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Russia: Kremlin Announces First Plan For Judicial Reform

When he announced plans to introduce jury trials throughout Russia by 2003, President Vladimir Putin echoed an initiative introduced by his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. Trial by jury for serious crimes is, in fact, guaranteed under Russia's 1993 constitution, but so far only nine out of the country's 89 regions offer defendants that option. Will Putin succeed in raising this figure by the time the country marks the constitution's 10th anniversary?

Prague, 21 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In his state of the nation address earlier this year (April 3), President Vladimir Putin decried the poor performance of Russia's courts and the lack of professionalism of prosecutors and judges.

In the address, he declared his intention to push for comprehensive legal reforms. Last week's (May 16) announcement by the Kremlin that it would seek to universalize jury trials within two years across Russia is a signal that Putin may be serious.

Anna Uzelac, a correspondent for the daily "Moscow Times," reports on judicial issues. She tells RFE/RL that Russian citizens share their president's poor assessment of the Russian justice system.

"Do people believe in the Russian judiciary? There are not many surveys available, but according to all existing surveys, the Russian judiciary is not the institution that Russians believe in."

Lawyers too have long drawn attention to the shabby state of the judiciary -- and the problem is getting worse.

"Criminal lawyers are complaining that the sloppiness of investigative organs -- of prosecutors and police -- is growing with every year."

As the system now stands, underfunded prosecutors and police have little incentive to do a thorough job. Once a criminal case goes before a judge, the rate of conviction is nearly 99 percent.

In regions of Russia where trials have been conducted with juries over the past several years, defendants have a 20 percent chance of being acquitted. Advocates of the jury system say it makes investigators work harder if they have to prove their case before an impartial jury.

"What all the supporters of jury trials repeat is that it will definitely force the prosecutor's office and investigators who are doing so-called pretrial investigations in Russia to present well-researched, well-investigated, and professionally done cases."

Defense lawyers, too, knowing that they have a chance of getting their clients acquitted, will have an incentive to prepare more thoroughly.

Uzelac says that aside from creating fairer courts, there may be another reason Putin wants to push for trials by jury. In 1996, former President Boris Yeltsin placed a moratorium on the death penalty, a prerequisite to Russia's joining the Council of Europe. Three years later, Russia's Constitutional Court banned judges from handing down death sentences until a system of jury trials is established in all Russian regions.

In theory, once trial by jury becomes universal, capital punishment could start anew in Russia. Polls consistently show the measure is popular with voters. Whether to abide by the Council of Europe's rules -- which forbid member states from carrying out death sentences -- or to bend to the will of the voters will then become a political issue. For the moment, Uzelac says, getting a permanent ban on capital punishment passed through parliament would be a Herculean task.

"Abolishing the death penalty, at this moment, without a major propaganda action -- strong state propaganda for a long time -- will be basically impossible."

Historically, Russia is no newcomer to jury trials. The system was originally introduced in 1864 by Tsar Aleksandr II, who ordered progressive legal reforms just three years after the abolition of serfdom. The Bolsheviks did away with jury trials after the 1917 revolution.

Uzelac says Putin faces an uphill battle in restoring the institution to Russia.

"It's not likely that it's going to happen without huge difficulties. There will be difficulties along the way and there will be lots of opposition and lots of lobbying, lots of inertia. And the question of whether jury trials will be reintroduced throughout the country or not ultimately boils down to a question of political will."

One thing is certain: Putin may have the will, but he is unlikely to ever have the power of a tsar.