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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fight Crime, But Protect Civil Rights

The high wire of benevolent dictatorship that Boris Yeltsin has been walking since he took power more than two years ago has begun to sway giddily under his feet. Even close political allies worry aloud that the president's decree on crime exceeds his constitutional powers and threatens newly won civil liberties. The entire flurry of decrees Yeltsin has issued over the past month, however welcome, has flirted with illegality. In principle, the parliament legislates and the president executes, even though the president does have the right to rule by decree on some matters. The limits on that power admittedly are vague, but the recent spate of decrees probably exceeds them. With his foray into the world of criminal legislation, Yeltsin has stepped unmistakably into the domain of parliament. In no democracy on earth does a president have the right unilaterally to alter the criminal code, especially when those changes breach the constitution. Instead of 48 hours, for example, any person can now be held in police custody without charge for 30 days if suspected of involvement in organized crime. Police can examine the financial affairs or search the premises of such suspects without a court order. The list goes on. These draconian measures might be acceptable given the enormity of Russia's organized crime problem. A good argument can be made, for example, that unless Yeltsin takes quick action to combat the crime bosses effectively, Russian voters will elect somebody who is willing to do the job. Vladimir Zhirinovsky springs immediately to mind, with his promise to shoot all suspected crime bosses without trial. But this argument holds only if: (a) it is a final resort; (b) the breaches of civil liberties that Yeltsin has proposed would be temporary and would have a real effect in combating crime; and (c) he has the means to ensure that abuses are kept to a minimum. None of these, unfortunately, are the case. It is the Russian courts that need more powers, not the police or prosecutors. Starting at the top, Yeltsin should make sure that the constitutional court is finally convened. Judges lower down the ladder need properly rewritten laws to follow, more rational sentencing policies and high enough pay to make them less susceptible to bribes. None of this has been attempted. Secondly, the police need more training and higher pay to take on the mafia. So long as they remain ill-equipped, ill-trained and underpaid, they will be easily bought and no additional powers will change that. Nothing in the history of Russia's security services suggests that they can be trusted not to abuse their powers. With this decree, the long and almost unbroken tradition of arbitrary rule in Russia threatens to return.