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Old Russian Juries Return, But Still Ineffective against Crime

By David Hoffman
The Washington Post

Early one evening last November in a town south of Moscow, three Russian men got into a drunken brawl. The only one to survive, Dimitri Alesin, was accused of murder.

The courtroom drama that followed is not out of the ordinary, but for Russia it is extraordinary. Alesin has taken advantage of a momentous but still fragile experiment in Russian democracy -- the right to trial by jury, which has been restored for the first time since before the Bolshevik Revolution.

The jury trial, along with such concepts as presumption of innocence and burden of proof, has become a practical, working symbol of how far Russia has emerged from the shadow of the Soviet Union and the era of absolute Communist Party control.

Yet the jury trial, restored gradually over the last two years, has also become a metaphor for Russia's troubled, uncertain transition from totalitarianism to the rule of law.

Jury trials are available in only nine of Russia's 89 regions, and even in those areas, jury trials are requested by only one in four defendants. The Soviet-era system of a trial judge and two "people's assessors" -- citizens who are mere rubber stamps for the judge -- is still prevalent. Meanwhile, the architect of the jury-trial system has resigned, saying that his office under President Boris Yeltsin has been reorganized out of existence.

Moreover, lawlessness and corruption have dimmed the hopes of reformers that Russia would become a country governed by the rule of law. The limited experiment with jury trials, while important, seems dwarfed by the runaway bribery, extortion, hostage-taking, contract killings and other criminal activity that is now commonplace here and often unpunished.

The criminal courts are laboring under several enormous burdens, including dilapidated courthouses, lack of staff and shoddy police work. Another handicap is that courts lack the respect of society, a phenomenon dating back to the Soviet era, when the party dominated all jurisprudence, and courts were an appendage of the local party committee.

Even now, Russia's power elite flout the legal system. Two weeks ago, for example, Defense Minister Pavel Grachev announced that he would refuse to appear for a trial of his own libel complaint against a newspaper that had accused him of corruption.

A Moscow judge threatened to hold him in contempt of court and bring him in by force, but Grachev said he would go ahead with a planned trip to Greece instead.

On the first day of Alesin's murder trial, the jury of six men and six women was impaneled, but no witnesses showed up. Nor did a relative of the victims, as required by law. The wooden benches in the dim, institutional-green courtroom were empty.

The daily fine for contempt of court is the equivalent of $5.50, the judge lamented. "Sometimes we have to beg them to come to court," she said. On the second day, the witnesses and relatives came.

In practice, the juries have been more lenient, acquitting 18.5 percent of those tried, compared with almost no acquittals under the old system of a judge and people's assessors.

Alesin was found guilty of premeditated murder in killing one of the men, and not guilty in the case of the one he claimed he had just brushed aside. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison.