How the System Works
According to Russian criminal procedure, officers of the MVD, the Federal Security Service (FSB), or the Procuracy can arrest an individual on suspicion of having committed a crime. Ordinary crimes, including murder, come under the jurisdiction of the MVD; the FSB and the Procuracy are authorized to deal with crimes such as terrorism, treason, smuggling, and large-scale economic malfeasance. The accused has the right to obtain an attorney immediately after the arrest, and, in most cases, the accused must be charged officially within seventy-two hours of the arrest. In some circumstances, the period of confinement without charge can be extended. Once the case is investigated, it is assigned to a court for trial. Trials are public, with the exception of proceedings involving government secrets.
In August 1995, the State Duma passed a law giving judges and jurors protection against illegal influence on the process of trying a case. To the extent that it actually is practiced, the new law is a significant barrier to the Soviet-era practice of judges consulting with political officials before rendering verdicts. The protection of jurors became a concern in 1995 as jury trials, outlawed since 1918, returned on an experimental basis in nine subnational jurisdictions. Between January and September 1995, some 300 jury trials were held in those areas. Although another sixteen jurisdictions applied to begin holding jury trials, in mid-1996 the State Duma had not passed enabling legislation. In 1996 the court system convicted some 99.5 percent of criminal defendants, although only 80 percent were convicted in jury trials--about the same percentage as in Western courts. Expansion of the jury system faced strong opposition among Russia's police and prosecutors because the conviction rate is much lower and investigative procedures are held to much higher standards under such a system. Meanwhile, the advent of trial by jury and a nominally independent judiciary exposed a serious problem: in 1995 there were only about 20,000 private attorneys and about 28,000 public prosecutors in all of Russia, and most judges who had functioned under the old system had never developed genuine juridical skills. By the mid-1990s, a number of younger judges were actively promoting the jury system.
In the mid-1990s, claims of illegal detention received somewhat more recognition in the Russian legal system than they had previously. An estimated 13,000 individuals won their release by court order in 1994--about 20 percent of the total number who claimed illegal detention that year. In general, the criminal justice system is more protective of individual rights than it was in the Soviet period, although the Mirzayanov case demonstrated that substantial obstacles to Western-style jurisprudence remain in Russia's legal system.
Capital punishment is reserved for grave crimes such as murder and terrorism; it cannot be inflicted on a woman or on an individual less than eighteen years old. In 1995 four offenses--terrorist acts, terrorist acts against a representative of a foreign state, sabotage, and counterfeiting--were removed from the list of capital crimes. In March 1991, Yeltsin formed a thirteen-member Pardons Commission of volunteer advisers for the specific purpose of considering reductions of death sentences. According to one member of that commission, between 1991 and 1994 the incidence of capital punishment (inflicted in Russia by firing squad) dropped sharply; in 1994 only four executions were carried out, and 124 death sentences were commuted. In 1995, however, the political pressure generated by Russia's crime wave changed the totals to eighty-six executions and only six commutations. After Yeltsin repeatedly ignored its clemency recommendations in 1995, the Pardons Commission reportedly ceased functioning in early 1996, despite the protests of Russian and international human rights organizations. Russia's membership in the Council of Europe (see Glossary), which became official in January 1996, requires an immediate moratorium on executions, plus complete elimination of the death penalty from the Criminal Code within three years. Russia's execution rate rose in the first months of 1996 before declining sharply.