Fri, 23 Jun 2000

Russian judges 'still bow to authority'

By Marina Lapenkova

MOSCOW (AFP): The reform of Russian justice, trumpeted to be very liberal, is making slow progress, nine years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, human rights groups say.

They accuse judges of subservience to the authorities and "lacking in humanity."

Len Ponomarev, executive director of Russia's Human Rights Movement, said: "The concept of a repressive system of justice within a totalitarian state is still uppermost in the minds of Russian judges."

He said that the judges still defended the interests of the state "and not the truth, nearly automatically siding with the prosecution."

The reform of the system of justice was launched in 1991 with the idea of making the courts and the magistrates independent and installing trial by jury in assize courts. The jury system never existed in the Soviet Union.

Everything began well and great progress was made. "It is nearly fantastic. The Russian Supreme Court abides by international law, the Court of Arbitration, once a subsidiary of the Soviet government, is a real defender of the citizen's dignity and honor while the new Constitutional Court has succeeded in by-passing the legislative authority and in abolishing de facto the death penalty," said human rights militant Boris Panteleyev, president of an independent center of legal experts in Tatarstan in the Volga region.

Russia's 15,000 judges are henceforth appointed for life by the head of state and assize courts have existed in Russia's nine regions since 1989.

Panteleyev said that the new laws should have made the new Russian judicial system one of the most progressive in the world.

Moscow magistrate Sergei Pashin said that some judges had begun to show independence, "but then the state felt threatened," the weekly Vlast quoted him as saying.

Pashin, who originated legislation on assize courts, was dismissed in 1998 for having committed "an administrative crime." He was reinstated after a campaign by his colleagues.

"The reform came to a halt in 1995 because of opposition from the system itself," he said.

The judicial system little by little resumed the pyramid- shaped and inhuman bureaucracy of old, Pashin said.

The totality of jail terms handed down by the courts in Moscow and its region (15.7 million population) alone amounts to between 200 and 800 years a day, according to a bulletin monitoring court cases published by a human rights committee since last February.

Some judges were refusing to apply an amnesty voted last May for some 100,000 convicts, said the committee's director, Oksana Dzera, who cited "at least three cases" noted by observers in recent weeks.

Russian courts acquit only one accused out of 200, compared with the 15 percent acquitted under the Soviet system and 20 percent under the Tsars, the committee's president, Andrei Babushkin, said.

Even if they cannot be dismissed and benefit from immunity, the judges depend on the administration for everything -- salaries, electricity supplies in the courts, stationary and housing.

Moscow city hall pays a monthly bonus to judges' salaries and has been amply repaid. Mayor Yuri Luzhkov boasts that he has yet to lose a single court case in the capital.

"Of the 300 judges in Tatarstan, 299 are obsequious in the face of authority," Panteleyev said.