a plague in the Russian court system -- that his peers judged Pashin unworthy of his job. Rather, he was dismissed for criticizing the sentencing of a young man to a prison term for draft-dodging, despite a constitutional right to conscientious objection, and for giving his personal telephone number to a listener in need of legal help during a radio show.

Pashin says that the real reason he lost his post was his what he calls his "independence," an appraisal with which human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Memorial agree. Pashin argues that, as obtaining and holding on to a job has grown more difficult in Russia, judges have become more compliant to their superiors. Also, he says, the reluctance of Russian authorities to push for long-promised judicial reforms adds to pressure on judges not to make just but merely non-controversial decisions.

Pashin told RFE/RL that insecure work conditions are a big factor in making judges dependent on the state.

"Judges, like all of us, are very dependent on their bread and butter. That's why the majority of decisions concerning either their own colleagues or other citizens are linked to a fear of arguing with the boss, a fear of being punished for that."

Pashin says he has been offered up to $20,000 in bribe money for a desired verdict. Nonetheless, he hesitates to charge judges generally with taking bribes. Instead, Pashin believes, the indirect financial pressure judges are subject to is more important in corrupting them.

It has frequently been reported in the Russian press that, as real wages have declined in recent years, governors have regularly been paying judges so-called "extras" out of their regional budgets. The reports say that, until last year, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov paid judges regular bonuses. Ostensibly, they were given to supplement the judges' low federal wages -- $100 to $200 a month. But while Luzhkov was providing the bonuses, he did not lose a single case he had brought against newspapers who criticized him.

Last Autumn, the Kremlin publicly criticized Luzhkov for this practice and promised to end political influence over the courts in the regions.

According to Pashin, too, judges are themselves rated by the number of unchallenging decisions they make. He says many magistrates make what he calls "acceptable" rather than legally-correct decisions.

That helps explain, Pashin says, the extreme harshness of Russian courts today. Acquittals are rendered in less than 1 percent of cases, a proportion even lower than the acquittal rate of courts under Stalin.

In principle, such problems should have been ironed out as early as 1992, when then-President Boris Yeltsin ordered a sweeping series of new laws and codes to provide a transition from the Soviet court system to a democratic Russian one. Pashin was one of the main authors of the reform, which included introducing a status for judges that guaranteed their independence, and the institution of jury trials and administrative courts separate from criminal ones.

Some of the reforms were at least partially implemented, such as the publication of a new penal code. Jury trials were set up on an experimental basis in nine of Russia's 89 regions. But then the reforms stalled.

There have since been a few cases of judicial independence, notably the acquittal of environmentalist Aleksandr Nikitin by a Saint Petersburg court that was twice upheld by Russia's Supreme court despite heavy government pressure. But on the whole, as Supreme Court president Vyacheslav Lebedev told the daily "Nezavismaya Gazeta" this month, overworked and underpaid judges simply are unable to "fulfill their potential in defending peoples rights."

A number of studies have shown that the perceived arbitrariness of Russian courts is a major reason why potential foreign -- and domestic -- investors are wary of placing money in the country. Its also undoubtedly one reason why President Vladimir Putin made a transformation of the judiciary one of the main points of the reform plan he made public after his election in the spring.

Parliament has also promised new efforts. Several months ago, the State Duma adopted some important amendments to judicial laws. And a new penal procedure code is expected to be adopted by the end of the year, replacing the 40-year-old Soviet text still in effect.

Viktor Pokhmelkin, a member of the new Duma's legislation committee, puts most of the blame for the stalled reforms on the old Duma where, he says, the communist-dominated legislation committee blocked many bills. Pokhmelkin says that that today's Russian executive actually supports key legal reforms.

"Our political faction is insisting that there should be in the budget a special paragraph for the judicial-legal reform in addition to the existing financing of the courts. We consider that additional, and large, sums of money should be allotted to intensify and speed up judicial reform. In general, the government supports this proposal -- this idea -- but there is some disagreement on the sums that should be allotted for these aims."

But Pashin, the dismissed judge, still has strong doubts about the Kremlin's dedication to overhauling the legal system. He says that the government's financial decisions so far show that legal reform is far from being a priority. "I would suppose," Pashin observes, "that the military actions in Chechnya cost the equivalent of dozens of judicial reforms."