Marina Litvinovich writes about conditions in pre-trial detention facilities: On Mutual Aid

3 December 2020

By Marina Litvinovich, member of the Public Oversight Commission in Moscow

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Новая газета]

On prominent doctors, lawyers, cooks and other professionals who, once in pre-trial detention, want to and are able to help people, but are prevented from doing so.

In the last few days, the detention of popular YouTuber Andrei Pyzh, one of the most positive-minded and strong-willed prisoners in the Lefortovo pre-trial detention centre, was extended for another three months. He is accused of illegally gaining access to state secrets.

He has been in custody for four months now. The investigating officer has not conducted any investigative procedures with him at all since his detention was extended previously. Thus, for the past two months, Pyzh has simply been sitting in Lefortova while his case remains at a standstill. Despite this, Tatyana Izotova, Meshchansky district court judge, has made the decision to extend his detention.

The court session itself was a scandal. Two witnesses came to the hearing along with a lawyer. One brought documents and a tenancy agreement, planning to tell the judge that Pyzh could be kept under house arrest in his Moscow apartment, since Andrei himself is from St. Petersburg. The other witness, Andrei’s girlfriend, was going to provide a character reference for Andrei. After all, the court’s purpose is to listen to witnesses and carefully consider new developments, isn’t it? And if the court can transfer a person to house arrest, why keep them in custody? So, what did Judge Izotova do?

First, she removed the witnesses from the courtroom; then the bailiffs removed the witnesses from the court building itself. Then, when lawyer Svetlana Bayturina filed a motion to hear the witnesses, the judge denied her, since “arrangements hadn’t been made for their presence in court”.

Not only were the witnesses not heard, but the judge only gave Andrei and his lawyer five minutes in which to acquaint themselves with the case materials.

Perhaps the judge was in a hurry to go somewhere? Perhaps she had more important matters to deal with than the question of human liberties?

Andrei Pyzh said: “They just want me to rot in prison.”

I have heard this phrase said before by a wide variety of people.

Extending the pre-trial detention of suspects has lately become a passing formality in courts. Judges will almost never substitute travel restriction orders, house arrest or bail, even if the investigating officer doesn’t visit the inmate for months or take any action, and even if the suspect has guarantors or an apartment or house for house arrest.

This “unhelpful” habit of the courts means that our pre-trial detention facilities continue to be overfilled, particularly during these pandemic-ridden times. When acting in our capacity as representatives of a public oversight commission, we continue to come across individuals in these facilities who have not even been assigned anywhere to sleep in their cell, owing to “overcrowding”.

Fortunately, the courts still hand down fair rulings from time to time. A few months ago we met Andrei Tsifirov, a prisoner at the Matrosskaya Tishina pre-trial detention facility, in the hospital at this facility. It took several people to bring him to the court hearing, since they had to drag his wheelchair by hand up the staircases of the facility – Tsifirov cannot stand up unaided, since half of his body is paralysed following a stroke. In the opinion of the doctors, and according to the statutory provisions, his state of health is such as to prevent his incarceration. A short time ago, the Preobrazhensky district court in Moscow decided to release Tsifirov on the grounds of ill health, which was an entirely lawful decision. Yet the Preobrazhensky Prosecution Service challenged it, for reasons that are entirely incomprehensible to me.

Why continue to keep an invalid behind bars who is incapable of even the most basic acts of self-care?

Why is the Prosecution Service disagreeing with the doctors and the law? More generally speaking, why does the Prosecution Service so often become the accusing party in these cases?

When I walk around a pre-trial detention facility, I am often troubled by the following question; who needs all these people to be locked up in these facilities? They pose no danger to society, and there is quite simply no need for them to keep them there.

Finding an answer to this question becomes particularly urgent when we encounter individuals in cells who have reached the highest level of practice in their profession. They have ended up there in connection with non-violent offences; criminal cases against them are usually either “bespoke” or “cobbled together” by lazy investigators. They make no sense and raise more questions than they answer.

Is it a good idea for a society to lock up its specialists in a cell, wasting the best years of their career? Why are these people not released on bail? Why are they not released on home arrest? Why are they not released in return for an undertaking not to leave the area? After all, investigations in our country typically last for months or even years.

The fertility specialist Yuliana Ivanova, the midwife and gynaecologist Liliya Panaioti and the embryologist Taras Ashitkov have been in a pre-trial detention facility for almost a year now, accused of human trafficking. Their case, which relates to surrogacy, was described in an article by Yuliya Latynina in the Novaya gazeta newspaper. My impression is that someone up on high has simply issued a command to “stitch up” a number of high-profile criminal cases relating to surrogacy in order to justify the introduction of prohibitive measures that have recently been announced by the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation.

And now the experts are in jail. I looked up their names on the internet; they were the highest rated doctors in Moscow, with hundreds of positive reviews and grateful patients.

And now their high positions have been replaced by places in prison bunks.

Of course the fellow inmates of Ivanova and Panaioti in the Women’s detention centre No. 6 were lucky. They have doctors of the highest quality in their shared cell (the women are placed in one cell, 30 to 40 at a time), who can always help with advice. Although this is, of course, prohibited. 

I ask the employee of the pre-trial detention centre:

“Why don’t you hire these women as doctors in the detention centre? After all, they’re locked up here anyway. You don’t have your own gynaecologists, right?”

The woman smiles slyly, she understands that I’m joking because it’s against the law, but the joke is a bitter one. There are many female employees in the detention centre, they would be happy to solve their problems with such good doctors. I guess it’s what they do, consult them – when else would you get to see such a professional?

The lawyer David Hasavov, kept in detention centre No. 4, which is nicknamed “The bear’’, is accused of coercion to testify.  He considers his charges as fabricated and recently suggested creating his lawyer’s office in the detention centre. He wants to provide free legal assistance to other prisoners. “Pocket” lawyers do not visit them” said Hasavov, “they catch me in the assemblies, in the paddy wagons and ask for help’’. (“Pocket” lawyers are appointed by the court and regarded as working in the interest of the prosecutor instead of the defendant). If it’s impossible to provide a separate room as a “lawyer’s office”, the lawyer asked that at least he not be prevented from obtaining the documents of the prisoners and from working with them in his cell. And he’s right! A lawyer sitting in a pre-trial detention centre cell is almost like a gynaecologist in a cell, but even better!

A chef from a famous restaurant placed in detention centre No. 4 now helps to improve the quality of food there by evaluating cooked meals and offering new recipes for prison menus.

I met many professional programmers, scientists, journalists, specialists from other professions in detention centres. Unfortunately, when they are all convicted, they are likely to go to serve their sentences in prisons where the only work that is possible is sewing or carpentry. So there’s going to be a programmer and a lawyer sawing logs, and obstetricians will be scribbling on sewing machines – that is, getting “reeducated.”

Is that going to reeducate them?

Translated by Verity Hemp, Joanne Reynolds and Ecaterina Hughes

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