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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Judges Press for Independent Status

Judges from Russia's civil, arbitrage, and military courts gathered in Moscow this week for their second congress, calling for guarantees of an independent judiciary to be written into Russia's new draft constitution.

Over 600 judges from across the country called on the Constitutional Assembly to write into stone guarantees that the judiciary will exist as an independent third power alongside the president and legislature, as they struggle to overcome the legacy of their Soviet past and establish an independent judiciary for the first time.

"We must have our rights written into the new constitution", Vyacheslav Lebedev, the chairman of the Supreme Court, told the congress, which met Tuesday and Wednesday and was attended by the country's top justices.

They also called for both government and parliament to push ahead with the introduction of trial by jury, considered the key to legal reform and strongly endorsed by President Boris Yeltsin. Parliament passed a draft law June 2 approving trial by jury, which will be introduced on an experimental basis in five central Russian regions.

Yeltsin has pushed for legal reform since October 1991, when the judges called their first congress to demand fundamental changes to the system.

Once considered an arm of the Communist Party, Russia's courts have never enjoyed the independence to make legal decisions on their own. Although trial by jury existed in tsarist Russia, it was wiped out in 1917 and replaced by the tribunal that continues to exist today, consisting of one judge and two people's assessors.

Speaking to the congress, Sergei Filatov, Yeltsin's chief of staff, read a letter from the president supporting trial by jury and said that a strong judicial branch was the key to reform.

"Russia today needs an independent and objective judicial branch", he said. "The president's team and the judges must work together on this".

But participants from regional courts were skeptical that legal reform would take hold, arguing that lack of funds made it impossible to protect either the safety of judges or jurors.

"The government should open accounts for all of our provincial courts if they want legal reform", said Viktor Berdichevsky, a Rostov-on-Don judge. "We are for reform, but we are realistic, and all this is going to cost money that the government just doesn't have".