Russia’s Dictatorship of Law

Russia’s newly outrageous legal treatment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former owner of the country’s largest oil company, is a reminder that Russia has yet to grasp the idea of equal justice under law — especially when the Kremlin decides someone is in the way.

Mr. Khodorkovsky was convicted in 2005 on trumped-up charges of fraud and disobeying a court order and lost his company to Kremlin loyalists. Russians call his sort of case “telephone law,” imposed by the politically powerful through a call to the courthouse. With his sentence almost up, he was just tried again on suspect charges of embezzling and money-laundering. The judge is expected to reach a decision in December.

Two decades ago, the United States State Department urged the new Russia to resurrect the jury system, as The Times described this week, to put the law in the hands of the Russian people. Juries had been abolished after the Soviet revolution, along with anything recognizable as courts and lawyers. They were reborn in 1993.

Defendants have a right to a jury trial in a small fraction of crimes like murder and kidnapping. Compared with non-jury trials in the Soviet era, when the acquittal rate was likely less than 1 percent, the rate with juries has climbed to between 15 and 20 percent. Because of this apparent success, it is tempting to look for the growth of a familiar sense of justice. That search ends in disillusionment.

The Soviet system relied on prosecutors to find what passed for the truth in criminal cases, so the foundation for reform is at odds with the new system that juries are part of, with truth supposedly emerging from the competing accounts of the prosecution and the defense.

More to the point, the old system is not dead. Russia, the scholar Jeffrey Kahn said, has “a lot of bad legal habits.” One is the prosecutor’s “case file,” which sealed the guilt of countless Soviet citizens and retains its terrifying force. Of the 791,802 criminal cases disposed of this year through September, only 465 were decided by a jury. Mr. Khodorkovsky wasn’t allowed a jury in either of his trials. Deliberately, the prosecution charged him only with crimes that didn’t give that right. A jury couldn’t be trusted, apparently, to look out for the state’s interests.

When Vladimir Putin heralded the start of the era of law and democracy, he repeatedly described it as “the dictatorship of law.” As the Khodorkovsky case dramatizes, that is a chillingly accurate description.

Editorial, New York Times

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/21/opinion/21sun2.html