Jury System Faces Foes in Evolving Russia

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In Russia, jury trials have been making a comeback after 70 years of communism. Lawyers say juries are the best hope for fighting the political influence and corruption that dominates the country's legal system. But the jury system is under attack.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stopped in Moscow over the weekend, she was there to discuss North Korea. But she also criticized the Russian government for cutting back on the freedom of the press, among other things. Rice met with the editors and the son of an investigative journalist who was killed earlier this month in what most believe was a professional hit. Not many in Russia believe there's enough law and order for the killer to be found.

From Moscow, NPR's Gregory Feifer reports.

GREGORY FEIFER: Fifteen years after the Soviet collapse, courts are still seen as a tool of police and prosecutors.

(Soundbite of courtroom proceedings)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Unintelligible)

Unidentified Man #2: (Unintelligible)

FEIFER: A bailiff orders the court to stand as the judge enters. In non-jury trials like this one, judges find defendants guilty more than 98 percent of the time. But the results of jury trials have been very different. Juries have so far acquitted around 15 percent of defendants.

So when the directors of one of the country's biggest cigarette importers were accused of fraud several years ago, they opted for a jury trial. They hoped the new system would give them a fighting chance. But problems in the trial emerged almost immediately. Ludmilla Barabanavo(ph) was the lead jury member.

Ms. LUDMILLA BARABANAVO (Former Jury Member): (Through translator) We were all very tense. But we couldn't complain to the judge, because we knew if we did it would be used as a pretext to dismiss the jury. We had to keep silent because we wanted to see the trial to its end.

FEIFER: Jurors say prosecutors presented reams of documents, but no evidence to back up their charges. Barabanavo says the jury came to believe the accusations were false, cooked up by a rival to put the company out of business, and that the judge and prosecutors were carrying out orders from above.

Three days before the jurors were due to reach a verdict, they were unexpectedly sent home and the case went to a retrial. The new head juror, Yevgeina Danulof(ph) says it emerged the company that accused the defendants of fraud was itself registered in the United States under a false name. Prosecutors assured the jurors that's standard practice.

Mr. YEVGEINA DANULOF (Former Jury Member): (Through translator) We understood something was wrong, that documents were being fabricated. We also realized we had to protect our own integrity so no one would compromise us.

FEIFER: In the end, the jury unanimously acquitted the defendants. But in Russia, acquittals can be appealed. Prosecutors took their case to the country's supreme court, which overturned the not guilty verdict and sent it back for yet another trial.

Lora Yikastivitska(ph) represented the defense. She says in Russia, trials are seen as the new way to get ahead in business.

Ms. LORA YIKASTIVITSKA (Attorney): (Through translator) Lawsuits have replaced the contract killings of the 1990s as a more humane way to get rid of competitors.

FEIFER: In this case, it didn't work. The third jury again acquitted the defendants. But prosecutors again appealed to the supreme court, which is now due to rule on the verdict again.

Jury trial critics say Russia still a young, undeveloped democracy and that its population can't yet be expected to make important legal decisions. Prosecutor General and former Justice Minister Yuri Chaika is one of many high-ranking critics.

Mr. YURI CHAIKA (Prosecutor General, Russia): (Through translator) From the point of view of our society's understanding of the legal system, of the level of our legal culture, it's probably too early to have introduced juries to Russia.

FEIFER: Jury trial supporters countered that jurors aren't meant to be experts, but peers deciding about specific issues. Olga Kudeshkina was fired from her post as a Moscow city judge after acquitting defendants in a high-profile case. She says except in cases involving political matters, the Soviet legal system was usually fairer and less corrupt. She says Russia's new rulers are now seeking complete control over the country's courts.

Ms. OLGA KUDESHKINA (Former Moscow City Judge): (Through translator) It's much more difficult to do that with juries. So of course the authorities want to get rid of them by saying our citizens aren't ready for it.

WELNA: Kudeshkina says the jury system is one of the last remaining checks on the authorities' power. She says it's already having a great effect by forcing prosecutors, judges and investigators to observe legal procedure. But setting such precedents may be a losing battle. Legislators are now calling for the jury system to be limited to cases not involving national security or hate crimes.

Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.

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