Russian defendants get new protections under legal codes

Tuesday, July 2, 2002

MOSCOW -- Russian laws took a long-awaited step away from the authoritarian past Monday with the implementation of two crucial codes promising new protections for defendants and new restrictions on jailers and prosecutors.

Supporters hope the criminal and administrative law codes, key components of Russia's post-Soviet legal reform, will relieve the overburdened prison system and boost the business climate by curbing corruption.

The reforms were delayed for more than a decade by political infighting and foot-dragging by prosecutors and others who stood to lose much of their previous freedom in investigations and trials. President Vladimir Putin jump-started the reform program, saying the changes would give all citizens equal rights and reduce corruption.

The old criminal code dated back to the 1960s and was criticized widely for not adequately protecting the accused. Many provisions in the 1993 constitution, including the right to trial by jury, were honored only sporadically.

A key change is the introduction of jury trials across Russia beginning Jan. 1, 2003 -- though only for those being tried for premeditated murder.

The criminal code also removes some powers from prosecutors, including the authority to authorize arrests, and strengthens the independence of judges, the only officials authorized to sanction searches, wire taps and the detention of suspects for more than 48 hours.

Civil rights groups cautiously welcomed the changes. Olga Zimenkova, head of the Ernst Ametistov human rights foundation, said the new criminal code should introduce the presumption of innocence.

"To a significant extent it's a much better code. But as to how it will be implemented in practice, no one knows. Judges work badly, not just because of financing, but because of low professional standards and a high level of corruption. Many of them should be replaced," Zimenkova said.

The criminal code also recommends other forms of punishment besides incarceration, which has been used widely to punish even the most minor crimes, subsequently flooding Russia's prisons.

Russia has a high incarceration rate, with about 1 in 150 people in prisons, penal colonies and jails. Russian officials say about 1 million people total are incarcerated.

Cells intended for eight people sometimes are packed with up to 30, forcing inmates to sleep in shifts. Tuberculosis and other diseases spread quickly.

The Izvestia newspaper quoted Justice Minister Yuri Chaika as saying about 100,000 detainees could be freed this year.

The criminal code also bars judges from sending cases back to prosecutors for further investigation, a tactic frequently used to keep suspects in high-profile cases jailed for years even if prosecutors lack evidence to win a conviction.

The new administrative code, meanwhile, toughens some laws by prescribing stiffer fines for driving violations or business offenses, including failing to use cash registers.

It also is intended to cut the corruption and arbitrariness rampant in Russia's traffic police force. Beginning Monday, drivers will pay traffic fines only through banks -- not directly to police officers -- and only judges will be empowered to seize drivers' licenses.

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