President Dmitry Medvedev has been vocally promoting legal reform and the idea of press freedom in Russia. This week at an All-Russian Congress of Judges in Moscow, Medvedev once again spoke about the need to strengthen the Russian legal system, make it more transparent to the public, make the courts more independent, and protect judges from outside pressure and provide them with better legal training (RIA-Novosti, December 2). Medvedev also called for the “humanization of the law,” saying that judges had to hand down more lenient sentences (Kommersant, December 3).
Many lawyers and human rights groups say that Russian judges are not truly independent of the government and often ignore evidence in court cases to rule in favor of the prosecution. Medvedev, a former corporate lawyer himself, apparently understands the urgent need to strengthen the ramshackle Russian legal system. Medvedev’s public pronouncements, though often short on concrete detail, tend to sound good and liberal; but in Russia today Medvedev seems to be an obsolescent and absurd figure, in essence a figurehead.
As Medvedev deliberated at the congress, the ruling United Russia party in the State Duma introduced an important legal reform bill that would curtail the right to trial by jury. Officially, the bill was introduced to "increase the effectiveness of preventing terrorism." The bill provides for increased penalties and trial by a troika of judges instead of a jury. The felonies that will be tried by the troikas go much beyond straightforward “terrorism” to encompass virtually any activity by every possible opponent of the regime: terrorism, hostage taking, organization of or participation in an illegal armed formation, rioting, treason, espionage, attempting to seize power, and mutiny (Kommersant, December 3).
According to official Duma papers, the United Russia party’s main argument in introducing the bill is simple: "Too often juries acquit the accused." Indeed, according to official statistics, Russian juries in 2007 acquitted 17.2 percent of the defendants, while professional judges sitting without juries acquitted only 0.7 percent (Kommersant, December 3). Now in crimes against the state and the regime, the accused will find no help from possibly sympathetic fellow citizens randomly chosen to serve on juries. Since United Russia is in full control of the Duma and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is the party leader, the bill will almost certainly sail through the Duma into law.
As Russia sinks deeper into economic crisis and social tension increases, the denial of trial by jury to those accused of organizing rioting may be especially important. Yevgeni Gontmakher, a leading Russian economist and a former high government official under Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Putin, published an article last month in the business daily Vedomosti about possible social unrest in the Russian provinces caused by the bankruptcy of major industrial plants. Russia’s government media watchdog Rossvyazkomnadzor sent Vedomosti an official letter, warning that Gontmakher’s article, "Novocherkassk 2009," "could incite extremism." Media organizations officially accused of "inciting extremism" maybe penalized or closed down (Vedomosti, November 6, 22; also see EDM, December 1).
Gontmakher is a member of the administrative board and a leading researcher at the Institute of Contemporary Development, a liberal think-tank created by Medvedev, who has remained chairman of the institute’s supervisory board. Gontmakher stated that he was "disturbed by an attempt to censure an expert opinion" but expressed the belief this was the result of "bureaucratic fervor" by relatively low-ranking officials. "Medvedev, when he founded our institute, called on us to tell only the truth," recalled Gontmakher (Novye Izvestia, November 24). Apparently Gontmakher is not fully tuned in to the real situation, while the "low-ranking officials" are more aware of where Russia is heading and what Medvedev’s future role will be.
This week it was officially announced that the ruling United Russia party had introduced legislation into the Duma that would increase penalties for news organizations, Internet providers, and Internet users accused of spreading extremism. The charge may be dealt with as a felony and carry a prison sentence. Federal judges will have the power to shut down access to Internet sites that contain so-called extremist material "on the territory of the Russian Federation." A list of such illegal “extremist” sites will be published. The same bill will make it much harder for religious organizations that are not approved by the authorities to become officially registered (RIA-Novosti, November 3).
During the war with Georgia last August the authorities in Tbilisi closed access to Russian news sites, and Russian Internet providers responded by denying access to Georgian ones. Today in Russia, many Georgian sites are still inaccessible; this practice may now become legal and widespread. Jamesetown.org may be one of the first on the “extremist” hit list to be blocked on Russian territory when the legislation becomes law. The Russian authorities have already accused The Jamestown Foundation of promoting terrorism in Russia (www.mid.ru, December 7, 2007).