Russia's 99% conviction rate thrown into question

More than 920,000 people were convicted in bench and jury trials last year in Russia, while just 9,000 were acquitted.

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MOSCOW // When defendant Inna Yermoshkina arrived at a Moscow court last October for the verdict in her criminal fraud case, she brought along a bag packed with clothes, toiletries and medicine. Ms Yermoshkina, 43, said she wanted to make sure she had some basic items if she were arrested. Ms Yermoshkina had good reason to expect a conviction. She had accused senior officials of corruption in the licensing of public notaries who earn large salaries thanks to Russia's suffocating bureaucracy. She was then indicted for alleged fraudulent real estate deals - charges she claims were retribution for her anti-corruption drive.

But then something unusual happened: Ms Yermoshkina was acquitted. What made Ms Yermoshkina's acquittal so remarkable was not just the cast of powerful enemies she had accrued. She also overcame extraordinary statistical odds. Ms Yermoshkina was among the less than one per cent off all criminal defendants last year who were acquitted in Russian courts. More than 920,000 people were convicted in bench and jury trials last year in Russia, while just 9,000 were acquitted, the Russian Supreme Court chairman Vyacheslav Lebedev announced last week.

Russia's conviction rate has remained steady at more than 99 per cent, reflecting the lack of independence of the country's judiciary and the persistence of a Soviet-era mentality that everyone who is accused of a crime must be guilty, Russian legal experts and rights activists say. Ms Yermoshkina said she had never expected to be acquitted. "I knew the statistics, and I concluded it was impossible to find justice in Russia," she said.

Senior Russian officials - including Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president - and rights activists alike have emphasised the need to improve the independence of the country's legal system. But little has been done to mitigate the pressure on Russian judges to convict, and judges who acquit too many defendants can face serious career repercussions, said Sergei Nasonov, a Moscow law professor and an expert on jury trials in Russia.

"Unfortunately a judge in Russia can lose his job for too many acquittals," Mr Nasonov said. "If there are too many acquittals - not incorrect acquittals, mind you - a suspicion arises that the judge may be corrupt, and reasons will be found to fire him. This creates fear among judges." Conviction rates in the West are considerably lower. In Britain, for example, 83 per cent of defendants were convicted in 2008, according to the most recent available data on the British ministry of justice's website.

Japan has traditionally had conviction rates higher than 99 per cent, though the cases are almost always based on confessions rather than thorough investigations. Furthermore, prosecutors, fearful of acquittals that could threaten their careers, typically only go to court with cases they know they can win. The astronomical conviction rate prompted Japan last year to introduce jury trials for the first time since before the Second World War.

Some defenders of Russia's almost 100 per cent conviction rate say the statistic is evidence of exemplary investigations and trial work conducted by law enforcement authorities. That argument, however, is undermined by the significantly higher percentage of Russian jury trials that end in acquittals, Mr Nasonov said. "The cases are being handled by the same investigating bodies, but in jury trials between 15 and 20 per cent of defendants are acquitted," Mr Nasonov said.

Jury trials are still a relatively new phenomenon in Russia, having been introduced in a few select regions in the early 1990s and established nationwide in 2003. They still represent a tiny percentage of the overall number of trials in Russia, however. Last year, 1,500 defendants were tried by jury in Russian courts, 18 per cent of whom were acquitted, Mr Lebedev, the Supreme Court chairman, said last week.

Critics of jury trials say Russian jurors largely lack sufficient legal acumen to properly consider evidence and issue verdicts. Even the minuscule number of acquittals in Russia are often successfully appealed by prosecutors, prompting judges to order retrials. Last year, for example, a Moscow jury found three defendants not guilty in the 2006 slaying of investigative journalist and Kremlin critic Anna Politkovskaya. The verdict, however, was later overturned by Russia's Supreme Court, which ordered a new trial.

The Kremlin's human-rights council has raised the issue of Russia's conviction rate with Mr Medvedev, saying judges turn a blind eye to procedural violations by investigators and prosecutors in order to avoid being forced to issue acquittals that could negatively impact their judicial careers. Mr Medvedev, a lawyer by profession, even sounded stunned when confronted with Russia's acquittal rate. At a meeting with his human-rights council in November, Mr Medvedev was informed by the council member Mara Polyakova that, according to official data, just 0.8 per cent of all defendants were acquitted in 2008.

Mr Medvedev asked Ms Polyakova to repeat the figure, saying "maybe I misheard", according to a transcript of the meeting on the council's website. After a council member repeated the statistic, Mr Medvedev said he thought the number was "incorrect". "I'll call the Supreme Court chairman," Mr Medvedev said. "We probably have few [acquittals], but I heard different figures, not 0.8 per cent. I'll follow up. I'd like to find out for myself."