Obituary: Ernest Ametistov

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The Independent Culture
ERNEST AMETISTOV, as a member of Russia's highest court since 1991, was at the centre of many battles to turn his turbulent country into a state governed by the rule of law. Whenever the Constitutional Court judges divided, he was always on the liberal side, interpreting the Russian Constitution in the most humane way possible.

There were two main tests of the efficacy of the Constitutional Court during his period of office: President Boris Yeltsin's moves to crush the elected parliament in 1993 and the December 1994 assault on Chechnya.

In 1993 Ametistov was among a minority of three of the court's 19 judges in backing president against parliament, leading to accusations that he was a Yeltsin poodle. Most of the judges questioned the constitutionality of Yeltsin's actions and backed his hardline parliamentary opponents led by the speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov. Ametistov accused the Communist and nationalist opposition of "dragging the Constitutional Court into its political struggle" (despite his own lack of hesitation in leaping into the political arena). Ametistov's distrust of lingering Communist influence overcame his unease about the constitutionality of Yeltsin's actions.

In the next major constitutional test, Yeltsin's assault on Chechnya, Ametistov had no sympathy for the president. "It is necessary to stop the bloodshed in Chechnya at any cost and begin the talks," he declared in January 1995. He called for mobilisation of the media, public opinion and political leaders around the world to bring pressure on Yeltsin to end a conflict he branded "terrible" and "shameful". He recognised that if the war were not stopped Russia's very democracy might be threatened.

Even in the midst of his concern, he was careful about the finer points of the law, maintaining that Chechnya had no right to withdraw from Russia. But he said that no constitution is worth so much bloodshed. "The tragedy is that the president is right," he admitted, "but how he's doing it, how the government is doing it, how the army is doing it is wrong because it is a gross violation of human rights." He was clear about where responsibility for the tragedy lay. "Yeltsin's in charge, and I think he should bear all responsibility for everything that has happened."

Ametistov became impatient at the slow pace of de-Communisation. In an August 1996 commentary published in Izvestiya, he called for the Justice Ministry to take steps against the Communist Party, since it was not a "civilised opposition". He also called for the systematic replacement of corrupt local bureaucrats and "red directors". He also wanted "totalitarian symbols" removed from city streets and enterprises.

Ametistov had reason to dislike the Communist regime. His father had been arrested and executed in Stalin's purges. Ametistov's family had wandered the country in his youth, and he had spent his school years in Karaganda, Voronezh and Krasnodar. But his ability allowed him to make a legal career for himself.

In 1958, he graduated from Moscow State University's law faculty and started working as editor for a state publishing house. He then joined research centres dealing with legal studies, specialising in international labour law.

Ametistov left the Communist Party in August 1986, as reforms were just getting underway. The following year he joined the emerging human rights movement, especially the Memorial human rights group, which supported democratic reforms and publicised details of abuses carried out during the Communist era. He drafted the group's statute. He remained a board member of the Moscow Human Rights Centre.

In 1990 Ametistov had been put forward by Memorial as a candidate for the Russian parliament in one of the Moscow constituencies, but failed to win the seat. He was elected a judge of the Constitutional Court in October 1991 and soon became known for his persistent efforts to streamline and liberalise the Soviet-era legal system. In 1993, Ametistov participated in the Constitutional Assembly when it drew up the Russian Constitution. He had already played a key role in new legislation, drafting the laws on emergency rule, international agreements and on the Constitutional Court itself.

Ametistov was a constant advocate of the primacy of human rights and international law over national law. In his judgements he stressed the importance of human rights pledges enshrined in the constitution. Thus he rejected 1997 additions to the law on state secrets that would have classified all information on military nuclear installations, claiming that it violated the constitutional provision that information related to ecology cannot be classified.

His commitment to international law led him to give vigorous backing to plans for an International Criminal Court. He took part in several meetings earlier this year to promote the impartiality and independence of the court.

Ernest Ametistov was never daunted by the challenges of his job, despite the toll on his health brought about by stress. A burly man, he remained an optimist.

Ernest Mikhailovich Ametistov, judge: born Leningrad, Soviet Union 17 May 1934; Constitutional Court judge 1991-98; married (one daughter); died Moscow 7 September 1998.