Shortly after a Moscow jury acquitted three men of participating in the assassination of journalist Anna Politkovskaya last week, the newly freed defendants approached her son, who was in the courtroom, and shook his hand. Ilya Politkovsky gracefully congratulated them on the not-guilty verdict.
Politkovsky later said he accepted the jury's decision, even though he believed Ibragim and Dzhabrail Makhmudov and former Moscow police officer Sergei Khadzhikurbanov had participated in the October 2007 killing.
"Given the evidence that the jury heard, they needed to acquit and free them. It was a fiasco," Politkovsky told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "I thought that with such a high-profile case -- and I say this not just because we are talking about my mother -- they needed to put together a solid base of evidence that would be convincing for anybody."
The not-guilty verdicts handed down in the Politkovskaya case on February 19 have crystallized debate about jury trials in Russia.
Research suggests Russian juries are nine times more likely to acquit defendants than judges sitting alone, which has led critics to claim they are too lenient. Police and prosecutors, many of whom are seeking to abolish the practice, say juries tend to make decisions based on emotion and are not professionally qualified to understand the finer points of law and render just and fair verdicts.
Supporters retort that the problem rests with prosecutors who are not accustomed to the higher standards of evidence that juries demand. Juries, they argue, are a key component of civil society and are less prone to political pressure than judges.Telephone Justice
On New Year's Eve, President Dmitry Medvedev signed a law eliminating jury trials for a series of crimes including terrorism, hostage taking, the organization of illegal armed formations, mass disturbances, treason, espionage, sedition, armed rebellion, and sabotage.
In signing the legislation, Medvedev rejected pleas for a veto from Russia's Public Chamber, a state advisory board that analyzes legislation and monitors the authorities, as well as from rights activists who argued that the law would open the door to greater repression of dissent.
Analysts say the law was the result of intense lobbying by police, prosecutors, and the security services.
"Criminal courts in Russia are dependent on the prosecution. A jury trial is the only part of the justice system where you can get surprising verdicts and acquittals. But prosecutors are very influential and they are lobbying to limit jury trials," says Leonid Nikitinsky of Russia's Court Reporters' Guild.
Jury-trial advocates like Nikitinsky say they are a safeguard against what Russians call "telephone justice," a practice in which prosecutors and officials call judges to impress upon them the importance of making "the right decision" -- and the consequences of making the wrong one.
Observers say these are not idle threats. Russian judges are appointed by the president and their salaries come from the federal budget. But local authorities dole out benefits such as housing and health care, which judges rely on to make ends meet.
Tsarist Russia used jury trials, but communist authorities, calling the practice a remnant of "bourgeois justice," abandoned them. The post-Soviet, 1993 Russian Constitution provides for the right to trial by jury.Citizenship And Responsibility
But while law enforcement and the security services have been the main critics of jury trials, recently they have been assailed by some in the liberal intelligentsia as well.
Anna Politkovskaya's son, Ilya, called the case against the men accused of killing his mother "a fiasco."
Appearing on a talk show on the radio station Ekho Moskvy the day after the acquittals in the Politkovskaya case, political analyst Leonid Radzikhovsky argued that due to prevailing prejudices, Russian society is simply not ready for jury trials.
"Jurors have their prejudices. For example: the rich are more guilty than the poor, non-Russians are more guilty than Russians, a person from a bad family background is more guilty than a person from a good family, and so on and so forth," Radzikhovsky said. "We all have our prejudices."
Critics of jury trials point to a controversial verdict in March 2006 in which a teenager in St. Petersburg was found not guilty in the 2004 stabbing death of a 9-year-old Tajik girl. The jury instead found him guilty of the lesser charge of hooliganism and called for leniency in his sentence. The sentence sparked widespread outrage by rights activists, who claimed that xenophobia had influenced the jury's decision.
Defenders of the jury system say such cases are rare exceptions and in the vast majority of trials juries take their responsibilities seriously.
"I studied approximately 800 cases heard by juries and I can say that this a myth, a fairly tale, and it disrespects our country," says Sergei Pashin, a retired judge who is now a professor at the Moscow Institute of Economics, Politics, and Law. "Juries don't have nationalistic illusions. Juries don't think that the rich should be sent to prison. For juries the fundamental question is: has the case been proven or not. And I have observed this in many cases."
On the contrary, Pashin and other supporters say juries argue that they also help develop civil society.
"Juries comprehend the fundamentals of citizenship," Pashin says. "They take responsibility. They see themselves not as separate from society, but an active part of it. This is how a civil society is formed. Juries are also a feedback mechanism for the authorities. They sometimes deliver verdicts that the state doesn't like."Controversial Cases
The Politkovskaya case was not the first controversial verdict handed down by a jury in a high-profile murder case.
Observers say it was reminiscent of the trial following 2004 killing of American journalist Paul Klebnikov. In May 2006, a jury acquitted Klebnikov's suspected killers, in a case in which prosecutors were criticized for putting together a weak case.
In April 2008, a jury in St. Petersburg acquitted three men accused of plotting to assassinate Governor Valentina Matviyenko, citing lack of evidence. Nikitinsky called the case "a clear provocation by the security services" that the jury was able to see through.
Pashin says the problem is less juries than prosecutors and investigators, who are not accustomed to the higher standards of evidence that juries demand.
"Juries tend to acquit when there is insufficient evidence, and rightly so. Why the evidence is insufficient is a question for prosecutors. Why are investigations into such high-profile cases carried out so poorly? Juries are not the guilty parties here," Pashin says.
Medvedev seemed to endorse this view on February 25, saying that jury trials, still relatively rare in Russia, are "a separate legal art" that prosecutors must master.
Analysts say recent moves to limit jury trials are the result of anxiety among the elite stemming from the economic crisis and fears that hard times could lead to mass demonstrations and rebellions.