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Stirrings of Change

November 13, 1987

Western experts, while encouraged by Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev's announced policy of glasnost , have appropriately pointed out that the Kremlin's easing of restraints on dissent would be more impressive if it could not be reversed at the whim of the authorities. As long as the machinery of censorship and repression is in place, the permanence of glasnost will remain suspect.

Having said that, it is encouraging to note the stirrings of change in the legal framework.

Vadim Zagladin, a Kremlin official, has publicly stated that Article 190, under which dissidents have been sentenced in the past for anti-Soviet activity, might be dropped from the criminal code. He also indicated that Article 70, covering anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda, would be narrowed in scope.

This week, in an interview with the Tass news agency, Justice Minister Boris V. Kravtsov discussed the work of a review committee that is rewriting the Soviet criminal code. Among the changes that are under consideration, he said, are abolition of internal exile, shortening the list of offenses that are subject to the death penalty, reduction of maximum prison terms and expanded rights for defense lawyers.

Since the days of the czars, banishment to remote areas with harsh climates has been a standard punishment for political dissidents. In many cases the sentence to internal exile comes after a prisoner has already completed his sentence to a prison or labor camp.

Capital punishment can now be applied to a wide range of crimes, including bribery and serious economic crimes. Under the present justice system, which almost always finds defendants guilty, defense attorneys play a limited role. The change under consideration apparently would allow them to participate in pretrial investigations and give them earlier access to prosecution evidence.

It must be kept in mind that the reforms are mostly prospective; they are still in the talking stage. Cynics suspect that we are witnessing a public relations blitz aimed at advancing Moscow's interest in hosting an international human rights conference. Even if that is untrue, it remains to be seen whether Gorbachev has the will, and the authority, to move the reforms from rhetoric to reality in the face of probable opposition from conservatives. The dismissal this week of Boris N. Yeltsin, chief of the city of Moscow's Communist Party organization and an outspoken supporter of change, reinforces concerns on this score.

If the reforms that are under discussion are enacted, however, they will radically alter the Soviet criminal justice system and release creative energies that have long been stifled by censorship, intimidation and actual incarceration.

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