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The Shadowy Judicial System That Controls the Fate of WSJ’s Evan Gershkovich

🌈 Abstract

The article discusses the secret trial of Evan Gershkovich, an American journalist detained in Russia on espionage charges. It examines the opaque and heavily controlled nature of Russia's judicial system, particularly in cases involving state secrets and foreign nationals, and the challenges faced by defense lawyers in such trials.

🙋 Q&A

[01] Gershkovich's Secret Trial

1. What happened during Gershkovich's first court hearing?

  • Gershkovich entered the Yekaterinburg courtroom in a cage surrounded by bulletproof glass, with his head newly shaved due to prison rules.
  • The media was ushered out, leaving him with his defense team, the state prosecutor, and one or more judges.
  • Neither U.S. Embassy personnel nor Gershkovich's friends or fellow journalists were allowed to remain.

2. What are the potential consequences for Gershkovich if convicted?

  • Conviction could carry a prison sentence of 10 to 20 years.
  • The judge overseeing Gershkovich's trial has only issued three or four acquittals in 21 years of service, indicating that acquittals are extremely rare in such cases.

3. How is the Russian government controlling the coverage of Gershkovich's trial?

  • By conducting the trial in secret and citing classified state secrets, the Russian authorities have full control over the coverage of the proceedings.
  • Selective leaks from past closed trials have formed the basis for one-sided state television reports aimed at selling the government's case to the public.

[02] Russia's Judicial System and Closed Trials

1. What are the legal grounds for closing trials in Russia?

  • Under Russian law, a judge can order a trial to be closed if they decide that an open proceeding might reveal state secrets or information protected by law, if the defendant is under age, or if the case concerns allegations of rape and other sexual crimes.

2. How common are closed trials in Russia, and how has the trend evolved?

  • Closed trials are increasingly routine in Russia, unlike in the U.S., where it is more difficult to revoke a defendant's right to an open trial.
  • The number of closed trials in Russia had doubled by 2022 from the previous few years, and the number has grown even more since the start of Russia's war in Ukraine.

3. What challenges do defense lawyers face in closed trials involving state secrets?

  • Lawyers are often restricted from accessing key case materials, or forced to rely on their memories after brief looks at documents.
  • They are not allowed to photograph or copy the classified case files, and can only make handwritten notes that are stored with the files.
  • This makes it extremely difficult for them to effectively prepare and mount a convincing defense.

[03] The Historical Context of Closed Trials in Russia

1. How did closed trials originate in the Soviet Union?

  • Closed trials in the Soviet Union offered a legalistic patina for mass killings of political opponents, real or perceived, as well as ethnic minorities and seemingly random people.
  • During the 1930s, defendants would be brought before a trio of judicial officials, who would readily agree to the death sentences demanded by NKVD investigators.

2. How did the use of closed trials evolve after the collapse of the Soviet Union?

  • After a brief flirtation with judicial reform in the 1990s, the arrival of Putin and the growing power of the FSB turned the clock back on the system.
  • Judges began issuing more politically motivated verdicts, and the classification of materials in espionage trials led to absurd situations where defendants were denied access to their own indictments.

3. How has the Kremlin's control over the judiciary and media impacted the coverage of closed trials?

  • The Kremlin and the FSB have gained more power over the judiciary, with all judges who deal with state secrets now required to ask for permission to leave the country.
  • The lack of independent media coverage and the Kremlin's control over state propaganda have allowed the government to fill the void with one-sided narratives that discredit defendants and justify their convictions.
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