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Fear Rules In Russia's Courtrooms

Judges Who Acquit Forced Off Bench

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 27, 2005; Page A01

MOSCOW -- The case before Judge Alexander Melikov involved a juvenile from Tajikistan who had gotten into a shoving match with a co-worker outside a train station in July 2003. The juvenile had allegedly thrown a beer bottle at the other man, but missed, according to court documents. The juvenile was charged with hooliganism.

In court, the victim said he forgave the young Tajik, who had no previous criminal record, and asked Melikov to be lenient. The judge gave the juvenile a four-year suspended sentence with three years of probation.

Alexander Melikov was stripped of his judgeship in December in the powerful Moscow City Court.

Prosecutors did not appeal.

But the sentence helped get Melikov stripped of his judgeship in December, when he was brought before a judicial disciplinary body called the Qualification Collegium. The judge was charged with 22 counts of "neglecting the interests of justice, belittling the reputation of judicial power, and undermining the people's trust in the judicial system." In the case of the Tajik, Melikov's superior, Olga Yegorova, accused him of giving only suspended sentences to foreigners who had committed "grave crimes."

Concerns about the independence of Russia's justice system have recently focused on high-profile cases such as the prosecution of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an oil baron, and a series of treason trials involving Russian scholars. President Bush raised the issue of the rule of law as it relates to the quality of Russian democracy during his summit with President Vladimir Putin this past week.

The Melikov case illustrates how a climate of fear generally pervades the bench in Russian criminal courts. Judges are targeted for forced retirement or dismissal if they apply the law to acquit even everyday defendants, issue sentences that are seen as too lenient by court chairmen or fail to follow prosecution requests to send suspects to overcrowded pretrial prisons where they can languish for months, according to judges, law professors and lawyers. The climate reflects the growing power of the state in Putin's Russia.

"Between 2001 and May 2004, I considered 460 criminal cases involving 544 individuals, and only four of my verdicts were overturned by higher courts," said Melikov, 42, who was also criticized for suspending sentences and dropping charges when the parties reconciled.

A detailed review of Melikov's work by three experts commissioned by the Russia-based Independent Council of Legal Experts found that his rulings, with one minor exception from a case in 1998, followed Russian law.

"The decisions of Alexander Melikov . . . are in line with the criminal and criminal-procedure law," wrote Polina Lupinskaya, head of the Criminal Procedure Department at Moscow State Law Academy. The charges against him were "groundless," she wrote, noting that treating foreigners such as the Tajik differently violates the Russian constitution.

In 2002, Russia adopted a code of criminal procedure that was supposed to herald a legal revolution by firmly establishing the independence of the judiciary, increasing the rights of the accused, and forcing firm rules of procedure and evidence on police and prosecutors. But the current system continues to perpetuate the Soviet practice of almost automatically convicting everyone who appears in court.

The same year, a separate criminal justice reform was supposed to enshrine the presumption of innocence and usher in democratic legal norms that were widely praised at the time. Among its provisions, defendants are entitled to ask for a lawyer when detained and are supposed to be brought before a judge within 48 hours. Judges, not prosecutors, are to issue an arrest warrant and order the accused to be held in a pretrial prison or to be freed pending trial. Defense lawyers are to have greater powers to challenge evidence in court.

According to legal scholars, efforts to bring about change have stalled. The goal of breaking old habits and creating a system in which judges act as independent arbiters between the state and the individual, has not been met yet.

"We are still living with an ideology of the past, and we haven't created a new legal culture," said Sergei Vitsin, a professor of law and deputy chair of the Presidential Council on the Reform of the Justice System. "Judges do not see themselves as in any way separate from prosecutors and police. You can write democratic laws, but you have to follow them, too."

The chairman of the Russian Supreme Court, Vyacheslav Lebedev, contested the view that judicial reforms were failing and that judges were cowed by their superiors.

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