We should improve the legal knowledge of ordinary people - minister

Russian law has always been a complicated issue. RT has interviewed Aleksander Konovalov, Russia’s Justice Minister on widespread distrust in the country's legal system and on planned measures to improve the situation.

RT: Thank you very much for being with us.

Aleksandr Konovalov: You’re welcome.

RT: Once you said that there had never been any respect for law in everyday life in Russia. What is the reason? Why does this society have no use for law? And what do you see as most repelling in the phenomenon that the President of Russia has described as “legal nihilism?”

AK: That’s quite a complicated question, because the tradition, the bad tradition of attitude to the law with the common people is quite old in the country. And there are quite a lot of reasons and preconditions to this fact. One of them – probably the main one – is that the authorities and the governors in Russia during the hundreds of years of its existence really have done quite a lot to provide such a result. On the other hand, when we speak about the present-day situation, the legislation of Russia is quite sophisticated and quite complex; and the common people, the ordinary people, quite often just do not know about the problems, some basic information about their rights, about their opportunity to realize and protect these rights. And on the other hand, the worst tradition is some kind of distrust to the law and to the court, and to the state authorities in general – that’s probably the worst thing. So the people sometimes seem to be quite isolated from the authorities, from the governors, from the municipal authorities, and they try to exist separately from each other.

RT: What can be done so that they can trust the authorities?

AK: Of course, first of all, I think we should improve the legal knowledge of ordinary people. It does not mean that every citizen of the Russian Federation should become a lawyer himself and is expected to protect his own rights in the court for instance. The thing is that it should develop in a certain way. Take for example the United States – we know that practically everyone there from a very early childhood has an idea about his or her rights, and has an idea about their deep respect to the court, and that people are afraid of court decisions. To my mind it’s quite an excellent situation. That’s why first of all we should seek to improve the knowledge, the legal knowledge of the Russian population concerning basic constitutional and civil rights of each person. We should improve the knowledge and give people a lot more information about the ways of how to realize and to protect their rights – that is necessary. But still the greatest idea is the quality of governing in Russia, because until then the legislation will be ineffective because the people do not have trust in the justice and effectiveness of the courts, and our policy will not be effective anymore.

RT: You said the existing penitentiary system had “grown out of Stalin’s Gulag camps” and must be changed. In what concrete ways will the new system be different from the old one?

AK: First of all, I would like to say, as far as the words that you did recall are concerned, that the present-day situation has a lot of preconditions in Russia’s troubled history – I mean not only Stalin’s history but also Russia’s history before the October revolution. Not everything was good, not even in those old times. To my mind, the worst idea that we still use now is that some collective measures, the community itself, a rather “strange” community existing in the present can enforce people to behave themselves. So, to my mind, we have to save ourselves from such an attitude and such expectations. And on the one hand, we have to provide rather strict, but at the same time very transparent conditions of enforcing the criminal punishments for the people who really did break the law rather seriously and who still do not want to act according to the law in their future life, in their present-day life. Some people, and it’s quite a great number, are still eager to break the orders of staying in prisons nowadays. So we have to organize very strict, but at the same time very legal and very transparent conditions for such people. On the other hand, we have to confess that quite a lot of people are staying in jails, in prisons, are at the same time these people could be punished while not being isolated from the society, because there are markets for alternative punishments, criminal punishments in this country.

RT: Home arrests?

AK: Yes, as well about the home arrest, and about the so-called limitation of freedom – I would like to stress that the law being adopted at the beginning of this year in the Russian Federation concerns the so-called limitation of freedom exactly, not the home arrest, because the home arrest is a measure before the court measure.

RT: what’s the difference?

AK: The difference is that somebody being suspected of committing some crime until the court decision is established should be provided from making some other breaking of the law and disturbing the investigation and the court investigation. So in this case nowadays normally serious criminals are going to jail before the court decision, I would like to stress. On the other hand, in the United States and some Western European countries, we can see the practice of the so-called “free on bail” and some other alternative measures. People are being sent to jail before the court decision only in some extraordinary situations. So this is one of the aims of the presidential reform. At the very end of the previous year the Ministry of Justice, together with Attorney General’s office, proposed to the President of the Russian Federation a very important draft of the law concerning exactly the ways of using such a strict and serious measure, the pre-court, the prejudging measure as putting somebody in jail.

RT: What about the limitation after the verdict?

AK: That’s one of the popular alternative measures being used nowadays everywhere, in Berlin, especially, I think, in Western Europe. It means that if somebody pleads guilty to minor criminal acts and such a person seems to the court not dangerous to society, their judgment concerning his way of life can allow him to stay at home and go to his job. But at the same time he has to quit some of his activities. He has to make some special reports every day or every week to a special department of the Penitentiary Service. That’s why his freedom is limited in some aspects, but not in a strict and severe way as putting in jail.

