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Russia: Judiciary Reform Meets With Resistance -- Part 1

  • Sophie Lambroschini

One of Vladimir Putin's key promises during last year's presidential campaign was a thorough reform of the Russian's judicial system. Now, five months after a special presidential commission was instructed to work out a reform program, several bills are expected to be presented to the Duma as soon as early next month. But attempts at partial reform over the past months have revealed underlying resistance. In part one of a two-part series on Russia's judiciary, RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini looks at the reform plans and the problems they face.

Moscow, 24 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The failings and alleged widespread corruption of the Russian court system are such that they've become material for everyday jokes. Here's one of the latest, inspired by warring NTV channel shareholders Vladimir Gusinsky and Alfred Kokh, who have instituted numerous court proceedings against one another.

Gusinsky and Kokh went to court, the joke goes. The first gave the judge $1 million, the second gave $1.5 million. The judge said, "let's be impartial and fair," and gave Kokh back $500,000.

But Russia's judiciary system is in fact no joke. A thorough reform of the country's courts was a key promise in Vladimir Putin's electoral campaign last year. On his electoral website, Putin said that prosecutors should stop "privatizing their powers" -- a hint at rampant corruption -- and end the use of law-enforcement forces to serve political or business needs.

Raids by prosecutors' personnel or by other armed and masked men using a prosecutor's warrant have become a common method of intimidation used to take over a company. Courts are suspected of being used to legalize such takeovers.

A first judicial reform was drafted in 1991 by a group of liberal independent experts and its principles were adopted soon after by the Supreme Soviet. That reform was backed not only by human rights organizations, but also by politicians, judges, and businessmen. They all recognized the need for an overhaul of a system largely inherited from the Soviet Union and overrun by corruption. But the reform was never actually implemented.

In his address to parliament three weeks ago (3 April), Russian President Vladimir Putin compared the court system to Russia's shadow economy. He said that Russia's "shadow justice" could compromise both business confidence and the state's reputation. "A key question for the authorities is the trust of its citizens in them," Putin said, noting that the degree of this trust is directly determined by how well the state protects its citizens from what he described as "arbitrariness, racketeers, bandits, and bribe-takers."

Putin called Russia's judiciary a "political problem" because, he said, it violates "the rights and interests of our citizens." Reform, he added, was "badly needed."

"The country's judicial system is lagging behind real life and is not very helpful in carrying out economic transformations. Not only for entrepreneurs, but also for many people who are seeking to restore their rights in law, the courts have not been quick, fair, and impartial."

Four months ago, a special commission headed by deputy head of the presidential administration Dmitry Kozak was put in charge of drafting a reform of the courts. The commission is expected to present the brunt of its work to the State Duma by the beginning of next month (May).

On the website, which generally supports the Kremlin, Kozak was quoted a few days ago as telling judges at a special meeting held last week near Moscow that part of the planned reform concerns them directly. Aimed at fighting corruption and overwork, the reform would both raise judges' salaries and increase their numbers. From an equivalent of about $200 a month today, judges' salaries would reach $1,000 in 2006, the programmed end of the reform.

In addition, Kozak said, measures would be taken to lessen the grip of local authorities over judges -- and thereby their ability to pressure the court in favor of one or another party. Under the draft reform, judges will be appointed without the approval of regional parliaments and will not receive their apartments from local authorities.

The projected judicial reform will also seek to rein in the present freewheeling status of judges. It would introduce an age limit for judges and widen the existing special judges' council deciding on appointments and suspensions to include legal experts who are not part of the judicial system. The hope is to increase judges accountability while weakening their overall influence.

In addition to the planned major judicial reform, several other projected bills or drafts already presented to the Duma are expected to correct what are seen as remnants of the Soviet repressive system.

Several laws are expected to overhaul and in effect replace a criminal procedural code adopted in the 1960s.

