By Conant, Eve
Nikolai Dulepov claims self-defense. "He was strangling me," whispers the 23-year-old, on trial for double murder. That's why he stabbed his friend Yevgenny four times in the back one drunken night last summer, he says. Skinny, with a buzz cut and wearing a dark blue tracksuit, Dulepov is defending himself from inside the "monkey's cage," a barred holding pen that is a typical feature of any Russian courtroom. Then he tells how he also killed Yevgenny's girlfriend when his knife "accidentally landed" in her stomach. "I'm guilty," he says. "But I didn't mean to kill them."
Murder is hardly new to Russia. The novelty is Dulepov's audience: eight women and five men who are making history in one of modern Russia's first trials by jury. Since 1917, when the communist regime banned juries, justice has been meted out by state tribunals in proceedings closed to the public. Technically, Russians have had the right to a trial by jury in Moscow and a few other experimental zones since 1993. But it is only this year that the new system has started to take hold across the country. If all goes according to plan, jury trials will soon be the norm in at least one fourth of Russia's regions, and are expected to be standard by 2007.
The change is part of an ambitious effort to reform post-communist Russia's legal system. Under the Soviet Union, state prosecutors and police had a stranglehold on the courts. Individual legal rights and official judicial proceedings were often as not observed in the breach, making ordinary Russians deeply skeptical of such basic democratic concepts as the rule of law. The overhaul of Russia's antiquated Criminal Procedure Code is designed to put an end to all that. Key amendments provide that defendants be entitled to an attorney, that confessions obtained without a suspect's lawyer being present can be challenged or thrown out and that plea bargaining will be permitted for the first time ever.
The government touts the changes as a great success. But watchdog groups in Russia worry that entrenched interests--crooked politicians, businessmen, security officials--won't easily relinquish their influence over the courts. "Our legal system was in place for more than 70 years," says Genrik Padva, a Russian lawyer whose high-profile cases helped bring about a moratorium on the death penalty in Russia. "To make it democratic overnight is not possible."
Russia's totalitarian justice system was designed to get convictions. Traditionally, police, prosecutors and judges worked together, and a defendant was guilty until proved innocent. …