Tuesday, November 25, 2008

From Russian assassins to the Basi-Virk trial

I've been reading about Vera Zasulich, who invented terrorism as we know it when she shot the governor of St. Petersburg in 1878.
And I'm amazed at the straight line between 19th century Russia under Tsar Alexander II, the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay and B.C. Supreme Court.
My reading tends to books grabbed fairly randomly from the new arrivals at the library or the well-selected sale offerings at Munro's Book Store here. One advantage is the serendipitous discovery of connections. (The disadvantage is the lack of context that comes with random readings.)
The book is Angel of Vengeance by Ana Siljak. It's about Zasulich and Russia in a time of possibilities - socialism, serfdom, religion, the tsar, a big bureaucracy and youth, mostly well-off, dreaming of change.
Tsar Alexander had a liberal bent, in part because revolution seemed a threat. Legal reform was important, he decided.
"Let truth and mercy reign in the law courts," he proclaimed in 1864. Courts would treat all Russians equally, "from the person of the highest to that of the lowest rank." Juries would decide cases and the system would be open to all.
Then Vera Zasulich shot the governor. A great defence lawyer painted her as a person driven to try and stop state cruelty. (The governor had abused a political prisoner.)
The jury found her not guilty, followed by celebrations in the streets and much official anger, in part because there had been other legal setbacks in the effort to fight subversion.
The justice minister had a solution. No more trials for accused assassins or terrorists. New military tribunals would hear those cases, under new rules.
Alexander initially rejected the proposal as too extreme. But within months, he caved. The military tribunals took over these cases.
Which is exactly what George W. Bush and the U.S. government did after 9/11. A new class of criminals was created, with few rights. A parallel legal system was established. Suspects could be held for years without charges; evidence obtained by torture was accepted; rights were ignored.
Canadian Omar Khadr, captured by the U.S. as a 15-year-old in Afghanistan, is the last Guantanamo prisoner from a western country.
From the tsar's besieged Russia to America today. Who would think?
The line can be stretched a little farther. Alexander's goal wasn't fair treatment of political prisoners. He believed that an accessible, consistent and fair justice system would stabilize society. People might not always like the decisions, but if justice was more or less equitable, they could count on their rights being protected.
Which leads to British Columbia today.
Specifically, to the B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver, where Dave Basi, Bobby Virk and Aneal Basi and a clutch of lawyers are still arguing over the evidence in the B.C. Rail corruption case.
It has been almost five years since the police raided the legislature and seized evidence. The allegations are serious, for the three men, all former Liberal political appointees, and the government.
But more than five years after the publicly owned railway was sold, there are no answers.
It's obviously unfair to the three accused. (And there is no evidence they or their lawyers have delayed the trial; Justice Elizabeth Bennett has been critical of the special prosecutor for failing to follow disclosure rules. Now a last-minute RCMP legal intervention threatens more delays.)
And it's unfair to the public, heading toward next May's election with no answers about a scandal that began before the 2005 campaign.
The case is a symptom. The courts have become too expensive and too slow to be a realistic option for most Canadians looking for justice. They are left to fend for themselves, unable to count on the right a fair hearing and impartial judgment.
Tsar Alexander would have considered it a broken justice system.
Footnote: If money is no object or a case truly significant, the system delivers sound judgments.
But for most people, seeking redress when they are wronged or facing a minor criminal charge, the costs of presenting the case - say $8,000 a day for a lawyer's appearances in court - tilts the balance hugely to those with the money to wear down the other side.


Anonymous said...

Money talks, and if some government might be involved things can really grind down to almost zero. But many BC folks have forgotten the legislature raid and the sale of BC Rail. It was making money, but the government said it was losing money. They claimed it wasn't sold just leased for up to around 900 years. When such stuff goes on many folks eventually shrug and say why bother as it won't end up with a final decison in their lifetime. Lawyers love the delays.The costs to the tax payers keeps getting larger.

Gary E said...

First I'd like to say the word "sold" used in conjunction with our railway should not be used. We did not see a Billion dollars pumped into our economy. In fact after looking at all evidence available I don't believe we got one dime.
Second, I would like someone to explain to me how we can get a second prosecutor in a case that should be run entirely by The Special Prosecutor.
Thirdly, allowing these extra prosecutors is just another delay tactic in case the Supreme court of Canada comes down on the side of the defense and the SP has to include the defense council in examination of "secret witnesses"
Since when does an accused not get to confront his accuser.

Anonymous said...

Justice delayed is justice denied. 5 years must be a nightmare for the people involved.