11 March 2021
an interview with Valery Borshchev, co-chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group
Moscow’s Public Oversight Commission (POC) for the defence of human rights in detention centres may lose one of its active members, Marina Litvinovich. A majority of Moscow’s POC voted for her expulsion from the committee’s composition.
The first Public Oversight Commissions appeared in Russia in 2009, shortly after the law on public oversight came into force. In theory, POCs are associations of enthusiasts, who oversee what is happening in detention centres and protect the rights of prisoners. But in recent years, there have been fewer human rights defenders joining the POCs across the country. And those who pass the selection process, as it turns out, can easily be removed from the commission. This is what is currently happening with Marina Livtinovich’s participation in the Moscow POC.
In the Radio Svoboda studio is co-chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Valery Borshchev one of the authors of the law on public oversight, thanks to which the POCs emerged in Russia.
Valery Vasilievich, what has changed in the last 12 years since the creation of the POCs? Are they really trying to neutralise this idea now?
Valery Borshchev: The history of the law on public oversight is not simple. I first came across this system in England. There, they have a Council of Visitors at every prison. These are between five and nine people, who can go in the prison and have keys and are free to go into any section. It amazed me. I returned to Moscow and convened a working group. We had a very strong membership – Sergei Pashin, Valery Abramkin, Andrei Babushkin, and others. We prepared the bill, and the Duma passed it with a constitutional majority. But the government blocked it via the Federation Council. A conciliatory group (from the Federation Council, there was Sobyanin, and from the Duma, me) met and came to an agreement. According to my bill, observers had federal status, that is they could attend any prison or penal colony in the country. But as a result of these negotiations, everything was tied up in the regions. We pushed for a long time – and thank God, in 2008 the law was passed. In the first POCs, there was actually a majority of human rights defenders. That was when there was the famous ‘Magnitsky case’.
Maryana Torochesnikova: It was then that you headed the first Moscow Oversight Commission.
Valery Borshchev: Yes. We posted the findings of the commission on the Internet, and sent them to the prosecutor’s office, the president – everybody. And then there was a long silence. So then I asked the Deputy Prosecutor General ‘When will you send us a reply?’ They answered, ‘We will reply soon.’ Fair enough, they had to carry out their investigation. There was an investigation and we all testified there. Eventually they presented everything to two doctors, and the evidence in the investigation really did verify all the horrors, all the atrocities, which Magnitsky had suffered. That’s what scared them: if there are independent observers, there are no obstacles to the investigation. The terms of the first POCs ended, then the second terms ended, we had retained a majority of human rights activists at both times.
But the third terms for POCs they had already begun to claim them as ‘their own.’ But even then, there were many human rights defenders present. I could not get into the Moscow for a fourth term , so I joined a regional commission, and by then they had already conducted a tough selection process.
According to ‘my’ bill, members of the Public Oversight Commissions need to be approved by the human rights ombudsman: someone who knows human rights defenders and is aware of what is going on. But Surkov decided to give this role to his own brainchild – the Public Chamber. This is neither local nor district based, the Public Chamber is extremely remote from human rights defenders.
Maryana Torocheshnikova: It is regarded as a total sham.
Valery Borshchev: We agreed with the Presidential Human Rights Council: ‘Let’s make an amendment. There should be three active components, each comprising one third – the Civic Chamber, one third – the human rights ombudsman, and one third- the Presidential Human Rights Council.’
But the Public Chamber was not impressed by this proposal and ignored it, to the extent that I, for example, was not included in the Moscow Commission, although I did apply. And then came the clampdown. For example, they introduced a clause (there is no such provision in the law) recommending the creation of Regional Public Chambers. This means that the Regional Public Chamber works in collaboration with the administration of the Federal Prison Service and jointly with the Federal Prison Service selects the members.
Maryana Torocheshnikova: And the Federal Prison Service, of course, prefers it when there are only ‘their’ ‘amenable’ people involved.
Valery Borshchev: Of course! And in the last session, when Lena Masyuk and Liuba Volkova were not included there as members, they made a legal appeal. Of course, they didn’t win it, but they witnessed such conspiratorial manoeuverings there, and members of the Public Chamber were not even aware of the issue. For example, the chair of the commission, Vladimir Palamarchuk, a former inspector for the prosecutor’s office, appeared in Tver. Aleksander Shestun had been transferred to a penal colony there. We used to go to see him a lot. He went on a hunger strike. He was in very poor health.
One day they called Palamarchuk and said, ‘We would like you to visit him.’
He said, ‘You can stuff your ‘would likes’!’ This was recorded. Then, after all, he did go. And the prisoners told him that they were sleeping in padded jackets, as it was so cold in the cells. He replied, ‘I can’t measure the temperature.’ They began to say that they were being tortured with electric shocks, there was no register for grievances regarding their treatment or complaints. He didn’t pay any attention to any of this. This is not even a sham, but an obstruction of public oversight! The Public Chamber has demonstrated a complete failure in both the creation of public oversight commissions and in their leadership of them. When they targeted Litvinovich, it was a logical outcome of such conduct and of the fact that it is led by the Public Chamber.
