Russian pride vs. human rights

Russian parliament charges politics, stalls reform of European court

February 18, 2007|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,Sun Staff

Moscow -- It can take as many as eight years for a case to journey, from start to finish, through the halls of justice at the European Court of Human Rights, where some 90,000 complaints are pending.

Yet a plan designed to streamline the court's operation has stalled on Russia's doorstep. The nation is the lone holdout, among the 46 countries in the Council of Europe, in ratifying 2 1/2 -year-old reform measures that supporters say are badly needed to address the mounting caseload at the chronically overburdened court.

Russia's lower house of Parliament, the State Duma, overwhelmingly rejected ratification of Protocol No. 14 last month, with many lawmakers invoking a complaint uttered here practically every time a ruling is handed down against Russia.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in today's Ideas section about efforts to streamline hearings before the European Court of Human Rights included an inaccurate reference to when Russian lawmakers voted against the proposal. The vote was in December.
The Sun regrets the error.

"Many of the court's decisions are very much politically motivated," said Vasily Kuznetsov, a member of the International Affairs Committee, who charges that some verdicts are determined before the cases are heard.

Such charges are somewhat ironic, given that the same criticism is often leveled at Russia's domestic court system, which, at times, can seem like an extension of the government's executive branch.

Russians widely distrust prosecutors and the courts - two-thirds think most judges take bribes - and send more cases to Strasbourg, France, where the European court sits, than any other nation. More than 19,300 complaints from Russia - many concerning deplorable prison conditions, abuses in Chechnya and the failure to enforce court judgments in civil matters - were pending at the end of last year, accounting for 22 percent of the court's total. The International Protection Center, a human-rights organization in Moscow that has sent hundreds of appeals and won several, says it receives 1,000 every month; and the center's staffers travel to Strasbourg so often that they are opening an office there.

The European Court has issued several landmark rulings against Russia in recent months, including one last month in which military authorities were found to have tortured two Chechen brothers during their detention in 2000, then failed to properly investigate their claims of abuse. The brothers alleged they had been subjected to electric shocks, beaten with rubber truncheons and plastic bottles filled with water, attacked by dogs and had pieces of their skin torn off with pliers.

In July, the court found Russia responsible for the "disappearance" in 2000 in Chechnya of a 25-year-old man after a high-ranking military officer was caught on film ordering the soldiers who captured him to "finish him off" and "shoot him."

Russia almost always pays any monetary compensation awarded by the court but has been criticized for failing to consistently make the kind of systemic reforms that would prevent similar abuses from happening again.

The entire Council of Europe, including Russia, adopted Protocol 14 in May 2004 as a step toward increasing the court's efficiency as the number of cases has exponentially grown. But the protocol will not go into effect until each member state has separately ratified it. Turkey and Poland, who ratified it in September, were the last two nations to do so.

Among other things, the protocol allows the court to dismiss cases in which a plaintiff hasn't suffered "significant disadvantage" and permits one judge, rather than three, to decide whether a complaint will be heard. It also increases judges' tenure from a renewable six-year to a single nine-year term, and strengthens the authority of the Committee of Ministers, the body responsible for ensuring compliance with the court's rulings.

Some human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have protested the changes, saying they diminish plaintiffs' rights - an argument that other activists note has been "cunningly" hijacked by some of the protocol's Duma opponents.

Parliament's rejection of the protocol has been the source of some political intrigue here because the Duma reliably bends to the will of the Kremlin, and President Vladimir V. Putin supports it, at least officially. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov sent a representative to the Duma on the day of the vote to urge deputies to pass it.

"Rejecting its ratification will entail uneasy consequences for the prestige of our country and will place us in a politically vulnerable position," Grigory Karasin, a deputy foreign minister, said during the debate, calling Protocol 14 an "important" part of the court's reform.

Still, only 27 of the chamber's 450 deputies supported it, prompting some to charge that the Kremlin had issued a clear, if quiet, order to quash it.

"Everybody knows that we have a pocket Duma," Viktor Alksnis, of the Rodina, or Motherland, faction, said in an interview. "The Duma always obeys Kremlin orders. This time the Duma received an order from the Kremlin to turn it down."

He voted against the measure, too - but not, he said, because he was told to.

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