The reputation of the Presidium

Publish date: September 11, 2000

Written by: Jon Gauslaa

The Presidium of the Russian Supreme Court has earned itself a solid reputation throughout the last decade. On September 13, it has the chance to further strengthen this reputation, writes legal advisor to Bellona, Jon Gauslaa, in this commentary.

On the eve of the Supreme Court Presidium’s hearing of the Nikitin case, it may be of interest to examine the body we are talking about.

There are apparently 115 members of the Russian Supreme Court, while the Court’s Presidium consists of 13 judges; the Chairman of the Supreme Court, its 1st Deputy Chairman, its six deputy chairmen and five other Supreme Court judges.

Very few criminal cases reviewed by the three judge panels of the Supreme Court make it to the Presidium. Since the prosecution has the right to appeal an acquittal to the Presidium, while the defence has no similar right to appeal a conviction, and only 0,4 % of the criminal cases dealt with by Russian Courts in 1998 ended with an acquittal, this is hardly surprising. The acquittal of Aleksandr Nikitin is actually among the first criminal cases that the Presidium has dealt with the last ten years.

That does, however, not mean that the members of the Presidium are out of work. They take frequently part in the hearing of cases in the Supreme Court’s panels of three judges. Moreover, the Presidium meets on regular occasions in order to issue statements and resolutions concerning the administration of justice in Russia.

One such occasion was on November 18, 1999, when the Presidium issued resolution No. 79 about the time limits of handling cases in the various Courts of the Russian Federation. Here the Presidium underlines that the administration of justice shall be carried out in conformity with Article 6 (1) of the European Convention on Human Rights, and Article 14 (3) c of the international covenant on civil and political rights.

The Presidium states that far too many cases are delayed because of unjustified actions or incompetence from the procuracy or the Courts themselves. It urges the Courts to increase their effectiveness, since it is a “substantial violation of the citizens’ constitutional rights and legal protection”, and also a violation of the above-mentioned provisions of international human rights conventions not to determine cases within a reasonable time.

It is statements like these that have given the Presidium a solid reputation throughout the last decade. Moreover, its members are said to be proud of the independence achieved by Russian courts throughout this period. They have regularly stood up for the Courts in political battles, rather than caving in to the political pressure that might have occurred.

The Nikitin case has indeed been characterised by the kind of incompetence that is discussed in the Presidium’s resolution of November 18, 1999. This is the major reason for the case having dragged out for almost five years, and even the Prosecutor General’s appeal is based on the misdeeds of the investigation and prosecution. These have to be corrected before the case is brought to court again, he claims.

However, if the Presidium should agree with the appeal, it would accept that such wrongdoings are a sufficient reason for prolonging criminal cases, and violate its own resolution. An approval of the appeal would also damage the reputation of the Presidium and undermine the position and independence of Russian Courts in general. Thus, if the Presidium should approve the appeal one can only wonder what would lie behind.

If it, on the other hand, base its decision on the law on September 13, as the two lower Courts have done, this will not only end of the Nikitin case, but also further strengthen the Presidium’s good reputation and the independence of Russian Courts. It goes without saying that this will only be to the good for the future development of the Russian society.