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Moscow Times
December 1, 2004
Putin Tells Judiciary to Clean Up Its Act
By Nabi Abdullaev
Staff Writer

President Vladimir Putin attacked bribery and bureaucracy in the justice system at a judges' congress Tuesday, and defended a Kremlin-backed bill against charges that it would restrict courts' independence.

Putin said the law should be changed to make judges disclose their income and property, but sweetened the pill by promising to triple judges' salaries and raise the profession's retirement age.

Speaking at the Sixth All-Russian Congress of Judges in Moscow, Putin criticized the profession for being too closed and said judges were still influenced by oligarchs.

"Unfortunately it is still the case. We are fighting this and will continue to fight this," he said. "All instances of bribery, court bureaucracy or gross mistakes by judges undermine trust in the judicial system and the state as a whole."

"Judicial independence is not an honorary privilege," Putin said. "There exists today a problem of transparency of justice for the participants in court cases and for society as a whole."

He also called on the congress to "strive for a situation when a judge and a person with an immaculate reputation become inseparable and identical concepts."

Less than two months ago, speaking after the Beslan school attack, Putin said the country's judicial and law enforcement systems were plagued by corruption.

A countrywide poll of 2,000 people earlier this year by the anti-corruption Indem think tank found that local courts were named among the most corrupt official bodies better only than law enforcement agencies, local administrations and parliament.

Constitutional Court chairman Valery Zorkin told the congress that the perception of corruption in the courts arose out of high public expectations, and said that the judiciary was no more corrupt than any other state institution.

Supreme Court chairman Vyacheslav Lebedev conceded that regional judicial qualification collegiums did not always take action when judges violate the law.

Lebedev also warned that the Kremlin-backed judicial reform bill proposed by Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov, a close ally of Putin, in October should not sacrifice courts' independence.

The bill would give the president and the Federation Council the right to appoint 11 out of 21 members of the Supreme Qualification Collegium, the body that hires and fires judges.

At present, the judges' congress appoints 18 out of 29 members of the collegium.

"Under the slogan of fighting corruption, someone may be aiming to limit the independence of courts and judges," Lebedev said, Interfax reported. He said that under the European Judicial Charter, any judicial body should have a majority of judges.

But Mironov dismissed Lebedev's criticism as biased and too "emotional," Interfax said.

To applause from judges, Putin told the congress that he had submitted bills to the State Duma earlier Tuesday to raise the retirement age for judges to 70 and to increase their salaries significantly.

"This means that initially [salaries] will be doubled or even tripled, and very soon increased again by the same proportion," Putin said.

Commenting on the bill, which is due to be considered by the Duma early next year, Vladimir Mironov, an analyst from the Independent Council of Legal Experts, backed Putin's call for greater transparency among judges.

But he said this could only be achieved through establishing public, rather than administrative, control over judges.

"Under the current law, a citizen cannot ask a qualification collegium to investigate a corrupt judge. Only a court chairman can, and he is often reluctant to do this," he said.

"Instead of addressing such issues, the bill will give the legislature and the president more power over the judiciary."