Last Friday the State Duma passed the first reading of a law that would alter how Russian courts prosecute terrorism cases. The law, “On the making changes to individual legislative acts of the Russian Federation on the question of combating terrorism,” essentially looks to amend five statutes in the Russian criminal code to give tougher sentences to crimes committed by “terrorists.” But the stiffing of sentences is not all. The law’s authors, Vladimir Vasilev, the chair of the Duma Committee for Security, and his deputy Mikhail Grishankov, both United Russia members, also want to change Article 30 of the criminal code to allow the removal of juries in trials that not only deal with terrorism but “hostage taking, mass disorder, rebellion, espionage, sabotage, unlawfully armed organizations, high treason, violent seizure of state power.” The main argument for the removal of juries is that “in the southern regions of Russia cases are becoming more frequent where the rendering of verdicts by juries is lenient toward defendants who have been found through investigations to be members of illegally armed groups or criminal organizations who engage in terrorist and criminal activities on Russian territory.”
The reason for the leniency, according to Vasilev is that “These are republics where up to 80 percent [of people] have kinship, tribal, and family connections and traditions which forbids testifying about or act against relatives.” In addition, an atmosphere of fear exists because “jurors and their relatives are well known to terrorists.” So either juries have relational and cultural restrictions against judging kin, are being intimidated to go soft, or there is a general sympathy for rebels in places like Ingushetia. Either way, no jury, no problem.
For good reason, human rights groups and opposition parties are up in arms about these amendments. Lev Levinson from the Institute of Human Rights told Kommersant that the power of jurors “needs to be widened not reduced.” Henry Reznik, a lawyer from the Public Chamber, referenced the circularity of history, saying that “The State Duma has done what was done in Tsarist Russia after the acquittal of Vera Zasulich.” Zasulich was acquitted by a sympathetic jury in 1878 for the attempted assassination of St. Petersburg governor General Theodor Trepov. After her acquittal, juries were removed from all trials concerning state crimes. Then as now, if juries are sympathizing with “terrorists” maybe the problem is far deeper than one that can be solved by their removal.
Duma representative Viktor Iliukhin from the Communist Party basically called the law racist because of its specific reference to the “southern regions.” He called the law “an insult to the people of these regions who are depicted as indecent and unscrupulous.” Well, yes the law does seem to be based on some pretty racist assumptions. Plus, why make a real effort to protect juries when you can just do away with them?