The Russian legal system’s split personality

April 26, 2013

Attorneys of dead anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky sit in front of an empty defendants cage during a court session in Moscow, March 22, 2013.  REUTERS/Mikhail Voskresensky

In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the rule of law is most often seen as the law of rulers.

Russia’s judicial system is perceived as a means to curb the influence of figures who pose a threat to the Kremlin. In 2005, Yukos Oil CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky was imprisoned on trumped-up charges of fraud in one of Russia’s most controversial cases. In 2009 Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who accused police officials of stealing $230 million from the government in a tax fraud scheme, died in prison after being held for a year without charge. And in April of this year, Russian prosecutors suspended a leftist opposition group for three months, barring the Left Front from organizing or accessing their bank account until July 19.

It is not surprising, then, that Russians don’t trust the objectivity of their courts.  Daniel Rothstein, a commercial lawyer who has practiced in Russia, said in a phone interview that during the 1990s, “people didn’t trust the courts at all.” And yet, despite the perception of high courts as malleable to Putin’s influence and the fear of unjust arrest and conviction without trial, Russia’s lower courts are flooded with disputants and generally well reviewed.

It is difficult, from a Western perspective, to understand the discrepancy between a lack of faith in the courts and a willing endorsement of their functionality. But Russian legal expert William Butler, a law professor at Penn State, says that Russians attitude toward the court is a paradox – despite their suspicion, “Russians go to court a lot. They’re very litigious.” According to Kathryn Hendley, a professor of law and political science at the University of Wisconsin Law School who has spent time in Russian Justice-of-the-Peace (JP) courts observing civil suits, cases such as Khordokovsky’s and Magnitsky’s “don’t get much traction in Russia,” where the press is controlled by the state. “There is the Internet and people could get more information if they wanted, but people aren’t really interested in these kinds of political cases.”

According to her research, “litigants are generally satisfied with their experiences at the JP courts.” Civil court proceedings are relatively quick and inexpensive, she explains. Judges feel pressure to turn cases around swiftly, preventing small claims cases from being held up. In a 2009 survey asking citizens in three regions about their encounters with JP courts, only 10 percent of respondents said their judges were biased. Over 70 percent said they believe the JP courts largely rule in favor of the side that presents a stronger legal case.

What emerges is a system that functions fairly well on a civil level, where judges are formally appointed by governors or regional legislators rather than the president, but falters in criminal and other cases, when judicial incentives are often subject to political influence. In these cases, Russians appear to employ an extra-judicial common sense in deciding whether to bring a case to court. According to commercial attorney Rothstein, “almost every large [commercial] deal involving foreigners and also many large deals just involving Russians provide for arbitration or litigation of disputes outside of Russia, because nobody wants to be at the mercy of the unpredictable Russian courts.” He added, though, that some Russian clients were more willing to go to trial because they “know how to influence the court.” Professor Hendley adds, “if you’re mad at your neighbor, go to court. If you’re against someone who’s more powerful than you – then a greater reluctance sets in.”

If Russian courts run the gamut on a legitimacy spectrum, Russians appear to have a fairly keen understanding of how to navigate the system. In an interview posted on the Hermitage Capital Management (HCM) website, William Browder, the investment fund’s founder – and the man who employed Magnitsky to conduct the investigation that lead to his death – argued that Khodorkovsky would have avoided punishment if he’d played by Putin’s rules:

I suspect that Khodorkovsky could bargain his release from prison from the very beginning. After all, Gusinsky had done so and was spared further harassment. He gave his TV channel to the state and left the country. Khodorkovsky could follow suit. He could give Yukos to the state. Instead, he launched a PR campaign against Putin… The events took a stiff turn as soon as it became clear that Khodorkovsky would not compromise with Putin.

But unwritten law is easily broken, and when Magnitsky died of heart failure and toxic shock, allegedly due to untreated pancreatitis but also following a prison beating and with no autopsy to confirm a ruling, Browder called Russia a “criminal state,” and said that Magnitsky had been “held hostage and [the state] killed their hostage.”

Magnitsky’s legacy weighs heavily today. Russia officially closed the investigation into his death days before the beginning of a posthumous trial, seen largely as a way to repair an internationally damaged image by finding the dead man guilty of tax fraud. President Obama recently named 18 alleged human rights abusers who would be denied access to the U.S. if they attempted to enter from Russia, 16 of whom were implicated in the lawyer’s death. The Sergei Magnitsky Act prompted Putin to name 18 Americans who would not be admitted to Russia, straining ties between the two countries.

An optimist might view the Magnitsky case as a tipping point in Russia’s judicial dealings. The posthumous trial may not succeed in changing the public’s view of Magnitsky as a casualty of corruption, a reputation aided by the United State’s Sergei Magnitsky Act. According to Rothstein, the Russian “people are becoming more and more sophisticated as to what to expect, what things should be like in a normal country, and therefore more and more aware of what’s not normal in Russia.” A confluence of internal attitude and international censure may be a step, however small, toward a system that works in both its highest and lowest iterations.


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Journalists often refer to the case against Khodorkhovsky or other wealthy businessmen as trumped up but do not provide any analysis of the case or any citations or links. This makes it difficult to evaluate these cases or compare them to fraud or tax evasion cases brought against business people in Britain or the US.

Posted by logicus | Report as abusive

To understand Russian ‘legal system’ one may want to keep in mind that Russia is (and always was) a bribe-driven society. It’s just a matter of what a kickback measures up to: a bottle of French cognac, a few hundred (thousand) dollars, or a TV channel or oil&gas company.

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive