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Window on Eurasia — New Series: Russian Juries 75 Times Less Likely to Convict than a Russian Judge, Chemurziyev Says

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Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 13 – Trial by jury was introduced in Russia 28 years ago and it is available only in certain cases; but where it is possible to have a jury trial, any accused is far more likely to be found not guilty than if he elects to have a judge decide on whether he guilty or not, Barakh Chermurziyev says.

            In the latest of his “letters from the detention center,” the member of the Ingush Seven says it is widely known than judges convict all but 0.3 percent of those who are brought before them but when people are tried by jury, the rate of non-conviction rises to 25 percent and in local courts to 30 percent (

            That means, Chemurziyev says, that someone tried by a jury of his peers is 75 times more likely to be let off, all other things being equal, than someone tried by judge alone. But that is perhaps the least important reason for encouraging jury trials, even though it is widely known that many charges are made up or illegal.

            Far more significant, he argues, is that serving on a jury is at least as important as voting in elections as a manifestation of citizenship and of the democratic principle of holding those in power accountable. And consequently, if jury trials spread in Russia, that will play a key role in the transformation of the country in a positive direction.

            Russia’s existing judicial system can only be changed by pressure from the outside given the way the powers that be have made almost all of its participants financially interested in maintaining its current deformed state. That state allows them to secure a good income while doing what the government wants, the Ingush Seven activist says.

            But remarkably the Russian judicial system does provide for one kind of leverage, jury trials. Indeed, Chermurziyev says, “the most effective” of the various instruments available to the population is precisely that. Formally, jury trials have been around more than a quarter of a century, but they are still so rare as to be exotic.

            They are rare because Russian law does not allow for jury trials for those accused of many crimes, although the circle of such crimes has expanded in recent years, and a Supreme Court justice has urged that they be available to all who are charged with an offense on the conviction of which they would be subject to incarceration for more than five years.

            In a local court, juries consist of six individuals. And if three of them conclude that the individual charged is not guilty, the court has no option but to release them without conviction. That happens in more than a quarter of all cases in which a jury is empaneled as compared to less than one in 300 in cases where judges make the decision.

            Not surprisingly, the judicial system prefers having judges make that finding, Chemurziyev says. That means no one will rock the boat. But it is not just the judicial system at fault. Many Russians don’t want to serve on juries. And many lawyers don’t want to bother with a jury either.

            That is especially the case in the North Caucasus, the Ingush detainee says, because there “the basic mass of North Caucasus advocates serve as mediators between the relatives of the accused and investigators,” and it is “simpler” for them to work with the judge as the only third party than with a jury.

            But the real problem is that Russians don’t know their rights. They don’t know when they can demand a jury trial. And so they don’t demand one. As a result, the system continues unchanged which is just how the powers that be want it to rather than becoming more responsible and democratic as everyone should prefer.

            “Juries are a criterion of a democratic society,” Chemurziyev says. “The stronger they are developed, the stronger democratic principles in society will be. It is just as important as democratic elections and municipal administration. It is especially important given the current situation when checks and balances are violated.”


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