The decision to hold the trial in camera was taken just 15 minutes into its first session last Wednesday. The “jury refuses to come to the courtroom with the press present,” the judge said to explain his decision
Afterwards lawyers from both sides said that they had not received any complaints. In his reply Judge Zubov said: “When there is actual evidence of threats, it is already too late to hold the trial without the public.”
Yet jurors said that they did not ask the judge to have the trial in camera.
One of them, Evgeniy Kolesov, told the Echo Moskvy radio station that the court secretary asked them to sign an appeal for the trial to be held behind closed doors, but “nobody signed it. We said we would think about it and see what happens. The trial should begin with journalists present; only later would we consider whether to ask the press to leave the court room or not. But there was no decision that the press should not present.”
In fact Kolesov said that on Thursday 19 of the 20 jurors signed a statement saying they did not mind the presence of journalists during the trial. He also said that he tried to have himself excused from the jury.
The Supreme Court will check the actions of the judge and media criticism, said Supreme Court press secretary Pavel Odincov. “For us media is not an empty word. If they point out violations, the Supreme Court must investigate.”
In the meantime the decision to hold the trial behind closed doors is stirring a hornet’s nest among the general public.
For Lyudmila Alekseeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a human rights group created in 1976, the trial highlights the shortcomings of Russia’s legal system.
Many newspapers have also expressed concern over the decision. From the pages of the Sunday edition of Gazeta, lawyer Anna Stavickaya said she was sceptical as to what the Supreme Court intends to do. “What’s happened might be used to invalidate the trial if either side complains.”
Sergei Sokolov, deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta, Anna Politkovsksya’s newspaper, told Echo Moskvy that some people “with a lot of power are trying to shut down the trial.”
The Union of journalists of Russia is outraged by the judge’s decision. The group’s secretary Igor Yakovenko said that “it is not only a violation of the rights of journalists and citizens, but is also a violation of the constitution. There is no reason why court proceedings should be closed to the public.”
But for Henry Reznik, head of the Moscow Bar Association, Judge Zubov might lose out and be removed from the trial.
The trial itself will be a milestone in Russia’s legal history because the press has never been able to attend so important legal proceedings as these in recent years.