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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A New Legal Awareness

Just before the New Year, Russia's human rights movement received a spectacular gift: the acquittal of Alexander Nikitin by the St. Petersburg City court. It was a logical end to the case: logical, that is, for a state governed by laws. The decision was immediately appealed, naturally, by prosecutor Alexander Gutsan. But the verdict formulated by judge Sergei Golets was so airtight that any appeals by the prosecutor to a higher court would surely be thrown out. It also represented the first time any judge in Russia relied so heavily in his decision on notions of international legal standards and conceptions of human rights.

Our human rights watchdog organization, Citizens' Watch, participated heavily in Nikitin's defense. Nikitin, a former naval officer, had been charged more than four years ago with allegedly spying and revealing state secrets. The FSB - the KGB's main successor - had said he'd used classified materials when he'd documented the Russian navy's negligence with nuclear waste in a report he co-authored with the Norwegian environmental group Bellona. Throughout the case he was the victim of harassment by the FSB and procrastination by the courts, under the heel of a system that was entirely and hopelessly against him. It was a familiar scenario suggesting a familiar ending: a bogus trial followed by a guilty verdict.

Click here to read our special report on human rights.In other words, it was the Soviet legal tradition that we'd all grown used to, after 70 years of experience with judges who did nothing but kowtow to the will of the authorities. It became second nature.

So, what made the difference in the Nikitin case? What is happening in Russian jurisprudence that is enabling judges to shift their gaze from the demands of an omnipotent state to the dictates of their country's constitution and internationally accepted standards for human rights? Where did an independent judge like Golets come from?

One factor is certainly the growing exposure of Russian judges to the legal systems of other countries. Many travel and receive colleagues from abroad. They also see how the office of a judge is respected by the public in the West. Then they think to themselves, damn it, I am no worse than that! They realize that commanding respect is accompanied by a feeling of independence and impartiality, of not being beholden to anything but one's conscience. Golets himself has attended international seminars in France and other countries, and the experience has doubtless affected his outlook.

Because of opportunities like this, judges are taking their status as independent arbiters more seriously. Beyond the Nikitin case, we can also see the record of the St. Petersburg Soldiers' Mothers Organization - a group defending the rights of military conscripts - against the Defense Ministry. Since 1997, Soldiers' Mothers has defeated the mighty ministry again and again, setting precedents for the rights of young men before the military, a situation that would have been a fantasy even three years ago. Such cases are serious contributions to a new legal consciousness in Russia, a consciousness that is more befitting to a member state of the Council of Europe.

Of course, some of those cases that are leading Russia out of the dark have also contained legal compromises with the past. One of them was the case of Grigory Pasko. He, like Nikitin, was a naval officer accused of treason for criticizing military nuclear waste policies and for revealing state secrets. Like Nikitin, he was jailed after he published reports in a military newspaper he worked for on the Pacific Fleet's slipshod handling of waste.

The espionage charges against him were as unfounded as the ones against Nikitin. The dilemma for the judges in this case was to dismiss the espionage charges and violation of state secrecy charges while still punishing Pasko for something to avoid looking too lenient. Acting President Vladimir Putin himself - then head of the FSB - had called Pasko a spy. Instead of a full acquittal, however, the judges in his case handed down a guilty verdict on the charge that Pasko had "exceeded his rights as a journalist" and immediately amnestied him.

In the absence of such lesser charges in the Nikitin case, the only means of compromise for a judge was to prolong the criminal investigation against him. This happened eight times, and each time the same charges were filed over and over.

When the case reached Golets' court in 1998, however, he only compromised once: Sending the sloppy case back to the FSB for further investigation, he gave them one last chance to prove the unprovable. And they couldn't.

Unfortunately, most courts are still following Moscow's example. The Moscow City court system, tightly under the thumb of Mayor Yury Luzhkov, is a disaster, as the recent difficulties of several Moscow-based nongovernment organizations show. In these instances, Moscow City Hall's legal department has refused to register human rights groups like the Environmental and Human Rights Center and the Glasnost Foundation on the basis that protecting civil liberties is the government's jurisdiction. Both of these cases have gone on to the Supreme Court, which, being more independent, will likely find in favor of the organizations.

One of the most important achievements of the last decade was the granting of independence of judges in 1992. Because of this, a new generation of judges like Golets are coming of age and will hopefully crowd out stale Soviet practices. Certainly they will remain in the minority for many years to come, but it is usually an active minority that sets the pace for future change.

Boris Pustintsev is the chairman of Citizens' Watch, a St. Petersburg civil rights watchdog organization. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.