Unjust decisions are made behind closed doors

Svetlana Gavrilina for Bellona Web

Publish date: March 7, 2008

Written by: Vera Ponomareva

Translated by: Charles Digges

ST. PETERSBURG - The Russian State Duma is currently reviewing a bill that would close any courtroom that lacks space to hold spectators – a measure the bill’s authors say will protect the transparency of the judicial process, but which rights advocates say will do exactly the opposite.

Rights advocates say that the conditions outlined by the bill already de facto exist in Russian courts. On Tuesday, St. Petersburg residents who came to support Maksim Reznik, one of the leaders of the Yabloko opposition party, were forced to remain in the halls during court proceedings.

Reznik has been vaguely accused of being involved in an altercation where police were involved. The statute under which he has been charged is for “insulting and attacking a representative of the administrative authorities” – articles 319, and 318, part 1 of the Russian criminal code. If convicted, he faces five years in prison.

The bill, entitled “On guaranteeing the rights of citizens and organisations to information on the activities of courts in the general jurisdiction of the Russian Federation,” was introduced for consideration by the Duma by the Russia Supreme Court on April 10th 2006, and was supported by 436 Duma deputies – with one abstention – when read on February 8th.

While the bill professes to increase the transparency of Russia’s foggy court system, experts say that the bill in its current form will actually enable courts to entirely shut out both citizens and journalists alike. The bill’s article 13 allows for limiting the number of observers present at any given hearing “depending on the number of spaces available in the courtroom.”

“In fact, this means that any court proceeding can turn out to be closed on entirely legal grounds,” said Olga Krivonos, lawyer for the Environmental Right Centre Bellona (ERC Bellona), Bellona’s St. Petersburg office.

bodytextimage_pic1-2..JPG Photo: Tatyana Skrodenis for Bellona Web

Reznik – an outspoken member of the Yabloko Kremlin opposition political party – was arrested in the early morning hours of March 3rd in front of the Yabloko office in St. Petersburg. According to various and somewhat contradictory reports, Reznik came to the aid of a friend who was being verbally harassed. One version has it that some 20 police arrived on the scene and that Reznik was arrested for then turning his anger on police.

Another version states that police who were passing by in a patrol car stopped to subdue the supposed verbal scuffle, which also resulted in Reznik allegedly being aggressive with police and thus arrested.

In either case, say his supporters, the row was prearranged such that Reznik would come to the defence of his friend, and police would then swoop in and pick him up on easily trumped up charges. The motives for the arrest, his supporters and colleagues say, were political.

On Tuesday, Judge Olga Andreyeva of the Dzerzhinsky region court in St. Petersburg sentenced Reznik to two months pre-trial remand despite guarantees submitted by more than two dozen respected politicians and members of the city’s Legislative Assembly and the State Duma that Reznik would not flee the jurisdiction. Such guarantees are accepted in Russia instead of bail. Reznik declared that he is innocent of the charges against him and announced the beginning of a hunger strike.

Other factors militating against the logic of his pre-trial detention are his public prominence as a politician, and the fact that he is his family’s single breadwinner.

“This is an unfair decision,” said Krivonos. “Moreover, because the proceedings were open, which the judge herself said, there should have been guaranteed access for citizens to the court room,” she said.

“Directly after the hearing, we sent an announcement to the court so that the next hearing in the Reznik case does have such public access,” Krivonos added.

Since March 5th, daily solitary pickets in Reznik’s support have been taking place in front of the St. Petersburg Prosecutors’ Office. Mikhail Amosov, a Yabloko leader, Olga Kurnosova, head of the St. Petersburg office of the United Citizens’ Front, and Yury Vdovin of the St.Petersburg rights watchdog Citizens’ Watch have taken part in the pickets.

The Yabloko web site has posted an open petition under a letter to Russian Prosecutor General Yury Chaika with the demand that “the manufactured case be dropped immediately” and bidding prosecutors “to conduct an official investigation and to bring to justice (the case’s) initiators and perpetrators.”

Among those who have called for Reznik’s freedom include numerous high-profile Russian celebrities, such as film director Aleksander Sokurov, film star Oleg Basilashvili, novelist Boris Strugatsky, and rock musician and DDT front man Yury Shevchuk.

Monitoring in Voronezh
Closed court hearings are a widespread phenomenon in Russia, said Olga Gnezdilova with the Youth Human Rights Movement (MPD in its Russia abbreviation). At the end of 2006, MPD monitored the openness and fairness of court proceedings in Voronezh, about 400 kilometres south of Moscow.

“Voronezh has few court rooms, so most cases take place in Judges’ chambers where there is very little room,” she told Bellona Web. “Journalists are only allowed in court rooms with special accreditation from the clerk of courts. And the accreditation process is not simple: applications are accepted until December 20th of each year, and the lists are confirmed only once a year.”

According to Gnezdilova, there are no directives that establish this complicated and arbitrary process. “Maybe there is some document, but getting one’s hands on it is impossible,” she said.

‘Good’ and ‘bad’ journalists
The bill on access to the courts does not forbid accreditation for media, however specifies that it must not hinder unaccredited journalists from getting information.

Instead of accreditation, the bill proposes other criteria for obtaining information: the proposed legislation’s article 25 gives representatives of the court the right to refuse a journalist information “on the basis of systematically distorted misleading reporting on court activities by a given publication or medium.”

In Krivonos’s opinion, such a formulation is not only judicially illiterate, but contradicts the Russian constitution and the Federal Law on Mass Media, which clearly defines the single basis for refusing to provide journalists with what they ask for as the presence of information “constituted by law as a state, commercial or other specially protected secret.”

Information system
According to the new bill, judicial acts must be published on the Internet, which will guarantee the transparency of decision – except where published decisions are dictated to exclude confidential or secret information, commercial secrets and information, which, if made public, could bring harm.

Such an approach fully complies with international standards. However, the list gets broader later in the text because of some foggy formulations. As such, it is allows “exclusion of certain information if it does not influence the essence of the judicial decision.” The court also has the right to not put the decision on the Internet at all “if it is of an exceptionally private character.” Who will define the “privacy” of a decision? The bill makes no mention of this.

“A generally accessibly information system is absolutely needed. However, passing this bill in this form will hardly add any openness to courts and will only promote corruption,” said Bellona’s Krivonos. “Hazy formulations allow courts to arbitrarily decide about publishing or secreting their own rulings.”

According to recommendations from the Committee of Ministers of the European Council, choosing judicial decisions to publish must be taken not only by judges but a much wider circle of experts: jurists with university educations, lawyers, prosecutors, representatives of the association of juridical publications and so on.

The technical base for publishing court decisions is already there. The Judicial Department of the Supreme Court over two years worked to create a state automated system called “Justice,” which unites about 3,000 courts of general jurisdiction, the work of which requires a new law of its own.

“The judicial system base take no form until the bill is passed – the what and how is in there,” said a Judicial Department spokesman.

For now, individual courts – including the Supreme Court – independently put out their rulings on the Internet, relying on their own internal principles. Jurists and lawyers use commercial legal data bases, in which legal decisions are published by agreement with the courts.