Russia still suffers GULAG heredity - Russian Justice Minister

Russia’s Justice Minister Aleksandr Konovalov said Russian Department of Justice is working hard today to improve the situation in the country’s jails and told RT what should be done in order to avoid habitual offences.

­RT:Hello Mr. Konovalov, Russia’s justice minister. It’s great to have you with us for the interview.

Aleksandr Konovalov: Thank you.   

RT: It is generally accepted that reforming the legal system in Russia would save billions of rubles for the Russian economy. You are the man in charge for the saving of cash. Do you feel any pressure?

AK: I am sure that following the law and developing the instruments of law and the institutions of law is [a] very good investment. It may seem at the moment that there’s no great necessity to use the legal advice, to use the legal aid, to discuss all the aspects of the transaction. For example, your probable behavior with your lawyer or with a big legal firm if your behavior is so important and can cost big money. But, finally, in the end you will always be sure that it was a mistake that you missed this opportunity to follow the law and have a good consultation, a good talk with your lawyer. So I am sure that it’s not a waste of money, it’s the way to attract money into investments as well.

RT:Well, on the tip of the tongue has been the recent Q&A session of President Medvedev with the journalists. And obviously the question on everyone’s minds was Khodorkovsky’s question, and the president said, “Well, yes, the release of Khodorkovsky will pose no danger to the society.” And obviously the logical question that people raised, including Khodorkovsky’s defense lawyer, “Why is he in prison?” What, do you think, President Medvedev meant when he said that his release wouldn’t really pose a threat to the society?   

AK: Well, I know that President Medvedev is an excellent lawyer. He used to be a very good high-quality business lawyer and university professor. That’s why I think that the understanding of the law and the spirit of the law is some kind of dominator in his mind. And I believe it’s quite understandable. We cannot put all the questions, all the terms of practicing law to one person and on to one case. We have to establish a proper system of practicing law in this country, and we are trying to do it. In this aspect, I don’t think it’s really productive to focus all our attention only one case or one type of cases. We have some great changes in Russia nowadays and the Russian legal system as well, which only a blind person cannot see. At the same time, we have some problems in the law practicing, but we know how to improve the situation.

RT:First, is there an estimate of nearly a thousand people imprisoned for economic crimes? How does that ally with President Medvedev’s wish and desire to modernize and ease up the penal system, especially the sentences for people who have committed economic crimes?

AK: Approximately, the reform of the penitentiary system, the reform of criminal law, criminal penalty system is one of the most significant steps in President Medvedev’s stay in office over the last three years. To my mind, this reform is a very brave step for a politician. The problem is huge and old, and dozens of people – politicians, lawyers, prosecutors, judges, ministers of justice – tried to do something with it. Today some brilliant steps have been made, and among them is the idea of using alternative punishments for people, especially those who do not constitute a danger to society. People who commit the so-called economic crimes can be dangerous for society in some other aspects not like manslaughter, robbery, rape and all this stuff. But they are still dangerous. Still we have to punish them in a very special way – a more sensitive way. To my mind, we have to use huge penalties, including money penalties to punish them. So this is the idea as well. But we have to build up this system in order to let it work in a proper way.

RT: But, as of now do you agree that when people say that a person enters a Russian prison, he’s damned to a life of crime forever?  

AK: I am sure that when a person is isolated for more than one year, it can cause serious damage to his mental health, especially in Russia where we still have a lot of GULAG heredity. Nowadays, we are trying to do quite a lot to improve the situation in our jails. We have a concept of the penitentiary system reform in this country, and we hope to change the situation greatly before 2020. For example we are going to establish modernized jail institutions built in a proper way in order not to let criminals get united and go on with criminal activities. But nowadays I think being in prison for years in any country, not just Russia, really causes damage to mental health. That’s why I cannot understand people who are trying to enforce us to stop the reforming activity. They say we have a lot of criminals right now in our society and it’s not the time to talk about “liberalization” of the criminal legislation and criminal penalties. I used to say it’s not liberalization because we still have grave penalties, very serious terms of imprisonment for really serious criminals. But at the same time if we can punish a person without isolating him from society for a very long time, we have to use this opportunity because if we put him to prison for years, he will become much more dangerous and we will suffer from this ourselves. The Britons used to say that jail is a very expensive way to make bad people worse. It sounds like a joke, but it’s really true.  

RT: But why is Russia so plagued with corruption? I mean why do people habitually break laws and let them be broken?

AK: First of all it’s a very big economy in a very big country. It’s a country with a tradition of not a big efficiency of the law and a tradition of people feeling like outsiders of the law-practicing process. People are not eager to follow the law everywhere, in any situation. At the same time, we have at least three basic backgrounds for corruption. The first is when I am punished and I want to escape the punishment and I give a bribe. The second is when I try to get some privileges in some wrong dishonest way. And the third, the most dangerous one, is when I am enforced to act in some way to get my interest and I have to pay for this interest in an illegal way. So this is also quite a typical situation. All these backgrounds for corruption are working constantly. And all of them are very typical for Russia. It’s a great pity. We have an idea how to work out all this policy against corruption. But at the same time, it’s not just an isolated policy of the state. It concerns everybody – you and me. Start with yourself. Don’t pay anybody in an illegal way, don’t give bribes at all.

RT: Sir, you've said that the lack of trust in Russia's courts actually undermines the country's security. What did you mean?

AK: Frankly speaking, the court system has made a great breakthrough during the last 15 or 20 years. We came from the so-called inquisitional system to the competitive system where parts are struggling with each other in the court and the judge is an arbiter not involved in this struggle – he is just judging the case. But of course, we still have some bad heredity from the past, and we have to do quite a lot to let the judges do their work properly. We also have to improve the culture of participation in the court processes. I should say that the idea of corruption in Russian courts is sometimes incorrectly described, because quite a lot of Russian judges now work properly. For example, commercial courts are rather inventive and progressive nowadays and they resemble European courts more and more. We can get closer to the standards of the world's legal system; I think it's just a matter of time. On the other hand, we have to change some ideas concerning the recruiting of judges in order to let representatives of other professions – lawyers, notaries or scientists – become judges at the end of their careers. I think that it could be a good motivation for practicing lawyers to create excellent credit stories of themselves and show excellent results in their careers if they could be sure that they would get the prize of 10 or 15 years of top-level legal work as a judge. The post is well-paid and extremely interesting. It's an idea that works everywhere. I think we can also realize it.

RT:Thank you very much for the interview.

AK: Thank you.