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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

How to Bring Criminal Masterminds to Justice

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The recent fifth anniversary of the murder of U.S. journalist Paul Klebnikov has appropriately focused attention on the investigation of his murder, the murder of Anna Politkovskaya and the unsolved murders of many other journalists. The discussion of these cases has included much speculation about why juries acquitted the accused killers of Klebnikov and Politkovskaya and why so many other contract murders remain unsolved. Some have alleged conspiracies to stifle the investigations and protect the killers. Others have alleged conspiracies to intimidate or bribe jurors. These theories may or may not be accurate. It is impossible to know without seeing the evidence to support them.

Unfortunately, the conspiracy discussion has obscured a less dramatic but very important issue. Until this week, Russian prosecutors lacked a legal mechanism to reward defendants who testify against their co-defendants, an indispensable tool in prosecuting any criminal conspiracy. But a new law that took effect on July 14 will allow prosecutors to conclude formal cooperation agreements with defendants, cap sentences of cooperating defendants at half the statutory maximum (and 13 1/2 years in cases carrying life imprisonment) and entitle cooperating witnesses to state protection.

The importance of this law cannot be overstated. Prosecutorial experience from around the world has shown that rewarding criminals for testifying against their co-defendants, though unsavory, is the most effective way to bring organizers of criminal conspiracies to justice.

Italian prosecutors have for years used such techniques to obtain the testimony of co-defendants to convict previously untouchable Mafia bosses. Law enforcement in Britain has used so-called supergrasses to break a number of major criminal and terrorist organizations. In the last few months, U.S. prosecutors have used cooperating witnesses to bring charges against a California businessman for ordering the murder of a journalist to prevent the disclosure of financial improprieties and a New York Mafia boss for ordering the murder of a police officer.

It is not surprising that Russian prosecutors, deprived of the necessary legal tools, have had a hard time cracking the Klebnikov and Politkovskaya murders, not to mention so many other criminal conspiracies.  

We congratulate Russia on the passage of this law and hope that it will be used to punish those who order contract murders and sit at the top of other criminal conspiracies.   

John Beyrle is U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation. This comment appeared in Vedomosti.