Interfax: Council of Europe’s rights commissioner expects Russia to strengthen courts’ independence

Russian Constitutional Court file photo

MOSCOW. Nov 12 (Interfax) – Trials in Russian courts are not sufficiently adversarial, while acquittals are seen as a systemic flaw, said the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muiznieks.

“The criminal justice system is still set up to deliver guilty verdicts and acquittals are perceived as the system’s failure. In the rare cases where acquittals do take place, prosecutors almost always file appeals against them, in addition to appealing against those court rulings in which defendants receive what prosecutors regard as a lenient sentence,” Muiznieks was quoted as saying by his press service.

A report on the Russian judiciary was released on Tuesday based on the results of Muiznieks’ visit to Russia in April 2013 and talks with representatives of state agencies and nongovernmental organizations.

Muiznieks said that simplified court proceedings, where the case files are not heard in their entirety and the defendants fully accepts the claims advanced, should be applied with caution. “Though the use of simplified proceedings can accelerate the adjudication of criminal cases, shorten the pre-trial detention and reduce the sentence, a combination of factors such as very high conviction rates, a stringent sentencing policy and low public trust in the justice system could influence defendants to plead guilty even if innocent, leading to a distortion of justice,” he said.

“Substantial reforms should continue in order to remedy the systemic deficiencies in the administration of justice and strengthen the independence and impartiality of the judiciary in the Russian Federation,” he also said.

The Commissioner acknowledges the efforts undertaken by the government to reform the justice system, such as the revision of legislation, the on-going reform of the supervisory review procedure, and the adoption of a remedy for lengthy proceedings and for delayed execution of judgments of domestic courts.

He recommends improving the procedures and criteria of appointing, dismissing and sanctioning judges. “Though since 2010 there has been a steady decline of sanctions against judges, the overall pattern shows that judges are not shielded from undue pressure, including from within the judiciary,” he said.

The Prosecutor’s office exercises wide discretionary powers, which undermines the principle of equality of arms and genuine adversarial proceedings. Defence rights are also impaired by harassment and other forms of pressure on lawyers, who all too often face impediments in assisting their clients, the rights commissioner said.

Russian courts also tend to rely too much on diplomatic assurances given by the state requesting extradition, he said.

The Commissioner recommends introducing legislative amendments to criminalize torture as an independent crime, allowing direct prosecution of police and other officials, and excluding from the investigations those officials complicit or implicated