MOSCOW -- Russia's Constitutional Court has ruled that officials can ignore judgments by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) if they are found to contravene the Russian Constitution.
Handed down amid growing isolation from the West, the ruling essentially allows Russia to formally reject judgments from the European court in Strasbourg, a key international institution for rights advocates that receives thousands of cases from Russia every year.
Russia has lost a number of high-profile cases in Strasbourg and been ordered to pay out hefty compensation in scores of politically embarrassing cases surrounding the former Yukos oil and gas empire, for instance, as well as rights violations in the restive southern republic of Chechnya.
The Constitutional Court on July 14 said it would be "justified" for Russian lawmakers to set up a special judicial mechanism to guarantee the "supremacy" of the Russian Constitution when Russia executes rulings issued by the European court.
Human rights activists criticized the ruling as evidence of the "dangerous" sway of the executive over the judiciary, while the judges said their decision is in line with the Vienna Convention governing international treaties.
The court emphasized that Russia remains under the jurisdiction of the European human rights court that was established by the European Convention on Human Rights, ratified by Russia in 1998.
"A conflict is possible if the [ECHR] interprets the Convention in a way that contradicts Russia's Constitution,” a court statement posted online said. "In such a situation, because of the supremacy of the Founding Law, Russia will be obliged not to literally follow the resolution of the Strasbourg court."
Russia is expected to use the ruling to challenge a European court judgment in July 2014 that ordered Russia to pay Yukos shareholders 1.9 billion euros ($2.1 billion) in compensation for the dismantling and nationalization of the oil empire once run by tycoon-turned-dissident Mikhail Khodorkovksy.
On July 1, 93 State Duma deputies appealed to the Russian Constitutional Court to examine and reconsider several articles of Russia's constitution. The deputies said the articles acknowledge the supremacy of international law above domestic legislation and therefore undermine Russian sovereignty.
The Constitutional Court declined to question those articles, ruling that "Russia's participation in international treaties does not mean rejecting state sovereignty."
The Russian human rights community chided the court for the ruling.
"This ruling by the Constitutional Court appears to be a bit of an oxymoron," said Tanya Lokshina, the Russia program director for Human Rights Watch (HRW). "The Russian Constitution says very clearly that international law is supreme."
"I believe it really is quite dangerous," Lokshina says, "because it demonstrates that the Constitutional Court appears to be a willing tool in the hands of the executive branch at this point."