Top Court Is Off to Positive Start in St. Pete

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The Constitutional Court ruled last week that the article in the Criminal Code used to prosecute individuals for smuggling large sums of money was unconstitutional. The court ruled that the smuggling law -- intended to stop people from bringing large sums of cash through airports -- violated citizens' constitutional rights by failing to define what constituted a "large sum" of money.

Currently, even if someone miscalculates the allowable sum by a kopek, he or she could face five years in prison. Alternatively, customs officials could decide that it was a mistake rather than a premeditated act of smuggling and classify it as a misdemeanor, which is punishable by a fine of 2,500 rubles, or $105.

Because of the Constitutional Court ruling, Article 188 of the Criminal Code, which allows authorities to jail those who bring into the country more than $10,000 without declaring it, must be changed. The law now has to specify the exact amount of undeclared money before it can be classified as a serious crime punishable by a prison term rather than a fine.

The case was brought to the Constitutional Court by lawyers of Manana Aslamazyan, the head of a nongovernmental organization that trained journalists in Russia. She was charged last year with smuggling after she failed to declare 9,550 euros, worth $12,500 at the time, at Sheremetyevo Airport.

The Interior Ministry, which took over the smuggling investigation from customs, has already announced that it will drop the charge against her. But Aslamazyan is still facing prosecution for what authorities claim was tax evasion by the NGO she had been running in Russia with the help of foreign financing. The authorities' discontent with the activities of this now-defunct NGO may have been the true reason for the charges, which many human rights groups believe are politically motivated. This will probably mean that the tax evasion charges will keep Aslamazyan from returning to Russia.

Nevertheless, the Constitutional Court's verdict is a victory. It will put an end to unfair punishment as well as to the ambiguity that allowed law enforcers to interpret the law at their discretion, creating opportunities for abuse of power and corruption.

There are similar ambiguities in many other laws in the country that need to be addressed without waiting for the Constitutional Court to rule on them. As for the court, it should be commended for taking an objective and unbiased stand in this politically charged case. This was the court's first verdict since its relocation to St. Petersburg in early May. We hope that it will be followed by other fair and impartial rulings that will help transform Russia into a society with fair laws and law-abiding citizens.