A judge’s call of interference holds hope for Russia’s troubled justice system MOSCOW (AP) – It was a rare moment in the politically charged, corruption-tainted world of Russian justice: A senior judge from a top court testified that she was pressured by a Kremlin bureaucrat. The unlikely drama, played out in a Moscow courtroom this month, cast a ray of hope for change under a new president who says cleaning up the compromised justice system is crucial to Russia’s future.
President Dmitry Medvedev, a former corporate lawyer and law professor, stressed last week that judges are subject to pressure and bribes. He said assuring their independence is a key goal of planned judicial reforms.It is a tough task in a country where the courts were a blunt instrument of the state during decades of Soviet rule. Kremlin critics hold up the conviction of Yukos oil company founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky as evidence of persistent meddling by authorities under ex-president Vladimir Putin.”Judges in district courts, in regional courts and in the Supreme Court are all on their knees,” said Viktor Parshutkin, a prominent defense lawyer. “They’ve lost even the crumbs of independence they had during President (Boris) Yeltsin’s term.”He and others hope for improvement under Medvedev, who has made a mantra of his promise to fight corruption and Russia’s legacy of “legal nihilism,” and opened his inaugural address with a passionate pledge to hold human rights sacred.”We are somewhat stunned by his speech,” Parshutkin said. “We are full of hope.So far there has been little but talk from Medvedev, still in his first month in office.”But Russians eager for change in the courts looked to the unusual testimony of Yelena Valyavina, a deputy chief of the Federal Arbitration Court who, according to lawyers and others involved in the case at hand, acknowledged pressure from a Kremlin official.Valyavina testified as a defense witness in a defamation suit filed by a little-known Kremlin bureaucrat, Valery Boyev, against a prominent radio and television host, Vladimir Solovyov, who said Boyev contacted judges to influence rulings.Russia has no independent judges but has “judges dependent on Boyev,” he said.Valyavina said Boyev pressured her in 2005 to reverse a decision in case involving shares in a chemical plant, hinting that she might not be reappointed to her post if she refused, according to numerous accounts.Valyavina could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday.Boyev dropped the lawsuit before a scheduled May 26 hearing in which Solovyov’s lawyer, Shota Gorgadze, said three more high-level judges from across Russia had been expected to testify as witnesses.”The fact that he … withdrew his claim is a sign that everything is changing,” he said.But past Kremlin efforts to stem problems such as corruption have amounted to little but pledges and a few cases featured prominently in the state-run media.Gorgadze said he hopes that efforts to ease pressure on judges “will not be a show, linked with two or three bureaucrats who will be sacrificed to keep things quiet from a while, but that it will be a universal shift in our whole judicial system.”While it will require commitment from the Kremlin, a U.N. expert said Thursday that it will largely be up to judges themselves to cast off authorities’ control. He urged Russian judges to follow Valyavina’s example.”The most effective way to fight this pressure is to expose this pressure,” Leandro Despouy, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, told a news conference as he wrapped up a visit to examine Russia’s justice system.”Experience has shown that from the moment when a judge dares to openly declare that he has been pressured, this practice sharply declines,” Despouy said.Parshutkin warned that uprooting corruption entrenched in Russia’s justice system will take more than just a few courageous judges. Most judges are appointed for life, and the judicial selection process is virtually shut to outsiders, making the system resistant to change, he said.Despouy also lamented the lack of transparency in the selection process.He pointed to an array of other problems that persist even as Russia’s economic recovery has enabled the government to put up shiny new courthouses and provide state-of-the art equipment, such as shortcomings in the implementation of court rulings and an inadequate legal framework for juvenile justice and administrative courts.