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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Duma Has a Plan to Protect Witnesses

Only one witness showed up at the opening of a trial in August of five young men accused of beating dozens of people with metal pipes in a skinhead rampage at the crowded Tsaritsyno outdoor market.

The clearly frightened witness, an Azeri trader, then refused to testify against the suspects.

What gummed up this trial, as well as many others, is that witnesses do not want to put their lives on the line to help the police obtain convictions, lawmakers and analysts said Monday. The solution, they said, could well lie in landmark legislation to set up a U.S.-style witness protection program, which is to go for a first hearing in the State Duma in November.

Critics agreed that a witness protection program was crucial to ongoing judicial reforms but cautioned that the bill contains loopholes that open the door to numerous abuses.

"Nobody knows how many criminal cases collapsed in court because people weren't offered state protection," Valery Fyodorov, a Federation Council senator and a co-author of the bill, said at a conference Monday.

"I am sure the number of crimes brought to light would grow if the government provided protection," he said.

Fyodorov's bill, which is largely modeled after the U.S. witness protection program, envisions security measures for witnesses such as bodyguards, plastic surgery and resettlement to new towns with new identities. It allows the authorities to declare a witness dead or missing.

Among its controversial components, the legislation allows the police to provide bodyguards against a witness's wishes and obliges him to report any threats.

It also gives the authorities the option of changing a witness's appearance and identity papers without saying whether the witness can object.

The bill does give a witness the right to know whether his documents have been modified and allows him to complain about mistreatment in court.

"The existing Criminal Procedure Code protects a witness's rights only inside the walls of the courtroom," said Yegor Doroshenko, an analyst at the nongovernmental Foundation for the Development of Parliamentarism in Russia. "Without such a law, the code doesn't provide justice because traditionally in Russia the indictment is based mostly on the testimony of witnesses."

According to police statistics, 10 million people acted as witnesses in court last year, and one-fourth were pressured to recant their testimony.

Some witnesses change their minds after being offered money or valuables. But many do so or outright refuse to testify for fear of being killed, Fyodorov said.

He pointed out that only a handful of the several hundred witnesses in a case against Chechen warlord Salman Raduyev appeared in a Dagestani court last year. Raduyev was accused of leading a deadly raid on the Dagestani town Kizlyar in 1996, and the court sentenced him to life in prison.

Ronald Zhuravlyov, the deputy head of the Duma's security committee, said the recent killing of lawmaker Vladimir Golovlyov was linked to a public pledge he had made to name the parties involved in the improper privatization of companies in the Chelyabinsk region. Golovlyov was a witness in a criminal investigation that has been dragging on for five years.

In the Tsaritsyno trial, the judge adjourned proceedings for three days and ordered prosecutors to produce a few more of the 32 witnesses who had been earlier interviewed by investigators. The trial in the October 2001 rampage that left three dead is still going on and has faced further delays due to a lack of witnesses.

Human rights activists said witnesses would probably prefer to try to strike deals with those on trial than accept protection from the notoriously corrupt police force. "Such a law is not well-timed because it expands the rights of state agencies that do not enjoy the people's trust," said Lev Levinson of the nongovernmental Institute for Human Rights. "A witness would become the hostage of his bodyguards, who by law would get the right to intrude into his home and protect him against his will."

The police would be more likely to extort money from witnesses than protect them, said Sergei Zamoshkin, a lawyer and the head of Anti-Proizvol, a nongovernmental watchdog tracking police abuse.

"The bill should provide new guarantees to citizens who would rather not deal with law enforcers at all," he said.

Lawmakers have been trying to establish a witness protection program for years. The Duma has twice passed the necessary legislation, in 1995 and 1997, but it was vetoed both times by then-President Boris Yeltsin.

Yeltsin balked because those bills had a number of provisions that jeopardized the rights of defendants, including a measure allowing the identity of a witness to be hidden in court, said Mikhail Paleyev, the chief adviser of the Kremlin's legal department. He said the new draft focuses more on protecting witnesses outside of the courtroom.

While lawmakers argued over the legislation, pilot witness protection programs have been set up in Moscow and Bashkortostan.

Oleg Ektov, the head of the witness protection department with the Moscow police, said jitters that officers might try to take advantage of the people under their protection were unfounded. He said his officers in some cases had spent money from their own pockets to protect witnesses due to scant funding for the experimental program.

Paleyev said that if the new bill becomes law, the government has agreed to allocate 3 billion rubles ($96 million) a year for witness protection programs.