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September 2, 2003 by AK

Russia Tests Juries By Trial and Error

A worthwhile artice in the Washington Post, by Peter Baker. But first, a correction is in order.

For more than eight decades, Russians charged with a crime in Moscow were brought shackled into cramped courtrooms, where Communist Party-appointed judges and citizen assessors almost invariably convicted them — that is, if they received that much due process.

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A regular feature of Soviet courtrooms, the cage has been retained in Russian trials and sends an unmistakable signal about suspects penned like animals.

Wrong. Shackles and cages are exlusive marks of new, post-Communist Russia. Prisoners were seldom restrained in Khruschev–Brezhnev times. Only suspects in violent crimes were handcuffed. Cuffs were almost never used on women. The world is good at importing what is ugly about America, and misunderstanding what is great about it. Shackling prisoners is among the ugliest customs of the modern West; no wonder we couldn’t resist importing it. As for the cage, it was not “a regular feature of Soviet courtrooms”; it’s “free Russia” aping Turkey or Peru.

I can’t overestimate the importance of trial by jury as a foundational democratic institution in Russia. Sounds pompous, but I’ll repeat it a thousand times. The government is able to manage and manipulate the “democratic process” in this country with a weak tradition of grassroot democracy, no European political parties, and no independent (from the government, that is) national TV channel. But as long as trial by jury exists, no government can take all the power away from the people. Too bad the Russian law only reserves it for the gravest crimes; I hope it is only the first step in the right direction. For other cases, the Soviet board of “judges and citizen assessors” would work better now than a single judge: it provides some form of popular participation; unfortunately, it’s out.

On the other hand, I can understand why the legislators curbed juries’ powers. Although Russians are not at all soft on crime, they aren’t soft on their government, either. Mistrust of the prosecution, police and powers-that-be could get so strong that juries would nullify in criminal cases.


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