10 March 2021
by Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora International Human Rights Group
In 2008, public oversight commissions [POCs] began to appear in Russia. Before this, civic activists were allowed behind the walls of penal colonies and isolation facilities, either as members of a public council or by individual arrangement, mainly for various types of social work.
The first time I entered a penal colony was 20 years ago. One of the system’s key rules was always that ‘what you see and hear inside, remains inside.’ As soon as someone took information beyond its confines, the prison department declared them to be unwelcome and, under various pretexts, denied them access.
The creation of the system of POCs greatly changed the situation in dozens of regions over the same period. Yes, places like Mordovia or Karelia remained. These have large clusters of institutions far from the capital cities and a long tradition of repressing the special contingent of prisoners. But this suddenly became an exception.
Two conditions ensured the viability of the POCs:
— anyone who works there simply does not get paid, and receiving remuneration for it is expressly prohibited by law. This criterion rules out those who like to profit from the government budget;
— there is nobody in charge at the POC – any two members of the commission can enter any closed institution after having previously notified the administration by phone or fax.
The first members of the POCs were primarily human rights defenders who had been working with convicts for many years. From 2008 to 2012, in Perm, Kazan, Moscow, Petersburg, Yoshkar-Ola, Krasnoyarsk, Rostov, Syktyvkar and many other places, the POCs was headed by representatives of human rights organizations.
The prison system convulsed and was affected, but it ultimately adapted. Colonels said off the record that ‘your presence reduces the tension among the special contingent.’ Many issues began to be resolved – such as shortages in medical personnel and medicine, and needed repairs.
In some regions, ‘torture colonies’ began to be localized in separate institutions that were hard to get to. In the good majority of colonies, transparency ensured civilization.
But at the same time, the Federal Penitentiary Service [FSIN] closed ranks and began to deliberately force the troublemakers out of the commissions. It became more and more difficult to find an NGO from which one could be accepted into a commission. The Public Chamber of the Russian Federation began to give preference to candidates recommended by local public chambers (which was not stipulated by law). The FSIN began to present its lists of candidates for approval behind closed doors. Since 2012, the process of approving new POC members has been accompanied by scandals every two years.
Commissions in the regions began to adopt regulations that made their work more difficult. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Federal Penitentiary Service began to require that visits be approved in advance.
The Human Rights Councils proposed (in its human rights phase) that the monopoly of the federal Public Chamber over the membership of the POCs be abolished, and the powers to approve candidates be equally divided between the federal Public Chamber, the Russian Federations Ombudsman for Human Rights and the Human Rights Council. The proposal was disregarded. The FSIN under Director Kornienko, after yet another prison scandal, actually declared a ban on members of the Human Rights Council visiting penal colonies and pre-trial detention facilities.
And – lastly – a mechanism was launched that revoked the mandate of individual POC members. This is exactly what is happening now with Marina Litvinovich. She is the most brilliant representative of the POCs today – an endangered species of commission member who is active (hundreds of visits), public, selfless and pragmatic. It was mainly for the sake of people such as her that the institution was conceived and created.
Marina deserves unconditional support while the silent, aggressively-obedient majority of the Soviet kind that is engaging in retribution against a disloyal civil society activist merits unequivocal condemnation.
Translated by Tyler Langendorfer