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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kremlin Pushes Judicial Reform

President Vladimir Putin has met with the heads of State Duma factions in an attempt to gain their support for a possible major overhaul of the judiciary system — the only branch of power that has seen little reform since Soviet times.

The outline of the proposed reform — as described by the faction leaders after their meeting with the president late Monday evening — suggests the Kremlin might be favoring a large-scale liberalization, by strengthening the position of judges and the Justice Ministry, while seriously limiting the huge powers of prosecutors.

The reform proposal, drafted by a working group formed last December within the presidential administration and headed by the administration's deputy head Dmitry Kozak, has not yet been made public. But Kozak said the full package of reform bills could be presented to the Duma as early as April 15, Interfax reported.

Some details were provided by Igor Artemyev, deputy head of the Yabloko faction, who leads a team of Yabloko experts that worked on the reform proposal together with Kozak's group.

The Duma will be asked to change the way judges are selected, enlarge the rights of the defense, introduce jury trials all over the country and limit the powers of the prosecutor's office, Artemyev said.

Kozak's plan is all but certain to face fierce opposition from the Prosecutor General's Office. The hand of the prosecutor general was seen behind the scuttling in January of a presidential bill that would have transferred the power to order arrests from prosecutors to the courts. Putin withdrew the bill just hours after it was presented to the Duma.

The leader of the pro-Kremlin Unity faction, however, indicated Tuesday that the Kremlin is now willing to push ahead. If the bill on arrest warrants is re-submitted to the Duma, it would have Unity's full support, said faction leader Boris Gryzlov.

"We can already say with certainty that judicial reform in Russia has started," Interfax quoted him as saying.

Raising the qualifications and independence of judges appears to be one of the Kremlin's aims. Artemyev said among the first bills likely to be considered by the Duma will call for changing the makeup of the Qualification Collegium, the body that selects and dismisses judges. Currently, it is composed only of judges, but Kozak's team wants to open it up by introducing representatives of the professional legal community.

Kozak's proposal calls for establishing jury trials throughout the country, Artemyev said. Only seven of the 89 regions now have jury trials.

Interfax cited Kozak as saying the Kremlin plans to raise the notoriously low salaries of judges and carry out a major reconstruction of decrepit buildings housing the courts throughout the country, the cost of which is estimated at around 4 billion rubles ($138 million).

Under Kozak's proposal, the Justice Ministry would be given the authority to oversee the Kremlin's effort to bring regional legislation in line with federal laws, Artemyev said. This is now under the control of the prosecutor's office.

The reform plan includes changing the Criminal and Civil codes to enlarge the rights of the defense in criminal trials and almost exclude prosecutors from civil cases.

But the crucial element of prosecutors' power — the right to conduct an investigation into a criminal case and at the same time supervise the observance of the law during the investigation — so far remains untouched by the reform plan, Artemyev said.