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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Courts Find 0.8% of Defendants Not Guilty

Courts acquitted a mere 0.8 percent of all defendants last year, a figure that doubled from 2001 but suggests the courts are dragging their feet in implementing judicial reforms.

Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov, who disclosed the figure in an interview published in the Izvestia newspaper Tuesday, said he was pleased that the jump in acquittals, saying it showed reforms were bearing fruit.

"This is 9,000 cases, and it allows us to look to the future with optimism," he was quoted as saying.

Lawyers and other legal experts said, however, that they had expected higher figures and accused upper court judges of resisting reforms envisioned in the Criminal Procedural Code, which went into force in July.

"The upper courts define the practices of the lower ones, and they have kept their old, punitive methods," said Sergei Pashin, a former judge in the Moscow City Court.

Pashin, an analyst with the Independent Council of Legal Experts, said upper courts toss out 40 percent of the acquittals granted by lower courts. They overturn only 0.05 percent of the guilty verdicts, he said.

In addition, judicial commissions that evaluate judges' performances take into account how many of their verdicts were overturned by higher courts, he said.

"As a result, judges don't want to be very liberal," Pashin said.

The Criminal Procedural Code aims to bolster the rights of the accused by banning the practice of sending criminal cases back for additional investigation - a tactic often used by judges to let investigators patch up shoddy work or look for new evidence so as to avoid issuing acquittals.

The law also forbids the police from detaining a suspect for more than 48 hours without a court-ordered arrest - which effectively means investigators don't have months to pressure suspects into admitting their guilt.

Pashin said that before the law came into force, courts sent about 7 percent of all cases back for additional investigation.

The rate in Moscow is much higher, about 25 percent, said lawyer Alexei Kupriyanov. One of his clients, he said, had his case sent back for additional investigation four times in a process that dragged on for four years before investigators closed the case for lack of evidence.

"Judges are in a state of frustration. They rigidly stick to practices that remain unchanged," he said. "I thought that the Supreme Court would reorient lower judges after the new code was introduced, but this has not happened."

Supreme Court officials could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Pashin said judges do not seem willing to change their ways any time soon, so the number of acquittals will probably only increase through the introduction of jury trials. Jury trails are being phased in throughout the country.

Since 1993, when jury trials were reinstated in Russia, they issued acquittals in 15 percent of all cases, Pashin said.

A total of 44 of the 465 defendants tried by juries last year were acquitted, but the Supreme Court overturned 11 of the verdicts over court violations, Supreme Court chairman Vyacheslav Lebedev was quoted as saying by Izvestia on Tuesday.

The inclination of the courts toward issuing guilty verdicts not only infringes on the rights of the accused but also damages the quality of investigators' work, said Stanislaw Pomorski, a law professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey who conducted a study of Russian regional courts in the late 1990s.

"The policy of no-acquittal is likely to have a demoralizing effect on prosecutors, since, under the circumstances, filing poorly prepared cases has become a risk-free operation," he wrote in an article published in the East European Constitutional Review last year.

The number of Russian acquittals is a fraction of those issued by courts in the West. According to media reports, the acquittal rate in the United States hovered around 17 percent throughout the 1990s, and reached 30 percent in big cities.

In Australia, the acquittal rate was 31 percent in 2000.

In Moscow, it was 0.25 percent that year, while the national average was 0.4 percent.

Russian courts have not always balked at acquitting defendants. In pre-Soviet Russia, every third verdict was an acquittal. Even in the Stalin era, which was infamous for its show trials, the acquittal rate was 10 percent, Pashin said.