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Russia’s top investigator is very proud of the justice system's low acquittal rate, and it’s actually just half of what he thinks

Source: Meduza
Alexander Shcherbak / TASS / Vida Press

What he said:

“The annual level of acquittals in cases brought by the Investigative Committee is about 0.5 percent. Investigative Committee Director Alexander Bastrykin cited this as evidence of the stability and quality of his agency’s work,” says the headline and subheading of a story reported by the news agency TASS about a forum on March 1 where the Investigative Committee reviewed its work in 2018.

Interfax reported the same, writing that “Bastrykin considers [Russia’s] low acquittal rate to be a sign of the Federal Investigative Committee’s efficiency.” The news agency attributes the following quote to Bastrykin: “The numbers speak for themselves. In 2018, there were 516 people acquitted. That amounts to 0.51 percent of the total volume of our investigative work.” RIA Novosti reported a similar Bastrykin quote: “Of 108,000 criminal cases that were sent to the courts by the Investigative Committee, there were just 516 acquittals, which amounts to 0.51 percent of the total volume of our investigative work.” (Other news agencies reported Bastrykin’s statement without mentioning specific numbers, perhaps because 516 of 108,000 is 0.48 percent, not 0.51 percent.)


For starters: The assumption that acquittal rates reflect the quality of investigative work is fundamentally flawed. Officials at the highest levels of Russia’s justice system have acknowledged that formally independent courts often accept blindly whatever prosecutors argue. Some convictions are based on confessions obtained through torture. Also, prosecutors might not even take bungled investigations to trial, if they fear a not-guilty verdict. In other words, the quality of the work performed by Bastrykin’s agency is assessed before it ever reaches a judge or jury.

Aside from the obvious pitfalls of Bastrykin’s logic (see above), the Investigative Committee director’s numbers are wrong. According to statistics released by the Supreme Court’s Justice Department, Russian courts heard criminal cases against 497,141 people in just the first six months of 2018, acquitting 1,044 suspects (0.21 percent). In 2017, the courts acquitted 0.28 percent of all defendants in criminal cases.

In other words, according to Alexander Bastrykin’s success metric (the lower the acquittal rate, the better the agency’s work), the Investigative Committee’s numbers indicate job performance that’s roughly twice as bad as the Supreme Court would have you believe.

Mikhail Zelensky

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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