RT: You have been talking about the reforms and said that transparency is very important. How are you going to make sure it works? Are the society and the authorities ready for these changes?

AK: First of all, we need to optimize material criminal law itself. It should be changed. Only serious criminals should be sent to jail, to the so-called camps which exist in Russia. And quite a lot of people should face the so-called alternatives. On the other hand, we should optimize the penitentiary system itself. Transparency of the penitentiary system is probably one of the most important things to do now, that’s why it was the very thing I mentioned in our conversation. To our mind, the situation should be changed because of the participation of the civil society. About one year ago a law has been adopted in Russia concerning such participation of civil society, some kind of civil control of places of imprisonment. Nowadays, we have to develop such practices, and we have to develop them in different ways. By the way, you probably know that on the last day of the previous year I signed some special decree that removed the rather odd practice which existed for decades in Russia’s imprisonment practice. I mean the circle section of discipline in prisons that united some of the prisoners (where criminals covered up for one another – RT), and it gave some power to them in comparison with other prisoners. To our minds, it was a very bad and odd practice and we decided that nowadays we have to stop it.

RT: Let’s talk about safety in prisons. The recent case of lawyer Magnitsky who died while in pre-trial custody attracted attention of highest authorities, including president Medvedev. How can you make sure that the prisons are safe?

AK: It’s a good question. I’m trying to answer it. One of the first answers to it was to organize a very strict investigation by our Ministry concerning the actions and the behaviour of the Federal Imprisonment System’s employees and staffers. You know that a criminal case has been opened and we’ll know all the results later, as the case should be investigated first. It will go to the court… but all in all it’s quite clear that the system has been very sick for decades, that’s why. The next very important step and answer would be such a draft of the law that I already mentioned. It concerns opportunities and preconditions of imprisonment of somebody before the court. But as for jails, quite a lot should be changed there. We’ve already started such changes, making imprisonment much more transparent and clear for civil society, for the Ministry’s control and, what’s most important, for the people in prison there.

Several weeks ago I watched some kind of talk show on TV concerning the reforms in the Penitentiary System and one old guy with prison experience was invited to participate in this show. He was asked: “How do you value all the measures and proposals?” And he said a very important thing: “You, probably, do nothing else but enforce the authorities to act according to the law. This is the most important thing that we, the prisoners, do need.” It’s a very important request, to my mind.

As for medical services, quite a lot of services to be organized nowadays by the prison system – the medical service should be reorganized. We have to think about some kind of outsourcing, attracting some civil structures, medical care, for example – some municipal medicine to organize their ordinary process of medical care in prisons.

RT: There are many studies probing into Russia’s bribe average. Have you analyzed the matter? Can you give the figures?

AK: First of all, I don’t know such figures investigated by our Ministry. But to my mind, all these figures that are used by Transparency International are more or less approximate. The only thing that we have to stress and we have to confess as the country, as the government, as the special service, is that this value is enormous.

RT: It is enormous, but how would you fight abuse of power and corruption?

AK: Right you are. I’d like to stress one thing that the Anti-Corruption plan which was adopted in 2008 by the initiative of President Medvedev, and I’d like to stress that it was one of the very first initiatives of President Medvedev after he came into office, is unprecedented because of its systematic attitude to the problem. Nowadays, quite a lot of segments of the society, quite a lot of aspects of its existence, are involved in this policy of combating corruption.

Of course, I can foresee the next question: where are the results?

But at the same time, I’d like to say that the tradition of corruption is also huge and enormous in Russia. The market of corruption is great, that’s why we should wait for a while, to wait for some initial results, but at the same time, probably, not very serious, but some results already exist.

RT: The current judiciary system is one of the main grievances presented to the authorities. How independent, in your view, are courts of law in Russia?

AK: Of course, we have a rather bad tradition in this sphere as well. During the last 15-20 years the court system of Russia has made an outstanding breakthrough from the so-called “inquisition system” when the court had an active role and it even had some right to enforce the parties how to act in some proceedings. For example, it could enforce one of the parties to give evidence. Nowadays, the situation is quite different; we have a common competitive system. But we still have some relics from that period of time. On the other hand, we have to provide the proper conditions people in court: both in the civil procedure and the criminal as well. That’s why we still have to create a new type of processional culture, the culture of attending hearings.

Of course, I cannot guarantee that 100% of the courts’ decisions are absolutely transparent and free of any kind of pressure from administration. But, on the other hand, we also have a problem that they face pressure from bribers. That was also quite a story, when people asked, why we suspected that the Basmanny Court Judgment was so popular. But at the same time, people do not sometimes think that at the beginning of nineties bribing was the mainstream of the courts’ judgments.

RT: Thank you very much for this interview.

AK: Thank you.