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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Judging by the Context, Not the Crime

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The three-year jail sentences handed down to three police officers for beating a 12-year-old boy came as a surprise. Prosecutors had asked Moscow's Basmanny District Court to hand down suspended sentences, so no one thought the officers would serve jail time. One legal expert called the decision to mete out a tougher punishment than expected "absurd."

But given the police force's horrendous reputation -- a reputation that just about any Moscow resident will tell you is well deserved -- the natural reaction is to commend the judge. Policemen simply should not get away with beating up children.

It seems, however, that an unusual conjunction of conditions played a major role in this case.

The fact that the incident occurred in Moscow and not some remote place in the country meant that it received significant media coverage -- something that likely influenced the judge's decision. Some evidence, perhaps, of the important role played by the media.

The fact that a nongovernmental organization focusing on police-related crime took up the boy's cause, even providing him with a lawyer, probably also put some pressure on the judge. Some evidence, perhaps, of the importance of NGOs.

And the victim's mother was no stranger to the workings of the legal system, as she herself works as a court marshal. Evidence, perhaps, that whom you know can be just as important as what is actually going on.

It is also possible that pressure might have been put on the judge from political quarters -- perhaps to send a message to the police or to accomplish some other goal.

If the three-year sentences were fair, it is hard to escape the suspicion that the police officers only received them because of a number of external factors, not as a result of the fair and proper application of the law. In a lower-profile case, the cops would likely have gone unpunished.

On the other hand, if the sentences seem too severe, the officers themselves are being punished not for the crime they committed but for circumstances surrounding it that were completely out of their control.

Given the general lack of consistency in the legal system when it comes to prosecution, conviction and sentencing, it is hard to decide which of these two scenarios is more likely to be accurate. Absurd indeed.