Russia furnishes its judges with guns

Safety of jurists seen as concern

April 14, 2007|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,Sun Foreign Reporter

MOSCOW -- With a judge's oath of office comes a duty to decide all manner of sober matters, including a man's guilt or innocence and how severe a sentence is appropriate to hand down.

Now there's another weighty decision some Russian judges must take: whether to pack a pistol.

The nation's Supreme Court, one of three high courts here, which has jurisdiction over some 30,000 judges, has purchased more than 12,000 semi-automatic weapons for those who serve on the bench as part of a nationwide campaign to keep them safe.

Any judge who wishes to arm himself with a pistol -- the Soviet-designed Makarov, a favorite concealed weapon in the United States -- has only to request one. So far, about 1,500 judges have done so.

"I try to be cautious about it," said Aleksandr Gusev, director general of the Supreme Court's judicial department, who has a gun he stores at home in a safe and has never fired. "But I say, `You have the right to get a pistol, come and get one.'"

Being a judge -- facing criminals and doling out punishment -- can be a dangerous profession anywhere. And so it is in Russia, where personal and professional disputes are regularly settled outside the courtroom and not infrequently with weapons. According to court statistics, 70 judges or their family members were "murderously assaulted" from 2003 through last year, and seven judges ended up dead.

Among them was Natalya Urbina, a federal judge from the Moscow suburb of Dolgoprudny, who was fatally shot in 2004; she had earned a reputation for hearing cases other judges shunned.

In February, a judge in North Ossetia in the volatile Caucasus region in Russia's south was found dead on a country road, in his car, reportedly with three gunshot wounds.

Court officials say that that killing -- along with most of the others -- was not connected with official court business. But the murky world of justice here leaves a shadow of a doubt.

"I think it's very logical. They really need protection," said Vladimir Simonov, a gun-owning journalist at the state-owned news agency RIA Novosti, who has written about his experience buying a weapon in a country with relatively conservative gun laws. "There are a lot of cases when judges are being attacked. Definitely, it's a dangerous profession."

The purchase of the pistols is part of a broad four-year, $80 million campaign to keep judges safe and courthouses secure. Most of the plan's measures are less drastic than providing arms, and at least one seems, at best, long overdue: Some of the money will be used to install fire alarms in aged court buildings.

The funds also will go toward video surveillance systems, installation of "panic buttons" for judges as well as Interior Ministry officers to guard courthouses at night. Moscow oblast, the region outside the capital, already has formed a special regiment of 100 police to provide protection.

Arson has been a continuing problem. In September, several men broke a window of a newly renovated courthouse in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, poured gasoline inside and lit it on fire, in an attempt, court officials said, to destroy evidence. No one was hurt, and no files were lost, but the building was badly damaged.

Judges with arms is a matter of considerable debate in other countries; most American states don't allow concealed weapons in the courtroom, though a series of violent incidents has prompted some state legislatures to reconsider. Last month, in Florida, which provides for the right to carry a gun while hearing cases, a judge pulled one from under his robe after a defendant was attacked by the father of his alleged victim.

In Russia, judges who request guns will not be allowed to bring them into the chamber.

The chairman of the regional court in Omsk, Vasily Pronnikov, has a gun, which he received as a gift from the former interior minister, a common practice here. He has never carried it for protection -- though he and his family have been placed under guard in the past for security reasons.

Still, Pronnikov estimates that 90 percent of judges don't want weapons.

"These people are world-wise, they understand that there are more problems than benefits," he said in February, according to the news agency Omsk-Inform. "What human person can shoot at another one? ... It's better to be beaten than to kill a man."

Under Russia's gun laws, citizens can purchase only hunting rifles and, for self-defense, gas pistols or guns that shoot rubber bullets. Obtaining a license requires various documentation, including a medical certificate that essentially verifies one is of sound mind.

Judges too will have to go through a formal process to get a license. It will take anywhere from one to three weeks -- though if a judge is facing an imminent threat, Gusev said, the process can be expedited.

Gusev, whose gun also was given to him as a gift, hopes more judges will ultimately opt to carry one as a deterrent against violent retribution.

"For me, it would be simpler to say all 12,000" guns have been distributed, he explained. "I am interested in the protection of judges. Let the bad guys be afraid!"

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