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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Party Trial: Big Billing, No Reason

Four months ago, Russia's fledgling Constitutional Court took on a challenge unparalleled in history and far greater than any it had faced in its short existence: It set out to judge the Communist Party.

But as the court's most controversial trial winds down, one thine is clear: It should never have taken place. The verdict on the Communist Party should have been left to history, not to 13 justices.

Likened at first to the Nuremburg Trials and billed as the "trial of the century", the Communist Party case was hailed as a great test of democracy. President Boris Yeltsin himself declared at the outset that the fate of the country and his government's reforms hinged on the court's verdict.

But as the trial dragged on, it became clear that it would be much more complicated than that. Despite the court's best efforts, it became a political trial, putting to test the fragile foundation of Russia's attempt to establish a firm rule of law.

In two petitions it had accepted over the spring, the court agreed first to evaluate whether President Boris Yeltsin's ban on the party's activities had been constitutional, and second, to examine the legality of the party itself.

It was only its seventh major case since becoming the country's first Constitutional Court at the end of 1991, established exclusively to evaluate questions of law. Although its position was questioned under a government the often favored presidential decree over its Brezhnevera constitution, the court won the respect of legal experts early on when it ruled against a Yeltsin decree unifying the KGB and interior ministries, the first such decision in Russian history to be taken against a head of state.

But while the court's earlier cases had allowed it to focus on strictly legal issues, evaluating the Communist Party's constitutionality forced the court to delve into politically charged, and very recent, history.

Gathering some of Russian and Soviet history's most famous faces in its august courtroom, the high court's black-robed judges, 12 men and one woman, passed the hot weeks of summer and most of the chilly autumn sifting through the party's gruesome past. They heard the heated testimony of dissidents, historians, and legal experts. They subpoenaed and interrogated top former party leaders, including Nikolai Ryzhkov, Alexander Yakovlev, and, Yegor Ligachev.

They poured over archives, like those from the Katyn massacre, and tried to figure out how extensively the party had funded terrorist organizations abroad. Over 40 volumes of party

records were submitted to the court about 1, 000 documents of which were accepted as evidence.

Russia's new faces mixed with its old: During breaks in the long court sessions, pro-Communist legislators -- who by challenging Yeltsin's decree were the ones to bring the party to tria -- would chat amiably in the corridor with members of the government's side. This was an historic trial, but in these moments, it had the feel of a town meeting.

Back in the courtroom, lawyers on the government side warned that a verdict against Yeltsin would prompt his opponents to impeach the president, and give them a rallying point for which to unite and return to power.

In defense of the Communist Party, lawyers argued that banning the party would deprive millions of former party members of their rights. They appealed to the court find in their favor in defense of democracy.

Giving the court a full view of the party's history proved difficult. With many archives still classified, waiting to be reviewed by a state committee, the court had to leave pages of the party's history uncovered. and testimony from many of the former party leaders proved woefully incomplete, as they chose salvaging their battered reputations over telling the truth.

With lawyers for both sides of the case giving their long-awaited summary arguments this week, the court is expected to reach a verdict before the end of November. For most observers, it is clear that the court will rule in Yeltsin's favor, on the basis that the party was a criminal group which the president was obliged to disperse.

In his concluding speech on Wednesday, Yeltsin's top lawyer, Sergei Shakhrai, called the president's ban of the party "surgery to remove a cancerous tumor" and added that "for the first time in decades, power is being transferred where it lawfully belongs".

But whatever the outcome, most important for the court is that it emerge unscathed, and with the country's fragile respect for the law intact. As one observer noted at the trial's opening in July, if the court cannot distinguish between politics and the law, then it is "dead".