Criminal Justice Protections
According to Russia's 1993 constitution, the death penalty is applicable to some crimes "until its abolition" by federal law. Although the annual number of executions reportedly had decreased by mid-1996, the public outcry at Russia's growing crime wave made the death penalty a politically sensitive issue. In cases where the death penalty may be applied, the accused is guaranteed the right to trial by jury, although this provision was only partly in force in the mid-1990s (see How the System Works, ch. 10). A condition of Russia's admittance to the Council of Europe (see Glossary), which it achieved in January 1996, was abolition of the death penalty within three years. Much international pressure was applied toward that end both before and after Russia was approved for council membership.
For all types of crime, punishment without trial and prosecution ex post facto are forbidden. The constitution also bars torture and other "brutal or humiliating" treatment and punishment. Citizens have nominal protection against arbitrary arrest without a judicial decision, and they may not be held for more than forty-eight hours without being charged, except in a state of emergency. However, this constitutional provision has been directly contravened by Yeltsin's 1994 decree on combating organized crime, which allows police to detain persons suspected of involvement with organized crime for as much as thirty days without a criminal charge and without access to a lawyer. This decree was used widely in 1995 to detain persons without judicial permission beyond the mandated maximum period. Russian human rights monitors reported in 1995 that the few detainees who were aware of their rights and complained of violations were subject to beatings. Nonetheless, about one in six cases of arrest was appealed to the courts in 1995, and judges released one in six of those on grounds of insufficient evidence or breach of procedure (see Criminal Law Reform in the 1990s, ch. 10).
According to the constitution, judicial sentences may be appealed to higher courts, as may decisions of government organs at all levels. Those organs may be sued for damages caused by action or inaction. Nominally, all citizens are guaranteed their "day in court," have the right to choose their own defense counsel, or may be provided with free legal counsel if required. Legal aid may be requested from the earliest moment a person is detained, placed in custody, or indicted, a change from previous practice whereby the individual could receive counsel only upon being formally charged and after being interrogated. Few citizens are aware of these rights, however. A person is considered innocent until proven guilty, but where jury trials do not occur, the accused generally are expected to prove their innocence rather than defend themselves against prosecutors' efforts to prove their guilt. In cases where a judge imposes sentence, the average rate of conviction is more than 99 percent, as opposed to an 84 percent conviction rate in jury trials.