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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Deputies Vote to Revamp Courts

At the end of a long day Wednesday, the State Duma passed in the second and crucial reading a new Criminal Procedural Code with the power to revolutionize the Russian legal system by introducing jury trials, curbing the rights of all-powerful prosecutors and protecting suspects in criminal cases from police brutality.

But the legislation, which passed with a vote of 290-2, has sharply divided liberal legal experts. Two leading veterans of judicial reform, the authors of crucial ideas that seemed to have found a place in the new code, gave opposing opinions of the final product, with one calling it "an unexpected success" and the other "the end of the reform."

The proposed code also has been harshly criticized by human rights activists, who describe it as a "cross between a water pipe and a sewer." They say the code's liberal concept clashes with numerous provisions introducing practices abandoned even in Soviet times.

Judicial reform also has faced stubborn opposition from prosecutors. They object most of all to the demand for jury trials and the handover of their right to issue arrest and search warrants to the courts, both of which were guaranteed by the 1993 Constitution.

The majority of lawmakers, though, stood firmly behind the Kremlin-supported legislation.

"The main asset of the bill is that it defends individuals against possible lawlessness," Alexander Gurov, head of the Duma security committee and a member of pro-Kremlin Unity, said on RTR television Wednesday. "This amounts to a revolution in criminal law."

This particular revolution fit nicely into four very thick files, which the bill's main author and advocate, liberal Deputy Yelena Mizulina, displayed on the Duma rostrum. The files contained the 3,066 amendments that have been considered in the Duma legislative committee since the legislation passed a first reading in April 1997. It must still pass a third reading, usually a formality, before going to the upper house.

The amendments, Mizulina said, were a part of a broad consensus between the authors and all the institutions involved. "We can now rightly and boldly say that the draft code defends our national interests," she said.

Among the most striking provisions are the ones requiring jury trials to be introduced throughout the country by Jan. 1, 2003. The cost of this is estimated at 4 billion rubles ($138 million).

All cases involving the serious crimes that are heard in regional courts — rather than municipal courts — will now be heard before a 10-member jury, said Lev Levinson, an aid to liberal deputy Sergei Kovalyov and a representative of the Moscow-based Human Rights Institute. These crimes include murder, rape, serious theft, all cases of bribery and all cases against government officials.

In jury trials, prosecutors would be expected to work harder and show more legal dexterity. They now present their cases in front of a single judge who is accompanied by two usually indifferent "people's representatives." Judges tend to take the prosecution's side out of fear that too many appeals may eventually endanger their careers. Often, prosecutors don't bother to show up at all, and the judge is left to do their work — by questioning the suspect, for instance.

This could now change. The proposed code says a court hearing cannot take place unless the prosecutor is present and unless the defendant has legal representation, which if necessary must be provided by the court.

Mizulina said this provision was a better guarantee of a fair trial than the presence of people's representatives.

The lawmakers set further limits on prosecutors by agreeing to transfer their power to issue arrest and search warrants to the courts. This, however, would not go into effect until Jan. 1, 2004.

The proposed code could also put an end to the grisly tradition of economizing during the investigation by beating a confession out of the suspects. These confessions are still considered valid by many judges even if the accused retracts them in the courtroom. The code approved Wednesday makes sure that retracted confessions can no longer be admitted as evidence.

"This is one of the most important changes," Sergei Vitsin, a veteran of judicial reform and a member of the Presidential Pardons Commission, said by telephone. "It can professionalize investigations by forcing investigators to work hard on gathering real evidence instead of beating up the suspects."

According to Vitsin, who was a member of the group that worked on the bill between the two readings, the code, in spite of its weaknesses, is still a success. "It brings us closer to real adversarial trials and it takes the ground out from under the old system, which was built on forcing an admission of guilt from the suspect."

"If somebody told me three years ago that such a code would pass through the Duma, I wouldn't have believed him," he said.

But Vitsin's long-standing ally in the fight for the judicial reform, former Moscow city court Judge Sergei Pashin, says the bill is flawed to the point of being an obstacle to real judicial reform.

"Some of its provisions are worse than in the Soviet times," he said by telephone from Boston.

One of the code's provisions, for instance, foresees reading a suspect his rights only after he's been questioned. Worse still, Pashin said, the code's authors kept the old Soviet clause that materials gathered by the defense during the investigation are not treated as evidence unless the investigator chooses to accept them. He said this amounts to "judicial hypocrisy" since "in Russia the investigators are invariably on the side of the prosecution."

The same goes for the much-lauded transfer of power to issue arrest warrants to judges, Pashin said. The new code provides no procedures for a judge's decision other than evaluating the formal correctness of the prosecutor's request.

"There is no obligation for the judge to question any witnesses, no need for him even to ask himself whether the arrest is really needed," he said.

According to Pashin, judges currently grant "99.9 percent" of requests to install listening equipment or intercept suspects' mail. "The same will happen with the arrest warrants," he said. "They will be issued as on a conveyer belt."

"The bill has been written without taking Russian reality into account," Pashin said. "That makes it harmful and very dangerous. It doesn't tackle any of the real problems. It looks like a beginning, but in effect it's the end of real judicial reform."

The head of the presidential legal department, Dmitry Kozak, called the Duma vote "a historic step," which "significantly enlarges the guarantees to citizens involved in a criminal case."

Kozak is seen as the main advocate of judicial reform within the presidential administration. He headed a working group that came up with some of the amendments to the new code, which were introduced by the president several weeks ago.