The assassination this week of Russian Judge Eduard Chuvashov by suspected ultra-nationalists was a violently outrageous reminder of the vulnerability of judicial independence in the country, but it was not necessarily surprising.
Reports indicate that a lone gunman murdered the judge in a contract style hit in the stairwell of his apartment building on April 12th, not unlike the circumstances in which journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in 2006. Unlike the famous journalist who was a critic of the government, the judge dedicated himself to the courageous and dangerous work of trying extremism and hate crime cases.
Judge Chuvashov had been receiving death threats for several weeks in relation to his tough sentences meted out to various members of skinhead gangs and others charged with racially inspired extremism, including a website which displayed his photo and biographical details for would-be attackers. According to Galina Kozhevnikova of SOVA, quoted by REF/RL, “His picture was posted, together with a small audio recording from a closed court hearing. The recording had an incorrect transcription and the judge was accused of Russophobia. This post generated a huge number of aggressive comments.“
The grotesque nature of this murder is in part a reflection of thedisturbing phenomenon of ethnic hatred and organized violent youthgroups (certainly not unique to Russia), but it also needs to be viewedin the context of the national rule of law deficit which plagues thecountry. Though they were working on different and unrelated subjects,we can observe a direct line connecting the murders of people as diverseas Stanislav Markelov and Eduard Chuvashov.
There is in Russia today a privatized but officially tolerated cultureof intimidation; a well oiled machine will strike down an opponent withlethal efficiency, whether they are a human rights activist, anindependent member of the court, a personal competitor, a successfulbusinessman, or a simple annoyance to the power.
How is it possible for Russia’s legal system to withstand the kinds of pressure these murders, fake arrests, and jail sentences for the innocent create to threaten the basic performance of their duties? This horrible murder is what happens when you have a country in which the authority of the police and prosecutors are dedicated toward the creation of crimes for profit instead of the actual criminal deterrence, while at the same time mob bosses, convicted rapists, drunk drivers (if they have enough power) are let off the hook. If you can kill an unpopular journalist or beat up an opposition leader with zero consequence and near total impunity, then why not murder a judge – especially one who is erroneously branded as “russophobic”?
There are many arguments as to why Russia has failed to genuinely attack legal nihilism and build the foundations for a strong judiciary. Some say that it is impossible, given the staggering levels of basic corruption and the absence of political will. Others inevitably offer the proposal that legal reform is underway, but slowly, very slowly, which is the only way the changes can take root. In an op/ed I wrote for the Washington Post last year, I argued that like Hugo Chavez, who also has informal armed gangs roaming the streets which produce a higher body count than the Gaza Strip in wartime, Vladimir Putin sees a certain benefit to maintaining a culture of impunity and outsourced intimidation. Here he has an instrument which punishes and threatens his opponents (as well as many other collateral victims) yet is completely separate from the state and “out of his control.” There is a political convenience to the chaos, while the judicial independence of a real legal system may at some point lead to challenges against the executive.
I realize that these concerns and arguments may seem abberant in light of this very recent murder of Judge Chuvashov, which, by the way, may even be related to the clan wars as he was the one to make the decision to release Alexander Bulbov from prison – an outcome vehemently opposed by Igor Sechin. Instead we will likely fall into our typical post-murder routine, bemoan the hideous racism of Russian nationalism, and do our best to pretend that this tragedy has nothing to do with the systemic collapse of Russian justice.
Just think how many fewer judges, prosecutors, public defenders, and lawyers in the country are going to be willing to work on controversial cases following this heinous killing. The costs and penalties, it seems, far outweigh the meager benefits.