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Who is against juries? A report by

15 February 2013 

Vera Vasileva

Vera Vasileva, On 14 February 2013 the Supreme Court of Russia overturned the conviction of Aleksandr Savin, who had been convicted in a jury trial at Moscow Region Court, with presiding judge, Nadezhda Akimushkina. Savin's lawyers Anna Polozova and Svetlana Davydova, who work for the Centre for International Protection, said that during the trial attempts had been made to manipulate the jury.

The case against Aleksandr Savin and his co-accused has been sent to the court of first instance for a new trial with a different court composition.

Aleksandr Savin, former director of the Orthodox non-commercial partnership Obraz, previously told the website that he was convicted last autumn of charges of serious crimes committed as part of an organised group, but he has always claimed his innocence.

Judge Akimushkina sentenced Savin to 24 years in a maximum security penal colony.

That was already the second successive guilty verdict in this criminal case. At the end of March 2009 Moscow Region Court, sitting with a jury, had handed Savin the exact same sentence.

In June 2009 the court of cassation upheld this decision.

After the verdict came into force, Savin was transferred to a penal colony in the village of Kharp in the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous District, located inside the Arctic Circle, which is, incidentally, the same prison where the former head of Menatep Platon Lebedev served his first sentence.

However, Anna Polozova submitted a supervisory appeal to the Presidium of the Russian Supreme Court against the verdict handed to Aleksandr Savin and on 23 March 2011 succeeded in getting it overturned.

It is worth noting that the reason for this decision by the highest court in Russia was also the revelation of the fact that members of the jury had been manipulated.

According to the Supreme Court, the guilty verdict handed to Aleksandr Savin by the Moscow Region Court on the basis of the jury's verdict was unlawful.

A new trial was ordered. But violations of the law happened again, including failure to comply with legal requirements in forming the composition of the jury and illegally influencing jury members.

The end result of a guilty verdict was also the same.

"On the day the verdict was delivered, Judge Akimushkina allegedly received a message from members of the jury claiming that jury members 8 and 9 were allegedly putting pressure on the remaining jurors and trying to convince them that Savin was innocent. 

"However, in contravention of the law, this message was not presented to the defence team or to the defendant. As a result we have no way of knowing for sure what was really contained in that message. The presiding judge put the message into an envelope and attached it to the case. The envelope was subsequently found to be empty," Anna Polozova told an correspondent.

Actually during the session of the Supreme Court on 14 February, the court of cassation received a letter from the Moscow Region Court from two members of the jury, which contained similar claims that jury members 8 and 9 had exerted pressure on them. It was not possible to verify the accuracy of the information in this instance.

Aleksandr Savin's lawyers said that the designated jury members were the only ones to take notes during the trial and really get to the heart of what was going on.

It is a known fact that our justice system likes to find people guilty. Fewer than one percent of criminal cases result in acquittals, Svetlana Davydova stressed. 

She recalled the words of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev about Russian judges being "reluctant" to find people innocent, because it made it look like the investigators had done a poor job.

Despite the fact that trial by jury in Russia is the fairest and most independent form of court trial, the Russian Themis has learned how to control it.

The challenging of "improper" juries by courts and the dissolution of juries is a generic problem. It has arisen (and is arising) in other cases, not just the one against Aleksandr Savin.

For instance, at the end of October 2012 the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) upheld a complaint by former Yukos employee Aleksei Pichugin that Russia had violated his right to a fair trial, enshrined in Article 6 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

In particular, the Strasbourg court pointed to the fact that Natalya Olikhver had acted without legal basis in holding the trial behind closed doors. She was also unjustified in allowing the main prosecution witness, serial killer and rapist Igor Korovnikov, to refuse to answer a number of questions. The presiding judge tried to hide from the jury what kind of person Korovnikov was, even though the law requires a critical attitude to be taken towards anyone giving evidence in court. What their social status is, what sorts of moral values they hold, whether they have a tendency to lie or break the law. All this should be taken into account when the court decides whether or not to trust someone’s testimony.

Another glaring example are the "espionage" cases against scientists, in particular the one against physicist Valentin Danilov, who was recently released on parole after spending 11 years behind bars.

As is known, he was acquitted at his first trial. Then the make-up of the jury was changed and the new jury found the scientist guilty of spying for China and decided that he deserved no leniency.

According to Ernst Cherny, executive secretary of the human rights organisation the Public Committee for the Protection of Scientists, his organization carried out its own investigation and found that eight of the twelve members of the jury who took part in the trial were connected in some way to the FSB, who were responsible for bringing the prosecution against Danilov.

"There are, so to speak, "professional" jurors, who are included in a list of candidates to be systematically selected," Anna Polozova said. "The only condition is that they are not allowed to take part in a trial more than once a year."

"We also observed this in the case against our client. Despite the fact that the law stipulates there has to be random selection for every judicial process, on three occasions we were presented with the same six candidates for jury service. We don't believe that that kind of selection can be random."

Anna Polozova and Svetlana Davydova do not yet know the exact grounds why the Supreme Court overturned the verdict against Aleksandr Savin for a second time. At the session on 14 February only the decision contained in the judgment was read out; the full text of the decision by the court, including the statement of the reasons behind it, will be given to both parties at a later date.

Whatever the case, putting right violations of the law by appealing against every unfair jury verdict and resultant sentence to higher courts at the national level and to the ECHR is not right. And it is not possible.

But the fact that trial by jury in Russia today is a vulnerable institution clearly does not mean that it should be abolished.

Systemic changes are needed. Jury selection should be impartial and as transparent as possible, Anna Polozova believes.

The lawyer considers that one way of achieving this transparency could be to involve both the prosecution and defence teams in drawing up the list of jurors. The Criminal Procedural Code of the Russian Federation does not make provision for this at present.

As a result, the procedure for selecting jury members is not sufficiently transparent and the random nature of the selection process is guaranteed.