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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Where Does Putin Stand On Reform?

Those still struggling to hope that the Kremlin is really interested in serious legal reform have suffered yet another blow. And a devastating one.

Just over a month ago, we wrote optimistically in this space about the State Duma's unanimous passage of a bill that would reduce the maximum period a person could be held in pre-trial detention from 18 to 12 months. We applauded parliament’s and the Kremlin’s determination to address this barbarous practice and to alleviate the hellish jail conditions. "Legal reform is off on the right foot," we trumpeted.

Well, now it has tripped. And fallen flat on its face. And we don’t know whether it will be able to get up again.

The Federation Council on Wednesday rejected the bill under pressure from Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov. His deputy, Sabir Kekhlerov, told lawmakers before the vote that the measure must be rejected because it was "fraught with dangerous consequences for society."

This setback came hard on the heels of the recent withdrawal of a bill to require court-ordered search and arrest warrants — a withdrawal that reportedly also resulted from lobbying by prosecutors.

That bill, it should be noted, did little more than bring the Criminal Procedural Code into line with the Constitution, leading to the bizarre situation of the law enforcement community defending unconstitutional statutes.

Neither of these reforms is "fraught with dangerous consequences for society." What is dangerous for society, however, are prosecutors who think that the provisions of the Constitution are optional or somehow do not apply to them. Dangerous, also, is the fact that the prosecutor general can so easily stymie a reform that was drafted by legal experts in the Justice Ministry and unanimously adopted by the Duma.

Living in a country where any prosecutor can arrest you and hold you in an overcrowded and disease-ridden prison for at least a year and half without bringing you to trial also seems dangerous to us.

Perhaps most dangerous is what all this says of President Vladimir Putin’s commitment to reform. A dictatorship of law might be a good thing, if the laws themselves are good and if the enforcers are strictly bound by them. Otherwise, it is totalitarianism plain and simple.

It is high time for Putin to take a stand. Imagine him addressing a joint session of parliament and explaining why both of these fundamental reforms must be enacted immediately. That would be the kind of inspiring leadership that we haven’t seen from him yet. And it wouldn’t come a moment too soon.