Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Putin Said Making Russian Courts Irrelevant

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 13 – Russian courts have found many of those charged not guilty, but under President Vladimir Putin, they are finding a higher percentage than ever before of those brought before them guilty as charged– 99.3 percent – a trend that one blogger suggests is making judges and defense lawyers irrelevant.

            Russian officials insist that the high rate of convictions reflects a strength of the system not a weakness: people are not charged unless the authorities are sure they can convict them.  But activists and now some judges are pointing to another reason: the careful selection of judges by officials for some cases and direct on the judges themselves in others.

            At the end of October, the Russian Supreme Court published data on the outcome of trials in the Russian Federation during 2012.  Its figures showed that the courts found 764,263 of the 769,427 brought to trial guilty as charged, a conviction rate of 99.3 percent (

            And even before bringing in a verdict, the courts sided with the prosecutors almost all the time. In 195,234 out of 198,775, for example, judges agreed to extend the detention of those the police were investigating, yet another indication that those swept up by the judicial system are going to be convicted.

            Andrey Malgin, a journalist and blogger, underscores this point.  Saying that the conviction rate had reached an all-time high last month and exonerations an all-time low, he suggested that “the need for courts in the Russian Federation has finally disappeared.”  Judges and hearings aren’t really necessary: whatever the police and prosecutors want will happen.

            He added that there really isn’t any good reason for defense lawyers either.  In all but a handful of cases, the judge either completely ignores them or – in the best case – considers a certain reduction in the punishment that the procurators have asked for.” Rarely do the advocates get anyone, even the innocent off.

            A case in Chechnya this week calls attention to the ways this works. It shows that in the absence of extraordinarily brave judges, Soviet-style “telephone justice” in which senior officials tell the courts exactly what verdict is required (

            Vakhid Abubakarov, a Chechen judge, recused himself from a case involving a man charged with killing a policeman and engaging in arms trafficking.  The man confessed under interrogation but retracted his confession in court, saying that he had been tortured while in confinement.

            The judge said that there was evidence that the man’s claim of torture was true, but he said that he had been told by the republic’s interior minister, Ruslan Alkhanov, to find him guilty anyway, something the jurist said he would not be a party to. Chechen officials rejected all such accusations.

            But Judge Abubakarov said that “following interference by such a high-ranking official, sentencing … would appear either as a giving in to pressure if a guilty verdict is handed down or as an act of protest in the event of a not guilty verdict,” a chilling description of the situation judges in Russia today find themselves – and not just in Chechnya as some may want to think.

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