Ever since the fall of communism, crime has risen dramatically in Russia. But that is no excuse for the way President Boris Yeltsin is tossing aside that country's new constitution to round up criminals.
Yeltsin issued a decree last week that grants police the power to arrest and detain anyone for up to 30 days without a charge. He empowered them to search homes, offices, cars and bank accounts belonging to anyone suspected of involvement with organized crime, without having to worry about finding evidence first.This decree no doubt is quite popular with the average Russian citizen. Many people in the United States would welcome a similar program aimed at ridding streets of gangs and hoodlums. Russians police certainly will succeed in reducing the crime rate.
But they also are likely to arrest, detain and punish innocent people. They also are likely to be cruel and ruthless as they operate under a license of carte blanche authority granted them by the nation's president. This is the type of decree worthy of the most brutal dictatorships, and it comes fraught with opportunities for corruption.
Admittedly, Russia's crime statistics are staggering. Each month, victims fall prey to 1,500 crimes committed by one of more than 5,600 operating gangs. Police confiscate an average of 700 firearms and $2.5 million from lawbreakers during the same time period. In all of 1991, only two cases of kidnapping were reported in Russia. So far this year 118 confirmed cases have been reported. Last year, nearly 25,000 crimes were committed with firearms.
This explosion of crime seems to suggest Yeltsin's decree is warranted. It is not. If Yeltsin succeeds in violating Russia's new constitution, that document will be of little value in the future. Guarantees of civil and human rights will become meaningless. Russia will be surrendering itself to the rule of police rather than the rule of law.
Lawmakers in the lower house of Russia's Parliament have asked Yeltsin to suspend the decree. He would be wise to follow their advice.
Controlling crime always is easier when police don't have to worry about rights and due process. But, human nature being what it is, societies that abandon laws and constitutions always end up hurting innocent people.
And after decades of suffering violence and degradations at the hands of communists, that is the last thing Russian citizens need.