Warning on extradition to Russia


The Council of Europe has issued a highly critical report of the Russian courts, writes Philip Panin Moscow

A STINGING report from a Council of Europe investigator, published last week, alleges widespread political abuse of the Russian courts and urges countries not to extradite people to Russia if there are concerns they might be denied a fair trial.

The conclusions by Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, a former German minister of justice, are likely to further strain Russia’s relations with the Council of Europe, which commissioned the probe and is already locked in a standoff with Moscow over the future of the European Court of Human Rights.

Russia joined the 47-member council and agreed to be bound by the court’s rulings in the 1990s, but it has recently attacked the court’s impartiality and is the lone council member blocking a plan to streamline its operations.

The number of cases filed in the Strasbourg court each year against Russia has climbed sharply, from 8 per cent of all cases in 2000 to nearly 30 per cent last year, and the Kremlin has bristled at recent rulings that highlight torture and judicial corruption in Russia.

Asked to examine “politically motivated abuses” of court systems across Europe, Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger studied Britain, France and Germany but focused on Russia in part because it accounts for more cases at the court than any other country.

She says she found a legal system “still struggling with the legacy of its Soviet past”, characterised by prosecutors with “almost unchecked” power to put people behind bars and subservient judges “subject to an increasing level of pressure aimed at ensuring convictions in almost all cases.”

The practice of what is known as “telephone justice” – an official calling and telling a judge how to rule – has evolved for the worse, she wrote. Russian judges are now so worried about making a mistake and being disciplined or dismissed that they pick up the phone themselves to ask for instructions.

Defence lawyers, meanwhile, are “frequently subjected to searches and seizures and other forms of pressure,” she said, adding: “I am shocked that the authorities are either unwilling or incapable to protect these courageous lawyers and their relatives.”

Bill Browder, chief executive of Hermitage Capital, an investment fund that says it has been targeted by corrupt officials, said the report could have “huge legal consequences” for Russia’s efforts to extradite people from Europe. While some countries already deny Russian extradition requests, many do not, he said.

“She has condemned Russia by saying the criminal justice system is being used for political and often criminal purposes,” said Browder, who is on the government’s wanted list. “And she is proposing to declaw their ability to misuse their criminal justice system outside of Russia.”

The report acknowledges some progress, including pay raises for judges that reduce the temptation for corruption and the establishment, at least on paper, of a judges’ council responsible for career and disciplinary matters.

But it says a plan to give extra credit to convicts for time spent in notoriously crowded pre-trial detention facilities has been derailed, apparently because it might have resulted in the release of the jailed former oil tycoon and Kremlin foe Mikhail Khodorkovsky. – (LA Times/Washington Post Service)