Duma Looks to Limit Trials by Jury

The State Duma on Friday is to consider in a first reading a bill that would eliminate jury trials for cases involving terrorism, espionage and attempts to overthrow the government.

Duma deputies with the pro-Kremlin party United Russia, which is sponsoring the bill, say the legislation is necessary because juries in volatile southern regions have been lenient toward defendants accused of involvement in armed groups and organized crime.

"It is necessary to strengthen the influence on the situation in this area because of the growing terrorist threat, which demands adequate measures from the government to provide punishment of those guilty of these crimes," senior United Russia officials on the Duma's security committee said in a statement this week.

Since 1993, when jury trials were reinstated after a break of more than seven decades, the acquittal rate has been much higher for defendants tried by juries than by judges.

According to 2007 data from the Supreme Court, 0.7 percent of those tried by judges were acquitted, while the acquittal rate in jury trials was 17.2 percent.

The bill, which also calls for stiffer punishment for those convicted of kidnapping and being an accessory to terrorism, is expected to sail through the Duma, where United Russia controls 315 out of 450 seats.

Russian judges are widely seen as biased and prone to outside pressure, resulting in what many lawyers and rights activists say is a tendency for them to ignore evidence and rule in favor of the prosecution.

The United Russia-backed bill is unlikely to reverse this trend, said Andrei Pokhmelkin, a Moscow-based defense lawyer.

"Juries are more objective and independent from the powers that be," Pokhmelkin said. "But the bureaucratic regime that is ruling Russia does not trust its people and wants to decide everything itself."

Jury trials in tsarist Russia were banned in cases of terrorism after a jury acquitted Marxist writer and revolutionary Vera Zasulich of trying to assassinate St. Petersburg Mayor Fyodor Trepov in 1878, Pokhmelkin noted.

The ban was imposed just 14 years after the first jury trials were introduced in Russia.

Friday's reading comes just three days after President Dmitry Medvedev told senior judges from across the country that courts should be more lenient and independent and that the public's confidence in the country's judiciary needs to be boosted.

He cited the trend of Russians increasingly seeking justice at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg as an example of this widespread distrust.

"I generally agree that the Strasbourg Court, with all my respect for it, cannot and should not replace Russian justice," Medvedev told the judges. "We must think how to transform the Russian judicial system to encourage citizens to make a choice in its favor."