Sunday, September 6, 2015

Russian Experts Sharply Divided over Putin’s Decriminalization Plan

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 6 – Vladimir Putin’s plan to change the criminal code so that those guilty of minor violations will be subject to administrative sanctions rather than incarceration is set to be taken up and undoubtedly approved by the Duma this fall, but its meanin(g and implications have left the Russian expert community sharply divided.

            Some see it as a long-overdue correction of provisions of the criminal code inherited from the Soviet system. Others view it as a way of avoiding disrupting the lives of those guilty of truly minor infractions. And still others say that the absence of good statistics means that it is impossible to say what it means.

            Anton Chablin of Kavkazskaya politika describes the plan and then surveys six experts about how they see it (

            Those who have prepared the legislation, he reports, say it will mean that as many as 130,000 people who now would be incarcerated will remain free and suffer only administrative punishments or be free of any charges whatsoever. Moreover, for these minor infractions, the statute of limitations will be reduced to two years.

            The measure would certainly save the Russian government money, and it would likely improve the reputation of the Russian legal system. But at the same time, there is a risk that some of those who would escape punishment for minor crimes might commit more major ones while they remain free.

            Aleksey Kibalnik, a law professor at the North Caucasus Federal University, likes the ideas contained in the draft measure. He says that the law very much needs to be updated because the ruble amounts in some crimes are so low that it makes no sense to incarcerate those involved.

            Thefts involving 1000 to 2500 rubles, for example, now can lead to prison terms of up to two years. Given how small these amounts are, he says, there is no reason to imprison those involved unless force is involved. And he calls for eliminating “all thefts not involving force” from the criminal code altogether.

            Mikhail Nazarenko, a lawyer who heads the Sword of the Law rights defense organization, also supports Putin’s proposal. If it is not adopted, he suggests, “half of the population” could ultimately end up as criminals. Petty violations should not lead to jail terms, he argues.

            The articles of the criminal code that the new measure will eliminate are “an inheritance of the Soviet era,” and “in the era of building market relations, no one thought about whether they are needed; they were simply copied from one code to the next.” They should be eliminated because if they were enforced, Russia would approach the status of “a police state.”

            Yevsey Osinovsky, a Stavropol kray lawyer, says the new measures won’t do much because many now in jail are there because they have been falsely charged with more serious crimes. He implies that if decriminalization of some charges happens, the authorities will simply invoke more serious ones in order to show they are doing their jobs.

            Vitaly Zubenko, another Stavropol lawyer who headed Yabloko’s regional office there from 2010 to 2014, in contrast, says that “by itself, the liberalization of criminal law and the decriminalization of certain aspects of it will not solve the problem of the struggle with crime and not increase legality and the legal order.”

            Russia has far too many siloviki, he says, and consequently, what is needed is not the liberalization of this or that law but rather “a complex and systematic reform of the law enforcement system,” ensuring that it is “under the control of civil society and the parliament” and not simply a device used by the authorities to maintain their power.

            Maksim Tsapko, a lawyer who hosts, suggests that Putin’s proposal is the latest “timid attempt to reduce the level of ‘repressiveness’ of the domestic system of criminal law without reforming its foundations and without deciding cadres issues.” The real problems are the extremely low percentage of those charged but found not guilty and the absence of real guarantees of judicial independence.

            Instead of decriminalizing this or that action, genuine reformers as opposed to those behind this measure, he suggests, should be directing their attention to the causes of crime. That hasn’t happened, and so “in this case, a mountain has given birth to a mouse.” Much more important are recent a few Supreme Court decisions which give some charged with crimes a better chance to defend themselves.

            Finally, Oksana Sadchikova, yet another lawyer in Stavropol, says that because statistics on crimes are not openly available, it is difficult if not impossible to know exactly how many people will be affected. Some clearly will be and that is welcome, but there is a serious issue that isn’t addressed by the proposed changes.

            And it is this: “no one knows what percentage of the 70 percent” who plead guilty do so not because they are but because they are subject to official pressure.” Investigators and prosecutors already have the right to let people off if they do not see a real crime having been committed or the danger of recidivism.

            Until real data are made available to the public, there will be no way to know whether this proposal is a real one with real consequences or simply the latest example of government PR. That is unfortunate because if the proposal is mishandled, the result could in fact be an increase in crime even though fewer actions would fall under the revised criminal code.

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