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Dagestan's Jurors Flex Their Muscles

Prosecutors put on the back foot by a string of acquittals by juries.
Dagestan’s juries are learning to exercise their powers and to the discomfort of many law enforcement officials are acquitting defendants in high profile cases.

Many in the North Caucasian republic were shaken by the murder last year of Zahir Arukhov, Dagestan’s minister for nationalities, information and external relations. Despite the strongly-held sympathy for Arukhov in Dagestan, on May 18 this year a jury delivered a sensational verdict acquitting all four who were accused of his murder.

They were charged with taking part in 11 terrorist acts, including the minister’s murder, blowing up the office of the public prosecutor in Makhachkala and attempts on the lives of employees of law enforcement agencies and other organisations.

However, the defence argued that the entire case was based only on statements taken from the accused under duress. Saida Kalandarova, lawyer for the one of the defendants, Jamil Kibedov, told IWPR, “Written confessions… aren’t worth anything without the testimony of witnesses and without evidence. And we were convinced there wasn’t any.”

Kibedov’s lawyer also complained in court that his client had been threatened with physical violence – another factor in the jury’s decision.

The number of jury trials has grown steadily since 2003, when those accused of grave crimes in Dagestan began being offered the choice of trial by a judge alone or by jury. Between January and May this year, 30 criminal cases had juries, while last year there were 17. Thirty per cent of all cases resulted in a not guilty verdict. Seven of these have gone to appeal, but none has been overturned.

In February, a jury in the Supreme Court acquitted Magomed Salikhov of the bombing of an apartment block in the town of Buinaksk on September 4, 1999 which killed 58 people and injured 150 others.

The jury did find Salikhov guilty of being part of an illegal armed unit, using forged documents and crossing the state border illegally. He was sentenced to four years in prison, later reduced by the Supreme Court in Moscow to 18 months.

In May this year, Darbishgadji Gazimagomedov, accused of organising a terrorist act near the Gimri tunnel in the mountains of Dagestan, was acquitted by a jury on all charges except one of using forged documents.

Gazimagomedov's lawyer, Konstantin Mudunov, told IWPR the accusations against him were “baseless”. He said that in detention his client “was subjected to inhumane forms of torture as used by the Inquisition in the Middle Ages.”

Magomed-Mukhtar Shapiev, deputy head of the department for participation of public prosecutors in criminal trials, believes jury trials are harming the justice system because juries rely “on their emotions”.

“As a rule, juries are made up of housewives, pensioners and the unemployed,” he complained to IWPR. “And this ill-prepared, often illiterate, group is responsible for deciding people's fates.

“In my view, not enough thought has gone into the institution of trial by jury.”

But Sergei Kvasov, a well-known Dagestani lawyer, strongly defended jurors, saying, “My conclusion is that our people are not as stupid as many members of the legal profession would like.”

Kvasov said prosecutors were unhappy because they were being forced to work harder. “Jurors are not tolerating ill-preparedness, ignorance of case materials, false evidence and witnesses openly lying in court,” he said.

Magomed Yusupov, a leading judge, confessed he was one of only a few judges in Dagestan’s supreme court who supports trial by jury. He said that the jury system had exposed the weakness of evidence frequently presented by prosecutors.

“I have examined three cases in which there was jury participation, and two of them delivered verdicts of not guilty,” said Yusupov. “I might agree or disagree with the verdicts, but all in all, I consider the work of juries to be positive. Juries draw conclusions from the evidence which the state prosecutors and the defence lawyers of the accused present them with.”

Yusupov said there was very little evidence about corruption in juries but conceded that law enforcement agencies did sometimes put pressure on jurors.

Earlier this year, Nikolai Shepel, former deputy general prosecutor for Russia’s Southern Federal District, which includes Dagestan, suggested that cases involving terrorism in the North Caucasus should not be tried by jury, on the grounds that jurors’ personal connections would make it hard for them to be impartial.

Ziyautdin Uvaisov, a lawyer, argued that there was a sufficiently large pool of potential jurors for an objective panel to be found. “It is possible to find 12 people in Dagestan who are not relatives of those taking part in the trial,” he said.

However, many ordinary citizens are reluctant to become jurors.

Amirbek Idrisov, 44, said he regretted agreeing to sit on a jury. “First of all, there is a lot of red tape, which is very time-consuming…. As for pressure, I personally didn’t experience pressure from anyone. But I’m sure that if I had received threats to myself or my family, I would have wondered why I was doing any of it.”

Zainab Alieva, a legal consultant, said Dagestan’s jury system is still in its infancy and much more time is needed for it to be accepted.

“The level of legal awareness of your average Dagestani is much lower than that of people in most other regions of the Russian Federation,” she said. “Why respect the criminal code or try to get to grips with the intricacies of the law, if the judge rules in favour of the side that has paid him money? That is exactly how most Dagestanis think.”

Sapiyat Magomedova is an independent journalist in Makhachkala.

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