Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Russia Embraces Trial by Peers ; A Constitutional Right since 1993, Jury Trials Are Expected to Be Standard All over the Country by 2007

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Russia Embraces Trial by Peers ; A Constitutional Right since 1993, Jury Trials Are Expected to Be Standard All over the Country by 2007

Article excerpt

It's an hour after starting time on the second day of Denis Baryshnikov's murder trial, and the courtroom near Moscow's Barrikadnaya metro station is in pandemonium.

Surveying the 12 black office chairs arranged along one gray wall and noting an empty seat, Judge Lyubov Brikalova vents her frustration at the fledgling jury system before adjourning last Friday's session. "Where is juror No. 5?," she demands of the court clerks. "This is like a kindergarten - no, it's more like a nursery. And now they want to introduce this bedlam into the whole country?"

Despite such inauspicious beginnings and widespread skepticism from Russia's conservative judges and prosecutors, the Western practice of trial by a panel of peers is being extended to a quarter of Russian regions this year. It is expected to be standard across the country by 2007. The return of juries to Russian courtrooms - after an absence of almost a century - is intended to help restore public faith in a widely distrusted judicial system by making criminal trials more open and fair. The reform was the cornerstone of a sweeping judicial package passed by the State Duma last year.

"Jury trials are certainly cumbersome and more expensive to stage, but the results are better," says Vladimir Tumanov, a former chairman of Russia's Constitutional Court. "The demands of evidence are much higher, and prosecutors have to work hard to prove the defendant's guilt. As a result, jury trials lead much more often to 'not guilty' verdicts."

Jury trials have been legal for a decade under Russia's 1993 Constitution, and experiments have been going on in a handful of Russian regions since then. A significant widening of the practice last year is already being credited with doubling the total acquittal rate, for all types of trials, from .4 percent of all defendants - where it has hovered for most of the past decade - to .8 percent.

In jury trials, Russian jurors, like their Western counterparts, free an average 15 percent of defendants. (In the US, where juries are common, the acquittal rate is 17 percent).

Russian justice wasn't always a seemingly inevitable march from arrest to prison sentence. In the 19th century, a thriving jury system absolved almost a third of all defendants. But the legacy of the Soviet system, in which a working compact among investigators, prosecutors and judges combined with a firm presumption that anyone accused by the state must be guilty, still weighs heavily on Russia's courts.

It took almost a decade for the Duma to pass a law mandating nationwide introduction of juries. "There has been fierce resistance from judges and prosecutors," says Sergei Pashin, a former judge who works as a legal specialist with the Helsinki Group, a human rights watchdog. Most Russian regions are still dragging their heels on introducing the jury system, with local authorities often citing a lack of funds to install jury rooms and pay the 100 rouble (about $3) daily juror pay. But Mr. Pashin says the main problem is lack of political will. …

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