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Comparative Criminal Law and Enforcement: Russia - Fair Trial And Independent Judiciary

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Article 120 of the Constitution proclaims that "judges are independent and are subordinate only to the Constitution of the Russian Federation and federal law." Article 6 of the European Convention of Human Rights also guarantees the right of every criminal defendant to an independent judge. Prior to 1864 the courts were subservient to notoriously corrupt provincial governors. The 1864 reforms set up the framework for a genuinely independent judiciary with life tenure and introduced trial by jury to further liberate judges from the influence of local officialdom. The Bolshevik Decree on the Courts of 7 December 1917, however, put an end to an independent judiciary and the jury court was eventually replaced by a mixed court composed of one career judge, elected for a term of five years by local party officials, and two "people's assessors" also selected by party-controlled collectives. Although the Soviet mixed court looked superficially similar to the German Schöffengericht, the court became dependent on local officials (of the government and party), much as had the pre-1864 courts. The people's assessors were nicknamed the "nodders" because they virtually never outvoted the professional judge. The professional judge, on the other hand, relied on local officials for being nominated, retained in office, and for obtaining housing and technical and material support for the court's functioning. In controversial cases "telephone law" prevailed, that is, local officials would telephone the judge and indicate the way the case should be resolved.

The 1992 Law on the Status of Judges increased the social and legal protection of judges and, as amended, guaranteed their tenure in office until the retirement age of sixty-five, after a probationary period of three years. As in 1864, trial by jury was introduced in 1993 as a means of providing citizen participation in the administration of justice but also to insulate judges from outside influences. The reforms have not yet had their desired effects. In 1999 Russia had only 14,352 judges, about half the number of judges as in the Netherlands and far less than the projected number of 35,742. The Russian government has also refused to allocate sufficient budgetary resources to the court system to allow it to function properly. The situation was especially critical in 1998; when many courts were unable to pay their bills and electricity, telephone and other services were cut off. Many courts stopped hearing criminal and civil cases and the ancient Russian menace of judicial subservience to local officialdom resurfaced. As many as half of all district trial courts receive money and other support from regional or local governments or even private businesses, which usually is coupled with demands of the sponsoring parties. Bribery of judges is widespread. To ease the overburdening of the courts, which affects the quality of justice rendered, the 1996 Law on the Judicial System provided for a reinstitution of local justices of the peace (mirovye sud'i), a system introduced by the 1864 reforms, as the lowest level in the judicial hierarchy. Justices of the Peace would be competent to handle trials of minor civil and criminal cases and administrative law violations. The Draft Law on Justices of the Peace, however, was vetoed by President Yeltsin in March of 1998 for financial reasons.

Most criminal cases are tried in the district (rayonnyy) courts. Cases punishable by no more than five years imprisonment are tried by a single professional judge. Most cases punishable by from five to fifteen years imprisonment, and all juvenile cases, are tried by the Soviet-era mixed court of one professional judge and two "people's assessors." The "people's assessors" are no longer appointed by Communist-controlled collectives, of course, and it has become increasingly difficult to get them to attend court because of the meager pay they receive. The second-level trial courts (one in each of the eighty-nine political subdivisions of the country) hear cases of aggravated (capital) murder and selected other grave felonies. The cases are usually tried by the mixed court. In the areas in which trial by jury functions (as of 2000 only in Moscow, Ivanovo, Riazan, Saratov, Rostov-on-the-Don, and Ul'ianovsk regions and Altay, Krasnodar, and Stavropol territories), the defendant has a choice of being tried by a jury of twelve, presided over by one professional judge, by a panel of three professional judges, or by the mixed court with people's assessors. These courts handle appeals from the district courts as well. A special system of military courts exercises jurisdiction over crimes committed by military personnel.

Under the Jury Law, jurors are randomly selected from Russian citizens at least twenty-five years of age who are registered voters in the region in which the crime was committed. Jurors are required to serve only once a year for not more than ten days or for one case. They are paid one-half of the pro-rata salary of a judge, substantially higher than lay assessors, and this has helped guarantee their attendance at trial. Russia and Spain (1995) have been the only countries on the European continent to return to trial by jury after the institution was virtually eliminated by the totalitarian regimes of the first half of the twentieth century. Although the new constitutions of Belarus (Art. 114) and Kazakhstan (Art. 75(2)) provide for trial by jury, no implementing legislation has been passed.

Judgments and decisions of the second-level courts (whether acting as trial or appellate courts) may be appealed to the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation, the highest normal appellate court in civil and criminal matters. Appeals at all levels are heard by three professional judges without lay participation. The Supreme Court also hears a select number of cases as a trial court composed of one judge and two people's assessors. The Supreme Court consists of 115 judges, divided into criminal, civil, military and cassational panels. It has a governing body called the Presidium, consisting of the president and twelve other judges, which has a power of review over the decisions of the panels.

The Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation, modeled on that of the Federal Republic of Germany, was created in 1991, suspended following Yeltsin's attack on parliament in October of 1993, and reconstituted following the passage of the 1993 Constitution. It now consists of nineteen judges elected by the Federation Council, the upper house of the new parliament, upon nomination by the president. The Constitutional Court can decide the constitutionality of the application of the criminal law in particular cases upon a petition of a citizen or of a lower court in which the particular case is pending. On 31 October 1995, the Supreme Court articulated a policy that the regular courts had authority to determine whether laws, or their application in a particular case, were consistent with the Constitution and international human rights conventions. This power was codified in the 1996 Law on the Judicial System. A criminal defendant who has exhausted all remedies in the Russian courts may file a petition with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, if there is a claim that the authorities violated a right protected by the European Convention on Human Rights. In 1999 the European Court of Human Rights received more complaints from Russian citizens than from any other country, 972 of the 8,396 cases lodged.

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almost 11 years ago

I am a ML student of Madras University and I found this material very useful for my preparation for the exams. Thank You!