I attended a talk this morning given by Igor Sutyagin, a nuclear scientist who was detained for 11 years on charges of treason. He was released in July as part of the high-profile spy-swap with the United States.
Hearing Sutyagin’s description of the Russian justice system, as well as the “gulag” he was sent to for over a decade, brings into focus the enormous difference between legal systems within Europe. In the UK we can confidently expect that courts and judges will uphold the rule of law and act with impartiality. Whilst there are notable exceptions, our legal system has checks and balances in order that poor decisions can be weeded out. That system is imperfect but at least it is predictable and, on the whole, fair.
Sutyagin’s says his experience was anything but fair. He spent 11 years in detention including the time before and after his conviction in 2004 for spying for the United States. He has always protested his innocence (see this recent BBC interview). Notably, during his years as a researcher he never had access to secret documents, and he always maintained that the “classified” information which he was accused of passing to foreign sources was publicly available.
After his arrest in 1999, Sutyagin spent five years in detention and was the subject of three criminal trials, before he was finally convicted and sentenced to 15 years in 2004. This morning he described his extreme surprise when, after the break-down of his first trial, the judge suggested that the prosecutor find more charges to bring. Charges were brought and dropped until eventually he was convicted.
During his time in prison, he was listed as a political prisoner by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and he recalled the support he received from strangers who wrote him thousands of letters. He eventually signed a confession as part of the prisoner-swap process, having relented “because of his family and because he was told that otherwise the entire exchange of prisoners would be cancelled “.
Grigory Pasko, who interviewed Sutyagin and is himself a former political prisoner, said that the justice system in Russia was unlikely to change under the current regime. Amnesty International agree that there are significant problems: they said in their 2009 country report that the “trial procedures did not always meet international standards of fair trial and there were continuing concerns about lack of respect for the rule of law. In some cases with a political context, the treatment of suspects amounted to persecution. The right of suspects to legal representation during investigation was repeatedly violated.“
The UK courts have also expressed concern over the Russian justice system recently in the extradition case of Dudko v The Government of the Russian Federation (see our post). Under the Human Rights Act, the UK cannot extradite someone if s/he is likely to be subjected to a justice system which would breach their Article 6 rights to a fair trial. The High Court noted that within the Russian criminal justice system it was not possible to seek documentation in relation to the trumped-up nature of charges and the corrupt nature of the prosecution nor to raise those matters at all in the trial of the charges. The court ultimately rejected the extradition request on other grounds, but expressed concerns over the “the role and accountability of the prosecutor in relation to the fairness of a criminal trial”.
In the European Court of Human Rights, the Russian Federation has been reprimanded repeatedly for failing to implement judgments of the court, notably in two recent decisions which are discussed here.
The UK Human Rights Blog concentrates on decisions within the UK, or which have relevance to the UK. This is because covering human rights issues and case-law in the UK keeps us busy enough. The UK justice system is often criticised by those who work within it, but Sutyagin’s experiences provide an excellent reminder of the benefits of living and practising in a country with a well-developed and predictable legal system which upholds the rule of law.
The film of the talk will be available shortly on Robert Amsterdam’s blog.
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