THE start of Alexander Timofeyev's murder and rape trial generated a fair amount of sensational news-media coverage, with several Moscow newspapers featuring the event on the front page.
Mr. Timofeyev, dubbed "Jack the Ripper" by the press, is suspected of stalking and raping as many as 18 women, brutally killing some of the victims, during a year-long rampage in the Russian capital. Officially, however, he's on trial for the rape and murder of two women.
Despite the publicity, Judge Alexander Korzhikov's tiny courtroom was virtually empty during the second day of testimony in the case, which began March 4 at Moscow City Court.
Guarded by three armed Interior Ministry troops, the dark and diminutive Timofeyev appeared relaxed as he sat with legs crossed in a locked cage for defendants. Only a few friends and relatives of victims sat on the three benches reserved for spectators.
That the case drew so much press attention, yet was attended by so few people isn't surprising considering that the trial is technically closed to everyone except those directly involved.
"All cases involving sexual offenses are closed," says Judge Korzhikov, defending the concept of closed trials. "Sexual offenses are sexual offenses, and testimony should be allowed to remain the secrets of the victims."
The practice of closed trials is just one aspect of the Russian judicial system that some people are trying to change. Without reforms, they say, Russia will never have an independent judiciary - a vital component in any functioning democracy.
"For more than 73 years we have had no real judicial branch of government," says Boris Zolotyukhin, the chairman of the Russian parliament's Committee on Judicial Reform.
"The courts were just an extension of [Communist] Party power. Anyone who came before the court had little chance of a fair trial," he says.
Mr. Zolotyukhin is leading the charge for judicial reform. With the support of Russian President Boris Yeltsin, as well as the Russian Justice Ministry, Zolotyukhin late last year gained parliamentary approval for his judicial reform blueprint. But turning those ideas into reality hasn't been easy, he says.
Though the parliament has already established a constitutional court, before the courts can be reformed, a new constitution and updated laws still must be worked out. To complicate matters, some powerful government agencies are opposing court reforms, especially the office of the procurator, or prosecutor. Cutting back the procurator's powers, as well as subordinating the office to the courts, is an essential part of the reform plan, Zolotyukhin says.
Prosecutors currently operate independently of the courts and oversee all aspects of pretrial preparation, including issuing arrest and search warrants. They also can control a defense lawyer's ability to gather evidence.
In addition, the procurator has the authority to jail a suspect for an unlimited period without charges being filed. Given those sweeping powers, it's understandable why conviction rates in trials run at about 99 percent.
Reformers want not only to rein in prosecutors, but also to revamp the entire structure of the courts.
Russia presently has a single-tier system in which there are district, city, and provincial courts under the republic's Supreme Court. Zolotyukhin envisions a two-tiered system in which the Russian Federation's 16 autonomous republics would have their own judiciaries, functioning in conjunction with the federal courts. The Russian Supreme Court would remain the final arbiter.
Establishing popular trust in the judicial system is another priority of the Russian reform plan, Zolotyukhin says, adding that the revival of jury trials would help bolster the integrity of the courts.
"There's a problem with corruption," Zolotyukhin acknowledges. "Jury trials could help solve this."
Currently, civil and criminal cases, including Timofeyev's murder trial, are decided by tribunals comprising a judge and two civilians. The citizen-judges, who are called up for two-week stints from their regular jobs, function more as a quasi-jury.
Real juries wouldn't be new to Russia. Following reforms in 1864, Russia had jury trials, but the practice was abolished following the 1917 Bolshevik revolution.
A proposal also intended to increase the integrity of the courts is life tenure for most judges. Zolotyukhin insists such a measure is needed to ensure the impartiality of judges, but critics say such a step would be dangerous because of the shortage of qualified candidates.
Few people are willing to become judges these days and many of those now on the bench are inexperienced, says Vladimir Kononenko, head of the Department of Judicial Reform at the Russian Justice Ministry. "They have low prestige and low pay," says Mr. Kononenko. "Before we have lifetime tenure we should make sure we have highly trained judges. That will take some time."
If Parliament adopts the necessary laws, the reforms would be introduced first in the big cities of European Russia and then slowly spread to less developed regions, Zolotyukhin says.
According to Kononenko, it will take at least two years before reforms start to show results, but some foreign experts say more time is needed.
"Historically, the Communists thought law should wither away because law was seen as a way one class exerted control over another," says Mary Holland, an American attorney for the Lawyer's Committee for Human Rights, which is working on the judicial reform plan with the Russians.
"The conception that laws should rule over people is a revolutionary change," Ms. Holland adds.
"The people in the front are way out in front. Their conception of rule of law isn't representative, meaning reforms will take years and years."
There is resistance not only from the procurator's office, but from many judges as well. Some oppose the reintroduction of juries, while others fear that making changes now would only "add to the lawlessness," Holland says.
With the nation's economic and political crisis worsening, Zolotyukhin acknowledges that his goal may be unattainable. He doesn't exclude the possibility that judicial reforms could be derailed by civil unrest or even another coup attempt.
"The extent to which we enjoy a democracy in Russia depends on how much independence the court system gains," he adds.