Russians Go Easy On Prison, Heavy On Death Penalty

Like prosecutors everywhere, Alexandra Zerkova worries that Russian juries will take pity on the six pale young men, dwarfed by their guards, watching their own trial from a barred cage.

But Russians are also disturbed at the high level of crime and violence in their neighborhoods, which was unheard of six years ago. In Courtroom Seven of the Moscow Region this week, the men and women of the jury, mostly pensioners, did not flinch when the judge translated their guilty verdict into nearly the stiffest sentences available under Russian law.

This jury trial was a tiny episode in the story of Russians trying to build orderly institutions amid the political and economic chaos of the post-Soviet years.

A jury of 12 found four of the youths guilty of robbery and five guilty of murder for beating a man to death for his cassette player one night in a Moscow suburb. A couple of them were sentenced to nine years in prison, a couple to eight years. The maximum sentence for crimes committed by youths under the age of 18 is 10 years in prison.

None of the defendants expected the verdicts and all were momentarily stunned, said Judge Yelena Snegirova, shortly after meting out the sentences. Within moments, their shock gave way to snickering, just as they had whispered and snickered through much of the court proceedings.

When the Monitor wrote last month about this case, one of a relatively few jury trials bringing adversarial justice to Russia, the judge had just thrown out most of the evidence against the young defendants by investigators because it was collected illegally.

In ordinary Russian courts, the legality of evidence does not matter. But in jury trials, a still-rare revival of Russian reforms dating back before the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, jury members have to shuffle out of the courtroom whenever evidence is challenged.

In spite of the handicap of higher standards for evidence, the prosecution still won murder convictions.

Russia is struggling to develop a law-based society that respects human rights while maintaining social order. In the Soviet years, street crime was rare, but so was respect for human rights. Courtrooms were ruled by prosecutors, not judges, and hardly anyone who landed in court was ever acquitted. The death penalty was levied on embezzlers and currency speculators as well as murderers.

Punishment in Russia remains distorted by world standards. The country has capital punishment, executed by firing squad. Yet the maximum prison sentence is just 15 years. A 20-year sentence is available only in cases where a death sentence is commuted.

The debate over the death penalty was raised here by Russia's entry into the Council of Europe, which prefers that its members abandon such practices. Russian leaders have shown no such inclination.

A new draft of the criminal code would allow longer sentences (up to 30 years) and offer life in prison as an alternative to a death sentence at each court's discretion. Viktor Pokhmelkin, a parliamentary deputy who is working on the draft, acknowledges that the bill will cost money. But he says it is necessary both to protect society from dangerous criminals and to ease away from the death penalty.

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