Zoya Svetova: Independence of the courts, or imitation of independence?

9 February 2020

Zoya Svetova, journalist, human rights activist, receipient of the Moscow Helsinki Group Prize in the field of human rights

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group  [original source: Ekho Moskvy]

“Today, the judiciary in Russia is so stable, solid and independent that it is impossible to force illegal or dubious decisions through Russian courts. This is a substantial achievement, attained after many years of work by the judiciary in Russia. It has come about because of you, the independent judges at all levels of our court system.” With this fiery speech the permanent head of the Supreme Court, Vyacheslav Lebedev, addressed the attendees at a seminar of chief judges.

Needless to say, all these characteristics that Lebedev attributed to the judges not only fail to correspond to the reality, to the Russian reality, but also demonstrate his complete isolation from judicial practice.

And as if on purpose, the day after Lebedev’s statement the Second Court of Cassation of Overall Jurisdiction set an example of the lack of that judicial ‘independence’ so dear to the heart of the head of the Supreme Court.

A judicial troika [three-person court] granted Deputy Prosecutor General Leonid Korzhinek’s submission for the cancellation of the release from custody of Karina Tsurkan, a former top manager at Inter RAO, who is accused of spying for Moldova. Tsurkan was taken into custody in the courtroom in front of her elderly mother, who was again left alone with her school-age grandson, Karina’s son.

The former top manager at Inter RAO had spent 23 days at liberty, but prior to that spent more than 18 months in Lefortovo Pre-Trial Detention Centre. The decision of the judge of the First Court of Appeal on her release was unexpected not only for Tsurkan herself and her lawyers, but also for most legal experts: the accused had never been released from custody before this verdict. In some cases the degree of restriction may be eased due to a serious illness or a guilty plea and active cooperation with the investigation. There was nothing of this kind in the Tsurkan case.

The court changed the degree of restriction to prevent certain actions in strict accordance with the law: it was impossible to keep her in custody for more than 18 months – this was the deadline by which the investigator had to conclude the investigation and transfer the case to court. But they missed the deadline.

The Prosecutor General’s Office immediately appealed this remarkable release. In her three weeks at liberty Tsurkan managed to give several interviews, during which she spoke about the absurdity and fabrication of her case, appealed to President Putin for protection, and managed to visit a doctor and spend time with her son and her mother. When she came to the FSB investigation department to familiarise herself with her case file, the investigators told her confidently that they would put her in prison again, and advised her to bring her belongings to the court session.

Here’s what I really want to ask Chairman of the Supreme Court Vyacheslav Lebedev: “How did the FSB investigator looking into Tsurkan’s case know that the troika of the Second Court of Cassation would decide on her arrest. Why did he advise her to ‘come to court with your belongings’? Was it a guess?”

And this incident is not the only one. Many former prisoners have told how investigators, urging them to cooperate, named the precise length of sentence the court would go on to hand down. Oleg Sentsov was promised 20 years by an investigator, and that was exactly what a court in Rostov-on-Don gave him. Aleksei Kozlov was promised eight years. And that was what he got. Ukrainian Yury Soloshenko, accused of espionage, told me: the FSB investigator promised that he would settle with the judge on a suspended sentence if Soloshenko pleaded guilty.

Whether this promise was a “stitch-up” is unknown. Soloshenko pleaded guilty, but he was deceived. he was given six years at a strict regime prison – the “minimum penalty.”

The connection between investigators, the prosecutor’s office and the court is an open secret. Even first-year law students know about it. Judges all come from the prosecutor’s office. There are many former prosecutors at the Second Court of Cassation, which was intended by its creators – as was the First Court of Appeal – to be more independent than Moscow City Court. People from regions allegedly unrelated to Moscow are appointed to these new courts. Of course, this is a myth, because “incoming” judges, like all the rest, pass through the FSB “filter”, and nobody there is an outsider.

We can agree with Vyacheslav Lebedev on one thing only: the judiciary is stable today. But what do we understand by this?

Regarding judicial independence, I am sure that in Russia not a single person, especially those who have somehow encountered the Russian courts, would consider them independent. Although there probably is one, in fact.

This is Vyacheslav Lebedev, a man who believes in judicial independence. Or, more likely, he does not believe, but imitates belief, just as all his colleagues who are close to the authorities imitate other democratic transformations. When it comes to finding such things in Russia, as Woland [Translator’s note: the Devil, as featured in Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita] liked to say, “Whatever you look for, it doesn’t exist.”

Translated by Anna Bowles

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