President Dmitry Medvedev started a cleanup campaign in Russia’s weak and often-corrupt courts, as one of his allies moved to unseat a prominent judge for ethics violations.
Mr. Medvedev, a lawyer by training, has promised to make a stronger judiciary a priority since taking office May 7. On Tuesday, he convened top officials and lawyers to set up a task force and propose legal changes.
“The main goal is to attain judicial independence in reality,” he told the Kremlin meeting, calling for steps aimed at “the elimination of unjust rulings, rulings that often arise from various kinds of pressure, phone calls and, let’s not hide it, money.”
Critics of the Kremlin — where Mr. Medvedev has spent most of the past eight years — say the government itself has been one of the main forces manipulating the courts under Mr. Medvedev’s predecessor, Vladimir Putin.
Last week, a senior judge from the Supreme Arbitration Court, Russia’s top civil court, testified that a top Kremlin official had threatened her job if she didn’t rule as instructed. Kremlin officials deny such manipulation. The testimony came in a libel suit filed by a Kremlin official against a Russian journalist, who had accused the official of pressuring judges.
Internationally, the authority of Russian courts has suffered, especially as a result of the case that bankrupted oil titan OAO Yukos — widely viewed as politically motivated. Just last month, the District Court of Nicosia, Cyprus, refused a Russian extradition request for a suspect in a related case, citing the prosecution’s “political motives” and the “real risk that his right to a fair trial will be flagrantly violated” in Russia.
Though he remains in the shadow of Mr. Putin, who is now prime minister, Mr. Medvedev is committed to reforming the judiciary, his allies argue. “The president said today the situation is critical,” said Anatoly Kucherena, a prominent lawyer who attended the Kremlin meeting Tuesday. “There’s been a lot of talk,” he said. “We need to restore citizens’ confidence in the courts.”
Anton Ivanov, chairman of the Supreme Arbitration Court, told reporters after the session that he had formally requested the removal of Lyudmilla Maikova, the top judge in the Arbitration Court of the Moscow District, one of Russia’s main appeals courts. He said Ms. Maikova had violated “ethical norms” by accepting cut-price apartments. Ms. Maikova, who hasn’t been charged with any crime, couldn’t be reached for comment. Her removal still must be approved by a commission of other judges.
“It’s a signal to society,” Mr. Kucherena said of the move to unseat her. Ms. Maikova had become known in recent years for issuing controversial rulings favorable to the tax authorities in high-profile business cases.