Maryana Torocheshnikova: There is still a small chance that Marina Litvinovich will not be expelled. Another question: can members of the supervisory commission vote to expel a person from the commission for giving an interview? And what is this claim about ‘disclosure of investigation data’ if the investigation itself had no claims against Litvinovich? As far as I understand, she did not sign a non-disclosure agreement.
Valery Borshchev: The law was indeed amended (there were many amendments making the law worse) to the effect that a member of the POC cannot disclose data about an investigation. Prisoners often come to us and tell us something. It is understandable that some secrets of the investigation should really be secret, but what Litvinovich pointed out concerned only human rights, so the investigator did not make any complaints. But the Moscow POC decided to get ahead of itself. This is a very alarming sign. Of course, I am glad that so many people came out in defence of Litvinovich. Maybe this will help. But on the whole, of course, the Public Chamber is working not just to provide a false imitatation of public oversight, but in real terms to destroy public oversight.
Maryana Torocheshnikova: Who will benefit from this? Probably the Federal Penitentiary Service, which will live more peacefully.
Valery Borshchev: Not exactly. We often meet, for example, with First Deputy Director of the Federal Penitentiary Service Rudy. He always says: ‘We really need observers, we really need information. Look at what happened in Angarsk, for example, …
Maryana Torocheshnikova: This is the penal colony where there was a riot.
Valery Borshchev: We brought him this information, we kept making arguments, convincing him. He listened. As a result we succeeded in getting inspectors to go there and prison staff was suspended. So, in principle, the leadership of the Federal Service is interested, at least Rudy says so. But on the ground, of course, they are trying to prevent us working, because they know exactly what awaits them when the torture is uncovered.
Maryana Torocheshnikova: Do prisoners believe in observers, in oversight commissions?
Valery Borschev: Of course. When we come, we interview prisoners and they talk about their problems. But the situation is better in Moscow. We have succeeded in making torture a rare phenomenon. But in other regions, like, say, Tver region, it is the norm.
Maryana Torocheshnikova: What does it look like now? Members of the Public Oversight Commission in the region can enter any penal colony without warning?
Valery Borshchev: Of course: any penal colony, any police station without warning. No consent, no special permission is needed.
Maryana Torocheshnikova: Have there been cases where they were not allowed in?
Valery Borshchev: No. But sometimes the ‘Fortress’ status was declared and that means the police station is closed. They say no one can be allowed in – neither lawyers nor POC members – although the prison officers themselves can go in. There were such cases in connection with the events during the protests of 23rd and 31st January.
Maryana Torocheshnikova: Eva Merkacheva, a member of the Moscow Public Oversight Commission, told me on my broadcast that there was quite a difficult situation during the pandemic, when everyone was under quarantine, so it was impossible to enter either penal colonies or remand centres.
Valery Borshchev: That’s quite right. They are now not allowed into the cells. This is a serious loss, as having a prisoner brought out is not the best option. This has made the work of the commissions extremely complicated. But I am still an optimist because, despite all of their underhand practices, there are still seven people on the Moscow POC advocating for human rights. Only three of them I know to be human rights activists: Eva Merkacheva, Liuba Volkova and Marina Litvinovich. The other four started out as ordinary bystanders but were fired up by the notion of public oversight and took up positions of human rights advocacy. The same happens in other cities, but by no means everywhere. All the same, this law is a threat for those who violate human rights, engage in torture, and treat prisoners harshly.
Maryana Torocheshnikova: So, naturally, they will make every effort to nullify it.
Valery Borshchev: Of course. So, our job now is to get the Public Chamber out of the way, deprive it of the right to form the POC, and transfer this right at the very least to the human rights ombudsman.
Maryana Torocheshnikova: Should ordinary people care about this?
Valery Borshchev: Public perceptions are changing. In the ‘90s, Valery Abramkin and I would walk around Butyrka prison and all too often there would be torture cells, and we sought to abolish them. But society was more indifferent, even though the Duma passed the law with a constitutional majority. I can even remember the former coup-plotters from 1991 speaking there, demanding that the law be passed. They had been in Lefortovo prison and knew what it was like. Now, of course, more attention is given to jailing people. And the protests on the 23rd and 31st heightened interest. 90 criminal cases were opened, which is a huge number! They arrested people arbitrarily. And the conditions in which people were kept were barbaric, just as at the Sakharovo detention centre. But nowadays society is becoming more and more concerned about the situation inside prisons. People were held in police vans, freezing.They understand that this can affect a great many people, even those who are completely innocent.
Maryana Torocheshnikova: Valery Vasilievich,in your opinion, who should intervene now? Whose word should be decisive, firstly so that Litvinovich will be left alone at the POC and, secondly, so that they will actually stop bullying the independent members of oversight commissions?
Valery Borshchev: Until the laws are changed, and the Public Chamber is deprived of its monopoly over the right to form Public Oversight Commissions, it is impossible to fight this evil.
Maryana Torocheshnikova: Who can make this decision?
Valery Borshchev: Only the State Duma. Which is why we all need to use our vote.