18 July 2013

Presumptions of innocence across borders

In the "dog bites man" department, another Russian opposition politician has been sentenced to a term in prison. This time a candidate for mayor of Moscow has been given five years for embezzlement. Inevitably, his friends in Russia cry frame-up. Just as inevitably, many observers outside Russia take the latest conviction as further proof, as if they needed it, of President Putin's abuse of the country's legal system to persecute dissidents. As usual, dissent is given the benefit of the doubt. That is, whenever a dissident or opposition politician gets into trouble in certain countries, his case is judged not on its merits but on the merits of the regime that prosecutes him. A presumption of innocence generally isn't extended to many governments; the prosecution of politicians is presumed to be politically motivated, and the motivation is presumed to be the consolidation of power and the suppression of dissent. It's important to note that the facts may back such presumptions in some cases. Nevertheless, it's most likely that foreign observers rush to their preferred judgment before examining the facts. Geopolitical bias has a lot to do with this tendency. If you perceive one country as an enemy of yours, you may be more inclined to see its leader as a threat to your freedom, and thus to everyone else's. Enough people are liberal ideologues, however, to insure that practically anytime anyone who can be described as a dissident or opposition figure lands in a criminal court, someone will say it's another step toward dictatorship in that particular country. Dissidents are presumed innocent, governments guilty.

That mentality gets a workout when some people perceive an irony in Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker, seeking political asylum in Russia at this time. Whether there is irony in that is hard to tell. In any event, the mockery of Snowden inspired by the latest trial of a Russian dissident has provoked a backlash from Snowden's supporters who contend that, when the chips are down, the U.S. is just as ready to treat a dissident as an enemy of the state, as Putin allegedly does. A more subtle observation is that power inevitably bends justice one way or another. If some states are not so quick to persecute dissent, they are even less quick to prosecute the powerful. As a New York Times reader from Paris observes, "The American political elite band together and protect their own. So in one country there's a show trial, in the other there is no trial. But injustice in both cases." In countries like the U.S., where dissent is virtually monopolized by the powerful, the liberal presumption of innocence for dissent may sometimes allow the powerful to get away with crimes, that outcome being perhaps openly preferred to potentially setting a precedent for cycles of partisan persecution. Obviously, people should not be persecuted simply for their political beliefs, but the reductio ad absurdam of that taboo is that those with unpopular or minority political beliefs should not be persecuted even if they've committed crimes. A nonpartisan or impersonal state would go a long way toward relieving the fears that could lead people to that irrational extreme. If the state is not identified skeptically with a political party (e.g. Democrat or Republican) or with a person easy to portray as a villain (Putin) you can do without the suspicion that someone untrustworthy benefits from prosecuting somebody else. That suspicion may never go away entirely, but it's important to remember that while some may treat that suspicion as a matter of principle, it may also prove reflexive, reactionary and irrational. No matter how much we distrust certain politicians, at home or abroad, we should resist assuming automatically that their enemies are our friends.

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