Valery Borshchev et al: Open Letter on the necessity of an amnesty and the release of people in custody in connection with the emergency

6 April 2020

Pictured (left): Valery Borshchev, co-chair of Moscow Helsinki Group

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source:  Ekho Moskvy]


The pandemic has posed a serious threat to the world. Today, you and I can choose how and with whom we save ourselves from a deadly disease transmitted via a virus – of course, within the framework of the recommendations and rules established by the authorities and medical experts.

However, nearly 100,000 people do not have this choice. They are in remand centres and are suspected of having committed crimes, that is, they have yet to be convicted. In the opinion of specialists, safeguarding oneself from infection in a place like a remand centre is very hard. There the virus spreads instantly due to major overcrowding, insufficient ventilation, and the lowered immunity of prisoners, who in addition cannot avoid contact with remand centre employees.

As a result of the quarantine measures being carried out now by the Federal Penitentiary Service, prisoners have been completely isolated from contact with the outside world, even from remote communication with their families or lawyers. The remand centres remain without extra-departmental oversight, including by public oversight commissions, and in the event of people becoming infected there, the real scale of the disaster will not be able to be objectively evaluated and reacted to in a timely fashion by the whole world. There is a similar situation in the temporary detention centres and detention centres for foreign citizens, both controlled by the Interior Ministry, where there are quite a few people detained for criminal or administrative offences.

The sole acceptable solution to the given situation is to immediately begin releasing from custody the maximum number of prisoners possible, starting with the sick, invalid, and elderly. And to transfer to house arrest those accused of first-time violations and of nonviolent crimes who have family and somewhere to live in the given region. This would give many the opportunity to preserve life and health outside the cramped and stuffy remand centre cells in close quarters with at least 10 people. Remaining outside places of detention would be conditional on observing certain conditions, with the courts having the right to return individuals to custody.

There is a solution to this difficult and dangerous situation, and it’s called AMNESTY. We believe it is essential that parliament approve an amnesty as swiftly as possible and that law enforcement agencies and courts implement it immediately – before the pandemic’s peak lashes the country, and reaching the remand centres too.

At the same time, the Presidential Council on Human Rights and Civil Society has sent an appeal to leaders of agencies of the judicial community, investigations, and the penitentiary service requesting that they take measures to relieve remand centres given the epidemic. We believe it is essential that officials of law enforcement departments and judges proceed from uniform legal means and principles to enable the release from custody of those suspected and charged, and not only at their own discretion or secret instructions. For this, society has to know by what rules, for who exactly, and how quickly they can release someone remanded in custody or halt the implementation of a prison sentence. Otherwise there can be no certainty that this urgent task can be resolved in accordance with the principles of fair justice and humaneness.

World experience shows that many countries (India, Iran, the United States, France) have already started down the path of releasing some prisoners in a variety of ways, including through amnesty. Their authorities understand no less than others the criminogenic and epidemiologic dangers for their citizens and the expenses the state will incur in organizing essential measures to maintain oversight of the situation in the event similar decisions are approved. But the life and health of thousands of people not yet found guilty under the law is incomparably more important.

We ask that you publicly express your support for our proposals and use every available means to help our common voice be heard so that the decisions essential in this situation be approved without delay. Drafts of an amnesty act have been drawn up with the participation of members and experts of the Presidential Human Rights Council, and officials responsible for its implementation can use these drafts.

We appeal to commonsense and conscience and the sense of civic and official responsibility for the fates of many thousands of people in our country.

Aleksandr Sokurov, film director
Sergei Shargunov, writer, editor-in-chief of Iunost’, deputy chair of the Committee on Culture of the Russian State Duma
Vladimir Soloviev, chair of the Russian Union of Journalists
Pavel Gusev, chair of the Moscow Union of Journalists
Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta
Lyudmila Ulitskaya, writer
Dmitry Bykov, writer
Ivan Zasursky, director of the Department of New Media of the MGU [Moscow State University] School of Journalism
Eva Merkacheva, journalist, member of the Moscow Public Oversight Commission, member of the Russian Presidential Council on Human Rights and Civil Society
Lev Ponomarev, human rights activist
Yuri Kostanov, lawyer, former director of the Moscow Justice Administration
Natalia Evdokimova, member of the Russian Presidential Council on Human Rights and Civil Society
Valentin Gefter, human rights activist
Svetlana Gannushkina, human rights activist
Liya Akhedzhakova, People’s Artist of the Russian Federation
Andrei Makarevich, musician
Denis Dragunsky, writer
Viktor Shenderovich, writer
Nikolai Svanidze, journalist, historian
Leonid Gozman, politician
Irina Prokhorova, publisher
Valery Borshchev, human rights activist, co-chair of Moscow Helsinki Group
Oleg Orlov, member of the board of Memorial
Tatyana Kasatkina, member of Memorial

Boris Altshuler, physicist and human rights activist, member of Moscow Helsinki Group
Nadezhda Azhgikhina, director of Moscow PEN Club

Nikolai Podosokorsky, columnist, member of St. Petersburg PEN Club
Yuri Bogomolov, film critic
Pavel Litvinov, human rights activist
Lyudmila Vakhnina, human rights activist
Olga Sedakova, writer
Yan Rachinsky, board chair of International Memorial;
Andrei Nechaev, chair of the Civic Initiative party, professor.
Lidia Grafova, journalist, human rights activist

Ksenia Larina, journalist
Lev Timofeev, writer
Gennady Gudkov, politician
Boris Vishnevsky, deputy in the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, deputy chair of the Yabloko party
Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Centre
Aleksandr Belavin, researcher
Aleksandr Bogomaz, coordinator of the No to the Gulag! website
Andrei Piontkovsky, columnist
Tatiana Lazareva, newscaster
Sergei Aleksashenko, economist
Tatiana Romanenko, journalist (Arsenievskie vesti)
Aleksandr Guryanov, historian
Yaroslav Nikitenko, ecology and civic activist, physicist
Sergei Davidis, lawyer, human rights activist
Aleksandr Verkhovsky, director of the Sova Centre
Dmitry Oreshkin, political scientist
Grigory Amnuel, writer
Yuri Gimmelfarb, journalist

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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