A Setback in the Prosecution of the 1991 Coup Leaders

A RULING by Russia's high court upholding the dismissal of the prosecution team in the treason trial of the August 1991 coup leaders in the former Soviet Union underscores the need for radical judicial reform, some legal experts say.

The coup trial was postponed indefinitely after the Military Collegium of the Russian Supreme Court, which is hearing the case, granted a defense motion in mid-May to dismiss all nine members of the prosecution team on grounds of prejudice. The court instructed the Supreme Soviet, or parliament, to appoint new, supposedly unbiased prosecutors.

The defendants - including former Soviet Vice President Gennady Yanayev, former Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov, and former KGB boss Vladimir Kryuchkov - argued that the book "The Kremlin Conspiracy," by Procurator General Valentin Stepankov and his deputy, Yevgeny Lisov, tainted the entire procurator general's office and excluded the possibility of a fair trial.

The book describes the accused men as "criminals." The defendants defend their failed attempt to oust former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, saying they were trying to prevent disintegration of the USSR.

Some legal experts call the court ruling a disaster for judicial-reform efforts in Russia.

"The decision by the Military Collegium raises more questions than it answers," says Alexander Yakovlev, a scholar at the Russian Academy of Science's Institute of State and Law. "It would have been a gain for the rule of law if the military court had removed itself from the case, especially because it involves a former defense minister," he says. "Instead, because the court has involved the parliament, the decision has confused the division of powers between the legislative and judicial branches."

Mr. Yakovlev, among other legal specialists, condemned Mr. Stepankov for publishing the book, calling it a political move that was "unethical and perhaps unlawful." But it is a mistake to assume that Stepankov's ill-considered action means that all of his subordinates are incapable of objectively prosecuting the coup case, he says. "Such an opinion presumes so-called collective guilt, which is outmoded."

Forming a new prosecution team won't be easy, because the ruling theoretically excludes anyone in the procuracy, observers say. Pressure has mounted for Stepankov's resignation, which could pave the way for the trial's resumption.

But the prosecutor general hasn't given any indication that he will quit, defending his publication of "The Kremlin Conspiracy" as a "moral obligation."

Yakovlev suggests that another way out would be for parliament to authorize a jury to hear the coup trial. "This is the perfect opportunity for a jury trial in order to realize the constitutional right of all defendants to a fair trial," he says.

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