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Russia's Judicial Counter-Reformation

Aleksandr Podrabinek knows a creeping police state when he sees one.

As a Soviet-era dissident he was a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group human rights organization, editor of the samizdat journal "The Chronicle of Current Events," and the author of a 1977 book, "Punitive Medicine," that chronicled the abuses of the psychiatric profession against political prisoners.

He was exiled to Siberia for criticizing the Soviet authorities in the 1970s and sent to a labor camp in the 1980s for distributing forbidden literature.

In a recent two-part series of articles published in the online magazine "Yezhednevnyi zhurnal," Podrabinek connects the dots and argues that the soft-authoritarian regime established by Vladimir Putin over the past decade is about to be transformed into something much harsher.

The catalyst, Podrabinek argues, is the ongoing economic crisis, which is hitting Russia hard and undermining one of the cornerstones of the regime's legitimacy -- relative prosperity:

The increasingly severe economic crisis could easily cause people who have always avoided seditious thinking to start questioning the national policy line. Mass discontent is only one step away from mass protest. If this happens at the height of the crisis, which is expected to reach its peak in spring and summer, the regime will have a mechanism of mass repression ready to respond.

This mechanism is being prepared under the guise of judicial reform:

What are the factors deterring arbitrary judicial rulings in criminal trials? Defense attorneys, jurors, and the independent press. These
institutions of the law-governed democratic state have to be destroyed --not only to make the courts manageable, but also to make them seem objective and independent to outside observers.

The State Duma has already passed legislation eliminating jury trials in cases of terrorism, hostage taking, the organization of illegal armed formations, mass disturbances, treason, espionage, sedition, armed rebellion, and sabotage. "In other words, from the very cases which are most likely to have political overtones or to be politically motivated," writes Podrabinek.

The Public Chamber, an advisory body made up of luminaries that purports to represent civil society before the Kremlin, has unanimously called on President Dmitry Medvedev to veto the legislation.

This, however, is highly unlikely since it was Medvedev who proposed the law in the first place. And once enacted, it will revive a judicial system that Podrabinek knows all too well:

Now the defendants in these cases will be judged by a panel of three federal judges -- and no journalists or jurors will be allowed into a carefully guarded courtroom of the state factory for the production of verdicts. If necessary, the three judges can also be dismissed and replaced by a Special Conference, trying the case in the defendants' absence and barring the right of appeal and any further correspondence.

And as I have written here and here, the authorities are also attempting to change the definition of treason and espionage.

The government submitted a bill to the State Duma on December 12 widening treason -- currently defined as taking action aimed at damaging the country's external security -- to include endangering Russia's "constitutional order, sovereignty, and territorial integrity." Likewise, the definition of espionage will be expanded from revealing state secrets to foreign governments, their organizations, or their representatives to also include divulging state secrets to foreign NGOs.

Podrabinek points out that that this is clearly designed to discourage the activities of international human rights organizations in Russia, and to frighten Russian citizens from working with them. "This probably does not presuppose NATO or the European Union," he writes. "It is more likely to apply to Reporters without Borders or Human Rights Watch."

And the fuzzy wording in the statute gives the authorities enough leeway to find a pretext to "legally" jail virtually anybody deemed undesirable:

"Vague wording, the possibility of many different interpretations, and ambiguous definitions are essential for the mass enforcement of criminal laws against innocent people. In the Soviet years, these were 'Counterrevolutionary Crimes' and later there was 'Anti-Soviet Activity' for political repression and "Disturbing the Peace" for every other case in which a person had to be put behind bars but there was no suitable statute."

The next step, Podrabinek writes, is to rein in defense attorneys:
"Attempts have been made to take lawyers in hand, but these attempts have always been resisted by the legal profession. We only think the regime can do whatever it wants to do, without worrying about running into any obstacles. It actually has to do battle with the public, and its victory or defeat depends on the strength of public resistance. The current regime, however, is not inclined to be stopped by any obstacles. We probably can expect the Kremlin to come up with some legislative initiatives to restrict the rights and capabilities of lawyers quite soon."

Actually, the campaign began awhile ago. In July 2007, in a case that would make Franz Kafka proud, Russian prosecutors accused the prominent defense attorney Boris Kuznetsov with divulging state secrets.

Kuznetsov was defending Levon Chakhmakhchyan, a former member of the Federation Council, against embezzlement charges. Part of the state's case against Chakhmakhchyan was based on illegal wiretaps conducted by the Federal Security Service. When Kuznetsov brought the wiretaps to light, he was charged with revealing state secrets.

"I did not send it to Mossad or the CIA, but to the [Russian] Constitutional Court," Kuznetsov told RFE/RL's Russian Service at the time.

Kuznetsov, who had long annoyed the authorities by aggressively defending opponents of the Kremlin, fled the country to avoid prosecution.

He probably won't be the last.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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