MOSCOW, (RIA Novosti political commentator Andrei Kolesnikov)

The verdicts of recent high-profile jury trials have provoked heated debates in Russia.
A jury acquitted Captain Eduard Ulman, who had been charged with ordering the shooting of Chechen civilians. Juries also acquitted the alleged murderer of a nine-year-old Tajik girl, Khursheda Sultonova, as well as the alleged murderers of a Congolese student in a verdict delivered on July 25, 2006.
It appears that jurors generally tend to sympathize with defendants, and are not at all willing to deliver a verdict of guilty for people charged with ethnic crimes.
According to the Public Opinion Fund (FOM), 42% of respondents disagreed with the acquittal of the man charged with Sultonova’s murder, and only 5% said it was a fair decision. This is why Valery Tishkov, chairman of the Public Chamber’s commission on tolerance and freedom of conscience and director of the Institute of Ethnic Studies and Anthropology, thinks that juries should not be allowed to hear cases involving racial and ethnic crimes.
Xenophobia has become one of the gravest diseases of Russian society, but we should distinguish between mass xenophobia, including in the legal sphere, and the need to improve the work of juries. Xenophobia in the legal sphere, as reflected in the juries’ strange verdicts, mirrors more than simply the general mood in society and the state.
The legal conscience of a professional judge does not differ much from the conscience of a juror. Like everyone else, judges are hostages to their own prejudices, which sometimes prove stronger than professional knowledge and ethics. In other words, nobody can be certain that a professional court would have reached a different verdict on the murder of the Tajik girl.
Another part of the problem concerns the need to improve the system of selecting jurors. This is where professionals should step in to ensure that neither closet nor open xenophobes are selected. They should also make the work of jurors look more attractive. Unlike people in industrialized Western countries, Russians see this “honorable duty” as a heavy burden to be avoided at all costs. The FOM survey showed that 78% of respondents did not want to sit on jury trials.
However, problems with selecting jurors are in no way connected to the wisdom of having jury trials, which are a constitutional element and a pillar of democracy in Russia.
Lack of evidence is one of the reasons behind acquittals in jury trials. When jurors do not believe wholeheartedly that the defendant is guilty, they reach a verdict of not guilty, which is logical, because they are afraid to make a mistake. This is why the number of acquittals in jury trials is considerably higher (20%) than in professional courts. A more thorough investigation is one of the best prerequisites for a successful trial by jury.
Famous pre-revolutionary Russian lawyer Anatoly Koni, a co-author of the 1864 judicial reform, said the jury trial was “a trial by public opinion,” which is both good and bad. The public opinion that dominated jury trials before the 1917 revolution acquitted Mendel Beilis, a Ukrainian Jew charged with ritual murder in 1913, and Vera Zasulich, who shot St. Petersburg Governor Dmitry Trepov in 1878.
The legal culture in modern Russia may be way below the pre-revolutionary standards. But its development must be encouraged, notably by the promotion of jury trials, or else “the street” will continue passing incorrect verdicts based on prejudice and failure to use democratic institutions and tools.
Trials by jury were introduced in modern Russia slowly and cautiously starting in 1993, but the law defining the role and status of jurors received presidential approval only two years ago. Obviously, the state and society are ready for jury trials, which should become “an instrument of improving society,” as retired judge Sergei Pashin has said. -0-