- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 7, 2009


On New Year’s Eve, when Russians were reveling in their biggest holiday of the year, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed into law a bill that effectively ends any pretense that Russia is a democracy. The bill terminates jury trials for crimes such as treason, revolt, sabotage, espionage and terrorism - what Mr. Medvedev calls “crimes against the state.” Those accused of such crimes will now be tried by a panel of three judges instead of by a jury of their peers. This means that the Kremlin is now abrogating one of the last vestiges of individual rights - especially for dissidents of the regime - and is slipping into a totalitarian regime reminiscent of the age of dictator Joseph Stalin.

The elimination of jury trials is all the more chilling when considered in tandem with a parallel piece of legislation that is being advanced by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. He is proposing expanding the definition of treason to include endangering Russia’s “constitutional order, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.” In a similar manner, espionage will be redefined to include providing information to foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) - in effect, almost any action that threatens domestic security will be considered espionage. This bill to expand the definition of treason and espionage has not yet been passed in parliament, but is likely to do so. If the redefinition becomes law, then critics of the regime can be more easily apprehended, tried by a panel of judges and convicted on the grounds that they threaten the security of the nation. The very fear that one might be subject to these procedures will greatly inhibit free speech.

Advocates of the abolition of jury trials insist that the state does not have sufficient tools to protect the people: Duma Security Committee chief Vladimir Vasilyev contends that jury trials by peers, especially in the North Caucuses region, result in the acquittal of suspects by fellow family or clan members. Yet, the abolition of jury trials is so extreme that it turns the state itself into an instrument of terror.

Mr. Medvedev and Mr. Putin are now turning the clock back. Jury trials were banned in 1917, when the Bolsheviks seized control of the state; they were reinstated in 1993 as part of a series of democratic reforms that were meant to end the sweeping state control over the lives of citizens. The abolition of jury trials follows another power-grab - the recent extension of the presidential term from four to six years, which has been widely perceived as paving the way for the return of Mr. Putin to the presidency. And this time, he will have more power than ever before.

Western leaders must be vociferous in their condemnation of Russia’s systematic dismantling of democracy. If the attacks on democracy are not curtailed, and Russians themselves do not speak out, the only voice left will be that of tyranny.

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