Rights Activists Protest Moscow's Moves toward Cheka-Style 'Justice'
by Paul Goble

On-going series: Crisis in the Caucasus - 2008
The Russian / Georgian Conflict and Its Impact on Azerbaijan

Window on Eurasia: Original Blog Article

Vienna, December 4 - Fourteen of Russia's leading human rights activists have called on the Duma Security Committee to reject government-backed proposals to deprive those charged with extremism or crimes against the state of the right to trial by jury, arguing that such a move would undermine the chance to establish a truly just legal system.

The appeal, released today, was signed by Ludmila Alekseyeva, the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Lev Ponomaryev of the For Human Rights Movement, Father Gleb Yakunin of the Committee for the Defense of Freedom of Conscience, and other leading figures of the rights community in Moscow.

In making their case, the authors of the appeal note that it is worth paying attention to the fact that the proposal to take this step arose "precisely on the day" when President Dmitry Medvedev told a congress of jurists that Moscow must "strengthen the defense of the rights of our citizens" in the judicial system.

The measure under consideration, they point out, is "a challenge" to that idea by "supporters of an authoritarian and repressive course," one that fails to recognize that those who would be subject to its provisions would-in 99 cases out of a 100-be convicted and, thus, tempt the authorities to add more crimes to the list where trial by jury would not be available.

And if it is adopted, the authors of the appeal continue, "this means that 'an extraordinary judicial process' will be extended through the territory of the country," a step that its advocates say is necessary because Russia today finds itself in a situation like Northern Ireland or tsarist Russia. "But these comparisons are without foundation," the authors point out.

"If a jury is considered the 'court of the people,'" the appeal goes on, "then the proposed legislation means that the deputies are expressing 'a lack of trust' in the people of Russia and consider that society is ready to support the most dangerous crimes." That is simply not the case, as many recent jury findings show.

A year ago, the old Duma refused to take this step, but "today apparently everything has changed. More than that, the list of 'extraordinary' paragraphs [under which those charged would not have the right to a jury trials' has seriously widened to include the organization of 'mass disorders,' 'state treason,' and 'espionage.'"]

The authors of the appeal say that they are "concerned" that the adoption of this measure would send a signal for "judicial reprisals against participants in mass protest actions and the fabrication of new 'espionage' cases." And, consequently, they call on the Duma not to limit the use of jury trials but to extend that right to those who are not now entitled to them.

Because the human rights activists are more interested in influencing the decision of the Duma committee than in simply expressing their obvious outrage at the meaning of what these changes may mean, they employed relatively restrained language in making their case. But two other Russians have been ready to connect the dots about what is occurring in today's Moscow.

In an essay posted online today, Grani.ru commentator Ilya Mil'shtein not only called attention to the declaration's reference to the dangers of this retrograde move to "extraordinary" measures of controlling people through the courts but also the way in which these proposed amendments represent a logical next step in the reconstitution of an authoritarian state.

That is the direction the Russian government under Vladimir Putin has been proceeding "for eight years, by destroying freedom of speech, by denigrating the intelligentsia, by pushing out all those who disagree, and by converting members of the opposition into marginal figures."

Now a new stage in this "special operation" of the powers that be has begun: an attack on jurors. 'Spies,' 'terrorists,' diversionists,' and 'those in revolt' [now will be judged according to a simplified schema," which, given Russia's history in the 20th century, points to a still more dangerous future.

Also today, the Moscow city Duma rejected a call by one of its deputies, Sergey Mitrokhin, to demand changes in Russia's anti-corruption legislation that give broader powers to the Federal Security Service, powers that he argued "transform [the FSB] into the Cheka," as Lenin's secret police agency was known.

Such language goes far beyond that employed by the human rights activists in their appeal to the Duma, but it is an indication of the very real fears that many in Moscow now have that the only immediate questions are how far will the Russian government move in an authoritarian direction and how long can such a direction be sustained.

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