By Thomas Grove
MOSCOW (Reuters) - A leading European human rights body urged President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday to overhaul Russia's creaking judicial system, long criticized as vulnerable to political meddling and as an obstacle to business.
The appeal by the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe follows international criticism of Putin over the conviction of a number of his opponents, including opposition leader Alexei Navalny and members of the Pussy Riot protest group.
"Substantial reforms should continue in order to remedy systemic deficiencies in the administration of justice and strengthen the independence ... of the judiciary," Nils Muiznieks, the Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a report.
The report, by a body representing 47 countries including Russia, did not mention any specific court cases.
The Kremlin denies using judges for political ends but the report said they were susceptible to political pressures.
"Judges are vulnerable to political signals. When high-ranking political officials give signals and make comments on cases, many (judges) take it as a sign of where they should go," Muiznieks, a Latvian, told Reuters by telephone.
He said many Russian judges also still saw themselves in their former Soviet-era role as defenders of the state and considered acquittals to be a sign of failure.
Russia has paid little heed to past criticism of its record on the rule of law or human rights from the Council of Europe or other bodies. Putin often accuses Western nations of hypocrisy, saying they also fall short on human rights standards.
The Council of Europe report criticized a system that allows state prosecutors "wide discretionary powers" and said defense lawyers provided for defendants often failed to protect their interests. Fewer than 1 percent of cases end in acquittal.
It also drew attention to the failure of local authorities to investigate crimes thoroughly in Russia's turbulent North Caucasus, where leaders loyal to Moscow are accused of using strongarm tactics to clamp down on an Islamist insurgency.
Foreign investors have long urged Russia to reform its judiciary to make it easier to do business.
In the summer, Putin tried to correct failures in the legal system with an amnesty for entrepreneurs, many of them jailed on trumped-up charges stemming from business disputes. But critics said such measures did not tackle the underlying problems of corruption or flaws in the legal system.
Critics of the amnesty also accused Putin of tailoring it to keep political opponents, notably former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, behind bars.
Navalny, another prominent Putin opponent, received a five-year suspended jail sentence in August on theft charges he said were fabricated. On Tuesday, a Moscow court said authorities could seize his assets in connection with new embezzlement charges Navalny faces.
In what critics say was one of the worst failures of Russia's justice system, lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died in 2009 while in detention after accusing officials of tax fraud. In July he was found guilty of tax evasion in Russia's first posthumous trial.
(Additional reporting by Ian Bateson, Editing by Gareth Jones)