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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Court System Gets New Kind of Justice

Most provisions of the new Criminal Procedural Code kick into effect Monday -- with supporters praising it for enhancing the rights of suspects, critics warning that practice will fall short of theory, and prosecutors and courts scrambling to deal with their enormous new workload.

The code was a cornerstone of the Kremlin-backed judicial reform package pushed through the State Duma last fall and purports to give greater power to the courts and to level the playing field for defense lawyers, who have often found themselves outdone by disproportionately powerful prosecutors.

Under the new law, the courts -- not prosecutors -- must sanction searches, arrests and detention for longer than 48 hours. The code also puts an end to trials in absentia, such as the two rushed through last month against former intelligence officers Oleg Kalugin and Alexander Litvinenko.

Justice Minister Yury Chaika predicted the new code would significantly reduce the number of arrests and alleviate overcrowding in the disease-ridden pretrial detention centers. Interfax cited Chaika as saying he expected the number of detainees -- now between 200,000 and 250,000 -- to drop by about 100,000 this year alone. One of the provisions intended to help ease overcrowding is the introduction of plea bargaining for offenses punishable by prison terms of less than five years.

Among the unquestionable achievements of the new code is a ban on the practice of sending criminal cases back for "additional investigation" -- a tactic often used by judges to let investigators patch up shoddy work or scrape around for new evidence. The code also forbids double jeopardy. Also meant to ensure a fair trial are new rules allowing a court to reject evidence obtained by the prosecution with procedural violations or other mistakes, and giving suspects the right to be questioned within 24 hours of detention and to have two hours with a lawyer before speaking with an investigator.

Legal rights advocates, however, were pessimistic, saying the new code lacks mechanisms to prevent police torture to extract testimony and other human rights abuses, and does too little to rectify the imbalance between the prosecution and defense.

"It all looks very democratic if one doesn't know how it works from the inside," Mara Polyakova, head of the Council of Independent Legal Experts, said Friday.

Polyakova pointed to the law's giving investigators the right to appoint lawyers for defendants who cannot afford to hire their own and favoring the prosecution in the presentation of evidence and commissioning of evaluations by third-party experts. The defense can do so only with the permission of the investigator or the court. She also expressed concern about restrictions on sound recording in court and new limitations on nongovernmental organizations representing defendants' interests.

While Chaika said he hoped the judicial system had undergone enough preparation to "avoid any serious problems," other officials worried that neither the courts nor prosecutors were ready to handle their expanded duties.

Valery Grebennikov, a Duma deputy who worked on the law, estimated that an additional 3,000 judges would be needed immediately, with 11,000 more required by year's end. Otherwise, Grebennikov said, the country's 16,000 judges would need to "work around the clock to hand down quick decisions about conducting searches, arrests, phone-tapping and other activities."

Deputy Prosecutor General Nikolai Makarov complained that the work of investigators would be "greatly complicated" and that no funding was available to hire the 8,000 additional staff his agency had requested.

Makarov said law enforcement officials are not experienced or educated enough to meet the new requirements. "Investigators are not yet ready to support the prosecution. Only 54 percent of the staff have a higher education and only 20 percent have degrees in law," he told the Vek newspaper Friday.

One important provision of the new code -- jury trials -- will come into effect Jan. 1. But this innovation applies only to cases involving grave crimes, and Polyakova said jury trials would be mandatory for only about 1 percent of criminal cases.

Two more parts of the reform package to come into effect Monday are the law on lawyers and the new Arbitration Procedural Code for resolving commercial disputes. Also coming into effect is a new Administrative Violations Code, which covers the work of police, traffic inspectors and regulatory agencies.