Retroactive change of statutory limitations for prosecution of criminal offences: the judgment of the Russian Constitutional Court of 19 January 2017 in the European context

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Author: Nikolai Bobrinsky

DOI: 10.21128/1812-7126-2019-5-72-89

Keywords: accessibility and foreseeability; impunity; legal certainty; retroactivity; statutory limitations; transitional justice


The judgment of the Russian Constitutional Court (the RCC) on the executability of the ECtHR judgment on pecuniary damage in the case of Yukos v. Russia has not been popular among researchers, maybe because it was surrounded by a shady political context. However, its reasoning deserves special attention. This article aims at comparing the arguments of the Russian Constitutional Court in support of retroactive change of rules of statutory time-bar for prosecution of tax offences and the reasoning of the constitutional and supreme courts of the Member States of the Council of Europe in cases related to retroactive extension, reinstatement or abolition of the statutory limitations for criminal prosecution (of non-international crimes). As a rule, such extraordinary measures were introduced to allow prosecution of crimes that remained unpunished due to lawless policy of the former regime (Nazi, Communist) or because of inoperability of the judicial system in the course of war and post-war reconstruction. Despite the presupposed sanctity of nullum crimen sine lege и lex severior retro non agit principles, the extension of unexpired limitation periods in such situations has been almost everywhere declared compatible with the national constitutions and the article 7 of the European Convention on human rights. The reinstatement of already expired limitation periods was criticized by the constitutional supervision bodies of Hungary, Poland and Croatia for its inconsistency with the principle of legal certainty. However, in Germany, Czech Republic and Poland (with respect to the Communist crimes) even the reinstatement was allowed. The constitutional and supreme courts of these countries argued that the reset of limitation periods was compatible with the rule of law using a fiction of their “freezing” by virtue of failure to prosecute specific types of crimes on the orders of the ruling regimes. The Federal Constitutional Court of Germany, the Constitutional Court of Czech Republic and the Supreme Court of Poland shared the Russian Constitutional Court’s opinion that the prohibition of retroactivity of law defining a crime did not cover the statutory limitations. And the Russian Constitutional Court’s reference to the historical circumstances of interpretation of the statutory limitations in the Yukos case can be seen as a timid attempt to bring this interpretation into the context of combat with systematic impunity. However, this line of argument is not based on the factual evidence of the existence of such context in the field of the tax control in Russia in the respective time period.

About the author: Nikolay Bobrinskiy – LL.M., Practicing Lawyer, Moscow, Russia.

Citation: Bobrinskiy N. (2019) Izmenenie srokov davnosti privlecheniya k publichno-pravovoy otvetstvennosti s obratnoy siloy: postanovlenie Konstitutsionnogo Suda Rossii ot 19 yanvarya 2017 goda №1-P v evropeyskom kontekste [Retroactive change of statutory limitations for prosecution of criminal offences: the judgment of the Russian Constitutional Court of 19 January 2017 in the European context]. Sravnitel’noe konstitutsionnoe obozrenie, vol.28, no.5, pp.72–89. (In Russian).


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