Staunton, November 25 -- The Russian Federation and many other countries as well put those charged with crimes in cages while in the courtroom, a practice that suggests they are already guilty as charged and explains why a smaller share of those charged now is exonerated than was the case in Stalin’s time.
Now a group of Russian senators, enthusiastically backed by human rights groups and lawyers, has called for an end to this practice in order to show those charged with crimes with the respect for their innocence until conviction under the provisions of the Russian Constitution (profile.ru/obsch/item/128197-k-podsudimym-proyavili-uvazhenie).
In July, Federation Council speaker Valentina Matviyenko said that her colleagues should take up the issue of how accused are seated in court not only so that they would not be presented as if they were already guilty but also so that the accused and their lawyers could more easily consult with one another to protect the legal rights of those involved.
She advised that Russia should follow the practice in European courts where the accused “sits alongside his lawyer at a table in humane conditions.” And Vyacheslav Lebedev, the head of the Russian Supreme Court, has come out in support although he says that arrangements should be coordinated with the interior ministry first.
There is no reason to fear that any prisoner will flee, the justice says. That didn’t happen in Soviet times when prisoners were put in the dock (as in England) but not in cages. And in the years since cages were introduced, there have been almost no attempts at flight. In the last ten years, he says, there has been “perhaps” one attempt.
Cages only began to be introduced in Russian courts in April 1992, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and for a very different reason that to prevent flight. Instead, as lawyers now recall, the accused were put in cells in order to protect them from attack by relatives of the victims of the actions they were accused of.
Then, in February 1993, the justice ministry, the interior ministry and the Supreme Court called for the installation of such cages in all court rooms by January 1, 1994, ostensibly in response to the rise in crime, the increasing number of people charged, and thus the risk that some would try to flee.
There is no law requiring the courts to have cages metal or glass for defendants. And so a decision to do away with them in most or all cases could be taken without having to pass any new legislation. Both kinds of cage should be done away with, with the glass ones used in Moscow and other large cities, dispensed with because among other things circulation is poor.
The European Human Rights Court has frequently declared that the use of cages should be ended because “the image of someone behind bars, especially if the case is open and journalists are present has a negative impact on the presumption of innocence guaranteed by Article 6 of the Russian Constitution.”
At present, metal cages are used in the courtrooms of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. But they are only sparingly employed in Armenia and Georgia and Ukraine and Azerbaijan are seeking to replace them with glass ones.
But this positive step may not happen all that quickly. Andrey Babushkin, a defense lawyer and member of the Presidential Human Rights Council, says that Moscow should move “carefully” les there be flights or attacks on prisoners. Unfortunately, unlike in Soviet times, there aren’t enough guards for courtroom work.
He also says that in the case of particularly dangerous criminals, cages should be retained; but he estimates that only about 20 percent of those charged would have to be kept in them.
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