|IS RUSSIA READY FOR JURY TRIALS?
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
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
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