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Russian Parliament Scraps Juries From Some Trials

The first court hearing with a jury in 2003
MOSCOW (Reuters) -- Russia's parliament has voted to scrap juries from trials of people accused of organizing violent crimes and unrest, a throwback to the Soviet Union when judges single-handedly controlled the courts.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's Unified Russia party dominates parliament, which passed by 355 votes to 85 a bill that will allow three judges to adjudicate on cases of terrorism, hostage-taking, armed uprising, sabotage, and civil disturbances.

"We want to be sympathetic people, moving towards democracy but I don't want to see terrorists going free," Vladimir Vasilyev, who proposed the bill, told the State Duma.

Post-Soviet Russia adopted jury trials in 1993. They had first appeared in Russia after a judicial reform under Tsar Aleksandr II in 1864 but the Soviet Union abolished jury trials after the 1917 revolution.

The Soviet court system was notoriously vulnerable to pressures from above, and sentences were often dictated via a telephone call from the KGB secret service or Communist Party.

Supporters of the changes to the Russian jury system said the switch was necessary because some courts in the south of the country had acquitted or were being too lenient toward groups suspected of being involved in organized crime.

Russia has been trying to dampen an insurgency in the North Caucasus -- where criminal gangs also operate -- directed against the federal government since a war in Chechnya in 1994.

Violence has spread this year across the region, including a bomb attack and several assassinations in the previously quiet North Ossetia.

But opponents said the new system is simply unfair and would not work.

"This law is unconstitutional," said Yelena Mizullina, a member of the A Just Russia party.

"This bill does not protect the right of citizens."