#8 - JRL 2009-155 - JRL Home
Russia Profile
August 20, 2009
No Sympathy for the Jury
Trial by Jury Was Once Considered an Essential Step Toward Democracy, but Has Become a Favorite Whipping Boy for Russian Politicians Trying to Look Tough in Law and Order
By Albina Kovalyova

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev this week proposed to limit the influence of jury courts in cases of organized crime at a conference addressing the issue of stabilizing the North Caucasus region. While this proposal is meant to signal the authorities’ determination to impose order on the region after an explosion in the center of Nazran left 20 dead, it is also yet another blow to the independence of the Russian court system.

Medvedev raised doubts about the effectiveness of jury courts at the conference in Stavropol. “The jury courts are not managing their jobs for a number of reasons. We should think about how these problems should be looked into by professional judges,” the Kommersant daily quoted him as saying.

The focus in this case is the fight against terrorists, whom the Russian president believes should be shown no mercy.

But the reputation of Russia's judiciary is already marred by association with corruption and government influence. And a recent change in legislature will allow the head of the Constitutional Court to be appointed by the government, rather than voted in by fellow judges.

Jury trials, by contrast, have a good reputation among legal experts. One of Russia's most famous lawyers, Henri Reznik, for example, believes that Russia would benefit from more, not less, of them. “There is no better institution in Russia than that of the jury courts for arousing feelings of freedom and responsibility in inert and passive citizens,” he said at a conference organized by the Carnegie Center in Moscow this March.

Leonid Nikitinsky, a columnist at the Novaya Gazeta newspaper who specializes in legal issues, believes that jury courts are important for Russia because they pose an alternative to the official law courts. “There is a very bad legal system in Russia, but the jury courts do not depend on the authorities, although they are getting smaller and smaller,” he said.

The proportion of cases tried by a jury in Russia ranges from just 0.5 to three percent of all court cases each year. A total prohibition of jury courts is unlikely, as they are guaranteed by the Constitution, and amending that document would cause a colossal scandal. Nonetheless, there have been repeated attempts to reduce the sphere of influence of the jury courts. “The problem has been solved by amending the 31st article of the law book. This has been used to limit the power of the jury courts and to take out their influence in cases against the Russian government,” Reznik said at the conference.

Some experts believe that the jury courts make little or no difference to the legal process. Pavel Ponomarev, a senior researcher at the All-Russian Scientific Research Institute of the Russian Interior Ministry said that he did “not think it [was] important for Russia because it does not make a difference... because all of society is corrupt and so it is better to have qualified judges to come to decisions in court, rather than ordinary people.”

The jury courts have acquired a reputation as a thorn in the government's side. Nikitinsky said that this is because the jury courts “are always showing the official courts to be unprofessional.” While Reznik believes it is because the jury courts must prove and convince the courts of the guilt of the accused, which would be easier for corrupt judges, without the jury, to ignore.

Whatever the reason, it is clear that jury trials have caused discontent among the authorities. In January 2007, for example, then-President Vladimir Putin said that the jury system had been “discredited” after a jury acquitted two men of the murder of the American journalist Paul Khlebnikov. In June this year, a juror was stopped by traffic police on her way to the trial of Dmitry Dovgy, a high-ranking official of the Investigative Committee of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, prompting speculation that the authorities had resolved not to make the same mistake twice (the defense team claimed the juror in question, Yelena Zharkova, would have voted to acquit Dovgy. He was found guilty).

But like all things, the jury courts are not perfect. Nikitinsky compared the official courts and the jury courts to a set of scales. “In the professional [judicial] courts they are skewed in the direction of the ‘militia's truth’ - in the direction of the prosecution...whereas here it is skewed in the direction of acquittal,” he said of the jury courts.

And there are other, practical problems. Some areas in Russia are especially difficult to establish jury courts in. “Russia is a big country with mono-ethnic zones, where it is very difficult to form an independent court system...in Chechnya or Ingushetia, for example it will be absolutely impossible to form the body of such a court,” Reznik said at the Carnegie conference. Because of the close community ties of the inhabitants, it is hard to find jury members who are not related to or acquainted with those involved in the legal process. And jury service can be hazardous in small communities where everyone knows who you are and where you live.

Trial by jury is a relatively new phenomenon in Russia. It was only written into the Constitution of the Russian Federation in 1993, and has been in use since 1994. Yet it represents an important step away from the Soviet court system, and could have a profound affect on the country’s future. “Through the jury courts we see a way in which Russia can be more democratic, and where human rights in the country can be protected,” Reznik told his colleagues at the conference.

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