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Russia must strengthen the independence and the impartiality of the judiciary

Report on visit to the Russian Federation (2013)
headline Strasbourg 12/11/2013
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The Supreme Court of the Russian Federation

The Supreme Court of the Russian Federation

"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", said today Nils Muižnieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, releasing a report on his visit to the Russian Federation carried out from 3 to 12 April 2013.

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.

However, concerns remain as to the proper functioning of the judiciary. Commissioner Muižnieks recommends improving the procedures and criteria to appoint, dismiss and sanction judges. "Between 2002 and 2012 more than 600 judges have been dismissed and almost 2 500 warned. 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."

The Prosecutor's office exercises wide discretionary powers, which undermines the principle of equality of arms and genuine adversarial proceedings. "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. Defence rights are also impaired by harassment and other forms of pressure on lawyers, who all too often face impediments in assisting their clients. This system is unfair and should change."

Another area where the Commissioner urges caution relates to the use of simplified court proceedings where a full examination of the case in a court hearing is not required if the defendant agrees with the charges and requests this procedure. "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."

As regards the systemic problem of non-investigation of disappearances and similarly serious crimes in the North Caucasus region, the Commissioner underlines that justice is necessary to achieve genuine reconciliation in society and recommends effective investigation into past abuses and improved protection for victims and witnesses.

Commissioner Muižnieks further recommends that the Russian authorities refrain from extraditing foreigners who could face torture in the receiving country, pointing to recent judgments of the European Court of Human Rights on this issue. "In addition to failing to examine seriously any evidence of such risk, Russian courts also tend to rely too much on diplomatic assurances given by the state requesting extradition. Judges, prosecutors and all relevant officials involved in extradition cases must apply international and European human rights standards. Effective investigation into past and current abductions is needed to ensure accountability and deter any future violations of this kind."

Concerned about the long-standing problem of torture and ill-treatment in police custody, and with a view to definitively reversing patterns of impunity, the Commissioner recommends introducing legislative amendments to criminalise torture as an independent crime, allowing direct prosecution of police and other officials, and excluding from the investigations those officials complicit or implicated in cases of ill-treatment.

Lastly, Commissioner Muižnieks underscores the important role played by the various human rights actors working in the Russian Federation, including the ombudsmen, civil society and the Presidential Council on Human Rights and Civil Society. "The Russian authorities should pursue a genuine dialogue with representatives of civil society and human rights structures, as also outlined in the Opinion on the legislation of the Russian Federation on non-commercial organisations in light of Council of Europe standards I published in July. Their advice and recommendations should be better reflected in the decision making process."

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