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Moscow Times
October 6, 2004
Judges Who Lost Their Jobs Speak Out
By Francesca Mereu
Staff Writer

A Federation Council bill to give the Kremlin the right to hire and fire judges would become the last nail in the coffin of Russia's already weak judiciary system, said two former senior judges who say they lost their posts after refusing to obey informal orders from the executive branch of government.

The bill, which was overwhelmingly approved by Federation Council senators last week, is likely to prompt a number of judges to quit, former Moscow City Court judges Sergei Pashin and Olga Kudeshkina said.

They said that even now there is little place for honest judges in courtrooms -- judges face pressure from their superiors, who are appointed by presidential decree, and are more concerned about keeping their jobs than defending justice.

If the bill is approved, the judiciary system will be fully under the Kremlin's control, and the Kremlin will be able to get unconstitutional bills passed into law, Pashin said.

"The judiciary system is already under the Kremlin's influence," Kudeshkina said. "But if this terrible bill is approved, it means that we will lose any hope of seeing an independent judiciary system in Russia, since it will be completely in the hands of the Kremlin."

The bill would allow the Kremlin to appoint half of the members of the Supreme Qualification Collegium and the Federation Council to pick the rest. The collegium is the only authority in the country that can fire judges, and it also appoints judges to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Arbitration Court.

The Supreme Qualification Collegium now consists of 29 members, 18 of whom are judges elected by secret ballot every four years by the All-Russia Congress of Judges, an association of judges. Ten members are public representatives appointed by the Federation Council, while the remaining one is appointed by the president as his representative.

The Federation Council's bill proposes cutting the members of the collegium to 21 people. The judges on the collegium would be nominated by the president and confirmed by the Federation Council, while public representatives would be nominated by the speaker of the Federation Council and approved by the chamber. The president would keep the right to pick his representative.

The bill allows the president to fire the judges on the collegium with the collegium's consent and the Federation Council to fire the public representatives.

"This initiative will weaken the foundation of judicial authority and erase the notion of separation of powers," Pashin said.

He and Kudeshkina spoke to a reporter after a round table on the judicial reform on Monday.

"There are real paths for moving further with reform of the judicial branch, but not by placing it under the authority of the executive branch," Sergei Vitsin, a professor and member of a presidential council on judicial reform, told the round table.

Many judges are now leaving their posts for better jobs, Pashin said, and "if the bill is approved, there will be more of them leaving the courts."

Kudeshkina said judges are under constant pressure from their superiors. "This is not encouraging people to stay," she said. Kudeshkina said she was disqualified from serving as a judge last year after she refused to rule in favor of prosecutors in the case of Pavel Zaitsev, the Interior Ministry investigator who headed a controversial fraud probe connected to the Tri Kita furniture store.

"The chief judge of the Moscow court put a lot of pressure on me to rule the way she wanted. Even in Soviet times pressure like that did not exist," Kudeshkina said.

She said that in the course of hearing the case, Olga Yegorova, the chief judge of the Moscow City Court, summoned her to her office and made it clear what ruling was expected.

Chief judges in Russian courts are appointed by presidential decree after being selected by members of the presidential administration. As such, the judges feel an obligation to do the bidding of those who supported their appointments, Kudeshkina said.

What's more, Pashin said, chief judges are appointed for six years and their reappointment depends on the presidential administration.

Chief judges have a central role in the courts' work, as they decide which judge will hear which case. "A chief judge usually gives cases that are important to the powers-that-be to a pliable judge who will rule in the expected way, since he is the one who gets the call from the presidential administration," Kudeshkina said.

When Kudeshkina refused to rule in favor of prosecutors in the Tri Kita case, Yegorova took the case away from her -- in violation of the law -- and gave it to another judge, Kudeshkina said.

Calls to Yegorova's office at the Moscow City Court went unanswered late Tuesday.

In the latest chapter of the three-year case, the Moscow City Court in November handed Zaitsev a two-year suspended sentence after convicting him of abuse of office. Kudeshkina was accused of violating rules of courtroom conduct and disqualified from acting as a judge. She said prosecutors in the Tri Kita case had addressed her rudely and she had replied likewise.

The controversial investigation into whether Tri Kita owners had evaded millions of dollars in customs fees reached the highest echelons of the government. Under intense media pressure, President Vladimir Putin entered the fray in December 2001, appointing a prosecutor from St. Petersburg to head the investigation.

When that investigation dragged on, the State Duma tried to spur it along in March 2002 by urging Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov to head up the probe personally.

Also that year, Federal Security Service head Nikolai Patrushev wrote a letter to then-Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov bluntly calling Tri Kita a criminal organization.

Kudeshkina, who first complained about being pressured in December 2003, is appealing her disqualification.

"This is what happens when chairmen are under the Kremlin's control. But the situation will be even worse if the Kremlin picks the members of the qualification collegium," she said.

Pashin said he was dismissed by the Moscow qualification collegium for refusing to rule against a conscript who asked for his constitutional right to do alternative service instead of joining the military.

"I was dismissed just because I ruled against the decisions of the powers that be, but I appealed the decision and won," Pashin said.

"But Moscow City Court officials made the situation so unbearable for me that I had to resign," he said.

Under judicial rules, judges are dismissed by the local qualification collegia on the recommendation of court chairmen.

The Federation Council bill, Pashin said, is the continuation of Putin-backed judicial reforms that started in 2001 and created the system the country has today. The reform established jury trials throughout the country and transferred the right to issue arrest and search warrants from the prosecutors to the courts. In theory, the reform should have raised the professionalism of the judges by putting them under more outside scrutiny. But the stricter administrative control over the judges has ended up making them more dependent on the government instead of more responsible toward the public.

The new bill, Pashin warned, would give the Kremlin unlimited power.

"Now we still have the right to appeal rulings that go against the Constitution in court. But can you imagine what might happen if the courts are completely under the Kremlin's control?" he said. "They would always rule in favor of the Kremlin, even when the Constitution is broken."