Russia Passes Bill to Limit Jury Trials

Russia’s lower house of Parliament, the State Duma, passed a bill Friday which takes away the right to trial by jury in cases of terrorism and other serious crimes. Human rights activist called the bill a retreat from democratic values and an independent judiciary.

The bill targets crimes that involve hostage-taking, illegal armed units, treason, attempts to overthrow authority, sabotage, and organizing massive disorder or revolt.

Instead of a jury, cases involving these types of crimes will be overseen by a panel of three judges.

The bill also increases the maximum sentences for acts of terrorism, and gives defendants in trials over other serious crimes the option to refuse a jury trial.

Lawmakers who supported the bill said it was necessary because juries have a tendency to acquit suspects, even where evidence is strong against defendants. Analysts said that lingering mistrust in the courts and a public perception of widespread corruption in the legal system may be a reason.

In terrorism cases in particular, lawmakers said, especially in the troubled North Caucasus region, clan loyalties and kinship often create juries biased against the prosecution.

Human rights activists from the Moscow Helsinki Group, Memorial, and For Human Rights groups said the bill was a grave mistake. Allowing the government broader rights to prosecute crimes against the state would serve to limit a fair and effective judicial system, rights advocates said in a statement (Rus).

“In the existing conditions, passing cases involving “anti-State” crimes, which carry very long sentences, to ordinary courts [is a poor choice.] On average, these courts pronounce non-guilty verdicts only 1 percent of the time, and when combined with interest on the part of authorities, this deprives the accused of any shadow of hope for an acquittal,” the statement says.

The human rights defenders are also concerned that the bill could be used against the political opposition, who in the past have been accused of fomenting social unrest by authorities.