We were very impressed with this article by Yana Yakovleva published in today’s Moscow Times, which echoes many of the points made regarding the presumption of innocence in Robert Amsterdam’s recent Wall Street Journal contribution. Yakovleva is a businesswoman who once spent seven months imprisoned in pre-trial detention under false charges – a common practice used by criminal elements within the Russian government to steal, extort, and intimidate for private gain – something we’ve seen from Yukos to Hermitage to even BP. She has formed the new NGO Business Solidarity to lobby for legal changes to protect entrepreneurs from the predators of the judiciary – and they sure have their work cut out for them. (Check out Greg White’s profile of Yakovleva in the WSJ.)
At a meeting with Prosecutor General Yury Chaika on the professional holiday honoring the employees of prosecutors’ offices, Medvedev reminded Chaika of the law that he signed limiting the use of arrests against criminals in tax-evasion cases. It is notable that the president used that word “criminals,” which I doubt was a slip of the tongue. Until guilt has been proven in a court of law, nobody has the right to refer to that person as a criminal. What happened to Russia’s adherence to the principal of presumption of innocence?
In Russia, when a person isarrested, it is often assumed that he is guilty. This mentality has tochange if Russia wants to modernize or “humanize” its judicial system.Law enforcement officials and society as whole need to adhere to theprinciple of “innocent until proven guilty.” Once this isaccomplished, the road will be paved for further “humanization” of thejudicial system, such as reducing prison terms for those convicted ofeconomic crimes and protecting the rights of prisoners and detainees.
It is a shame that Medvedev and the Duma are not doing more to solvethe deeper problem of extortion and raiding by law enforcementofficials. The most we can expect from these so-called reforms is thatbusinesspeople held in jail on false charges might have their sentencesreduced. To be sure, this is badly needed since the sentences that theyreceive on white-collar charges often exceed the sentences thatcold-blooded murderers receive. But perhaps Medvedev and Russia’slawmakers should aim a little higher and take measures so that theseinnocent people don’t end up in jail in the first place.