Armine Sahakyan: Judicial reform is still a pipe dream in former Soviet Union
YEREVAN, Armenia – Armenian President Robert Kocharian attracted international attention in 2007 by dismissing a judge who had sided with two business people against the government.
Yerevan District Judge Pargev Ohanian acquitted the owner and a top executive of the Royal Armenia coffee packaging company of criminal tax evasion and fraud charges. The charges were widely seen as retribution against the defendants for publicly accusing senior customs officials of trying to shake down their company for bribes.
For those who know anything about justice system corruption in the former Soviet Union, the real shocker was not so much that Kocharian fired the judge but that Ohanian ruled against the government in the first place.
Judges across the former Soviet Union almost never go against the power structure for fear of having their careers ruined — or worse. When prosecutors bring a case before them, they don’t have to be told they had better side with the government: They know the game.
Not only do judges in the former Soviet Union find for the government in almost all criminal and civil cases. They also sell justice to the highest bidder in civil cases that don’t involve the government. In other words, their decisions are based on which side offers the biggest bribe.
The European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the World Bank and other international organizations have been trying to help former Soviet countries improve their judicial systems almost from the time the Soviet empire disintegrated in 1991.
The help, in the form of expert advice and financing, has failed to create an independent judiciary in most of the region — that is, one that is not subject to government influence. The exception is Georgia, which instituted widespread political and justice system reforms beginning in the early 2000s as part of its courtship with the West. Georgia has made it clear it wants to join the EU.
Some former Soviet countries have made perfunctory judicial reforms.
Kazakhstan, for example, has instituted a European-style private-bailiffs system to ensure that those who win court cases actually get the damages due them. The change was a response to the widespread problem of judgement winners being unable to get their money.
Kazakhstan’s reforms have just nibbled around the edge of the judicial system, however. As with other countries in
the region, the key reform that’s needed — an independent and uncorrupt judiciary — has yet to be achieved, critics say.
This means that judges always side with the prosecution in criminal cases and with officialdom in civil cases pitting the government against a private party, observers say. In addition, it means judges often take payoffs in civil cases involving two private parties, according to observers.
The chairman of Kazakhstan’s Supreme Court, Kairat Mami, acknowledged the depth of the judicial corruption problem in late 2013 by noting that the high court had received more than 4,000 complaints against judges in the first nine months of the year. “Eight judges were fired, two judges were convicted and six more judges are facing corruption charges,” he said.
Mami’s admission was a rarity. More often than not, judicial officials in former Soviet countries deny corruption allegations.
So it came as a shock when our national human rights ombudsman here in Armenia, Karen Andreasian, released a report in 2013 based on a survey of judicial officials and lawyers that concluded that the court system was riddled with corruption.
The report, which asserted that judges even had an unofficial “price list” for bribes, drew angry denials from judicial officials. The Council of the Union of Judges was so worked up that it declared that Andreasian’s allegations represented a “serious threat to the stability of the state and to public order.”
Lawyers who had come before those judges said the findings were on the mark, however. One of them, Tigran Hayrapetian, said he couldn’t have imagined a “better or more reliable report.”
When ordinary citizens in former Soviet countries are surveyed about the judicial system, their opinions are as negative as the lawyers whom Andreasian interviewed.
The country whose citizens appear to have the least faith in the courts is Russia.
Eighty-four percent of Russian households whom the Global Corruption Barometer surveyed in 2013 said the judiciary was either “corrupt” or “extremely corrupt.”
It’s rare when Russian judges are disciplined or prosecuted, so the criminal corruption charges that were brought against Commercial Court Judge Irina Baranova in 2014 generated national headlines.
She accepted hefty bribes in exchange for siding with a number of business people who were being sued for illegally seizing buildings and other property, according to the news agency RIA Novosti. The fact that an official Russian news agency would cover the story indicated that top officials considered Baranova’s behavior so egregious that they wanted to send a message to judges that some bribe-taking was OK, but don’t go overboard.
Most Russians — rank and file and elites — refuse to criticize trumped-up, politically motivated prosecutions for fear of retribution. But political leaders, judicial-fairness groups and human-rights defenders in the West feel no such compunction.
In 2013 the Council of Europe blasted the surge in the number of politically motivated trials in Russia since Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012.
The protest came amidst high-profile court cases against Putin opponents, including Alexei Navalny and the rock band Pussy Riot.
Nils Muiznieks, the council’s commissioner for human rights, said Russia needed to make major reforms “to remedy systemic deficiencies in the administration of justice” and to “strengthen the independence” of the judiciary.
Putin did not respond to the council’s accusations of lack of judicial independence and judicial corruption. He had already made his feelings clear in 2012, the year before the council ripped the Russian justice system.
“I disagree with the statement that we lack a fully independent judicial system,” RIA Novosti quoted Putin as saying. He also disagreed with “sweeping accusations that our judiciary and certain judges are corrupt.”
The first step toward resolving a problem is admitting there is one, of course. It was apparent from Putin’s comments that Russia is apt to do little or nothing to reform a judiciary that the vast majority of the citizenry believe is flawed.
Other countries in the former Soviet Union, trying to show they’re a civilized society and keep on the good side of the West, are making bitesized judicial reforms — like Kazakhstan.
But the ultimate reform — creating a judicial system in which judges are not afraid to rule against the government and which roots out and punishes judges who can be bought — appears to be way off in the sunset.
As with other kinds of graft in the former Soviet Union, the losers when judicial corruption occurs are the citizens. They include those who go to prison on trumped-up criminal charges and those unable to obtain damages in civil cases for wrongs done to them.
"Long live our court, the most humane court in the world!" is one of the most popular phrases from a Soviet-era movie. It was uttered by actor Georgy Vitsin (R) in the 1960s Soviet classic comedy film "Kidnapping, Caucasus Style." Of course, justice in...