A bill setting a 12-month limit to detention during pretrial investigation was adopted by the Duma several months ago, but was rejected by the upper house (Federation Council) earlier this year. Another bill, which conforms to Russia's 1993 constitution, would introduce court sanctions for detentions of more than 48 hours as well as for unauthorized searches. According to the existing criminal code, the Prosecutor-General's Office can order such detention and searches, which only afterwards can be challenged in court.

The government also proposes to generalize trials by jury, which now are only used in a handful of Russia's 89 regions. In most cases today, a panel of one judge and two assistant judges decides on alleged criminal acts.

Using such procedures, more than 92 percent of those accused are found guilty, and the courts have been criticized for clinging to the Soviet-era logic that the state is never wrong. Human rights experts, judges, and lawyers have proposed jury trials as an antidote to the high conviction rates. According to Moscow judge Sergey Pashin, jury trials acquit 20 percent of those accused.

However, the first overtures at judicial reform have already backfired, reflecting deep-ingrained resistance to some of the proposed changes.

Two projected bills reducing the powers of the Prosecutor-General's Office have failed to be adopted, allegedly because of pressure from law-enforcement organs.

Early this year [January], the Duma passed a bill that stripped prosecutors of the right to deliver detention orders, harmonizing legislation with the 1993 constitution that clearly states a person can be jailed only on a court order. But just days after the bill was adopted, Putin withdrew it -- with the official reason given that it was too expensive to implement.

According to liberal deputies who had pushed for the reform, high law-enforcement officials such as Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov and Federal Security Service chief Nikolai Patrushev pressured the Kremlin to withdraw the bill.

The Federation Council rejected another bill limiting pretrial detention to a year instead of 18 months after an official protest by the Prosecutor-General's Office.

Law-enforcement organs, especially the Prosecutor-General's Office, warn that such a reform would let hundreds of criminals out in the streets and make it more difficult to catch terrorists.

At a news conference last week [Friday], Deputy Prosecutor-General Badir Kekhlerov urged that prosecutors' rights be left untouched:

"When the courts take up the defense of citizens, then of course the prosecutor's office will give up some of its powers. But I would like to say that when we speak about obeying some kind of standards, obeying the norms set by the constitution -- [when we] refer to the West, we constantly forget that our people don't get paid in time, that our people's mentality is different, that our perception of justice is different, that the respect of the law is not the same. Why shouldn't we demand that these standards should first be attained and only then introduce the rest [that is, the judicial reform]?"

Kekhlerov, who is a member of the presidential reform commission, suggested that the Prosecutor-General's Office should wait until Russia improves its living standards and grows more respectful of the law before it renounces some of its many powers. He also said that the Prosecutor-General's Office is society's last resort to protest against corrupted judges.

Another obstacle to extensive judicial reform will be purely financial. Simply raising salaries a bit and giving old courtrooms a new coat of paint would cost well over $300 million. But that sum will not cover the cost of training more specialized judges and other needed changes. Overall, the judicial reform is expected to cost about $1.5 billion (some 42 billion rubles).

Lawyer Larissa Move tells RFE/RL that she has a hard time believing in the upcoming judicial reform because it so blatantly contrasts with existing law-enforcement practices.

"I have the feeling that all that is happening now is very reminiscent of Soviet-style justice -- and I mean far from its better sides. At least, that's how it work in practice, that's what we are confronted with every day."

Some judges also complain about the reform. At a meeting last week, judges attacked the authors of the draft reform, accusing them of trying to dilute judicial independence by widening the existing college of judges responsible for appointing and, especially, for suspending judges.

If reform commission head Kozak has his way, the colleges hearing charges against sitting judges would be reduced to just three judges -- but expanded to include legal experts recruited outside the court system.

Reformists argue that this measure would reduce the protection of incompetent or corrupt judges. But critics reply that judges' independence would be called into question by more outside pressure put on judges who already feel enough political heat.

(Part 2 will examine Russia's arbitration courts, which are called upon to resolve million-dollar disputes but without the legal or material instruments to do so.)