Rough justice as Russia rejects trial by jury

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The Independent Online
THE youth, a small pale boy in a green jacket, had nothing to say. He just stood there, shuffling his weight from foot to foot and staring gormlessly around the large iron cage which separated him from the rest of the world.

The judge repeated his question. Could he, Alexei Victorovitch Terekhov, explain why he was accused of indecently assaulting a young girl and stealing a motorcycle? Again, he remained speechless, wincing with embarrassment.

For a Russian, Terekhov - an 18-year-old Muscovite - was in an unusual position. Opposite him in Hall 11 of the Moscow Regional Court, sat eight men and six women, each one carefully exploring his sallow features for a clue to his guilt or innocence. Unlike most of the defendants dragged before Russia's courts and accused of theft, murder, rape and other assorted crimes, he was being tried by a jury.

Jury trials, banned by the Bolsheviks in 1917, were reintroduced as an experiment less than two years ago by President Yeltsin amid a tide of western optimism about Russia's reforms. Under the constitution, every citizen has the right to a jury trial in certain criminal cases. Yet, despite this, they are available at a defendant's request in only nine of the country's 89 regions. Had Terekhov committed his alleged crimes almost anywhere else in Russia, he would have faced a judge and two "lay assessors", who usually merely rubber stamp the judge's ruling. In Soviet times such courts convicted practically everyone, often on the orders of party officials. These days, they are slightly more lenient, but still do not match the 15-20 per cent acquittal rate of Russia's jury trials.

Yet, far from expanding, it looks as if the jury experiment - the cornerstone to any truly democratic system - is withering on the vine. The Yeltsin administration recently shut down the government post of Sergei Pashin, the 32-year-old legal reformer responsible for introducing juries. Although the experiment continues, plans to expand it seem to be grinding to a halt. There is a "legimate concern" that they will die out, said Daniel Matthews, of the American Bar Association in Moscow.

Juries were supposed to be introduced to 12 more regions next January, including Moscow city and St Petersburg. But the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, is dragging its feet over passing the legislation. In these tub-thumping pre-election nationalist days, few politicians want to be seen as being soft on crime - or willing to lavish money on refurbishing Russia's delapidated courthouses, which rarely have the basic amenities that juries need.

Judges who are involved in the experiment sound even more pessimistic. "Unfortunately, I think we will see fewer and fewer jury trials," said Vasily Kozlov, a Moscow judge. "The crime rate is too high and there is too much pressure on the Russian leadership from the opponents of the system."

Although these "pressures" come from the increasingly noisy nationalists and hardliners, they are also a reflection of a widespread frustration with a legal system that is under-funded and under-staffed, yet engulfed by a rising tide of lawlessness, from Mafia-style contract killings (yet another bank executive was shot dead last week) to extortion and bribery. In a society where big-time criminals openly flout the system, many Russians see it as an unnecessary luxury to allow the small fry to tie the courts up with long jury trials.

But opponents also field more depressing arguments, which pay little heed to human rights and smack strongly of Soviet-style thinking. Terekhov's prosecutor, Felix Sadikov, a wiry man with a gold wrist chain and a purple shirt, became angry at the mere mention of the word jury. The whole idea was nonsense, he said. They made cases too long, which was neither fair to defendants nor to crime victims. Jurors did not understand the law and were far too vulnerable to outside influence; witness the O J Simpson case. "The whole thing should be left to the specialists, the professionals," he said.

He need not have worried in Terekhov's case. Russian juries do not declare outright guilt, but answer a series of questions which are tantamount to the same thing. The youth was convicted, and given an 18-month suspended jail sentence.