Marina Litvinovich: The laws have fallen victim to the pandemic

26 November 2020

By Marina Litvinovich, member of the Moscow Public Monitoring Commission, on how the coronavirus has made the lives of prisoners unbearable, but simplified the work of investigators, judges, and jailors.

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Новая газета

Recently I have been speaking often about love. 

When I go to a prison, the relatives of people jailed there, besides questions about health and well-being, usually ask me to pass on the simplest words:

“Tell him that we love him!” 
“Tell him that we miss him very much and are waiting for him to come home!”

So I come to the pre-trial detention centre and say to Vanya Safronov: 

“Ksenia said to say that she loves you very much.” 

I speak slowly, clearly pronouncing each word. 

“I also love her very much.” Vanya looks straight at me, not moving a muscle.  But I know how difficult it is for him to maintain his calm.  

It is not always like that.  I was relaying words of support from the wife and children of one prisoner whose investigator was not passing on letters for him: 

“They said to tell you that they love you very, very much and are waiting for you to come home!” 

He looked at me and his eyes immediately filled with tears.  He choked them back in order not to cry in front of us. 

He forced out the words, “Thank you,” and covered his face with his hands. 

Prisoners in the pre-trial detention centres often cry in front of us. Men and women. Most often at the beginning of their time there, when they are overcome by the stress and the fear of the unknown. They cry as soon as they see in us normal people, who talk to them like people and want to help.   

And they also cry when they haven’t seen their children and loved ones for months.

Investigators have recently been depriving prisoners of their correspondence. They take away the letters addressed to the prisoners and hold on to them for a long time, not passing them on.

They don’t even pass on birthday cards, let alone children’s drawings or their photographs.  Russian law does not place any limits on the period and severity of the censorship of correspondence.  

Using the pretext of the coronavirus, they are crossing out on their own any law or rule of their choosing.  Recently we spoke in Pre-Trial Detention Centre No. 4 with Vladimir Vorontsov, the author of the public page “Ombudsman for the Police.”  He has been charged with offences under several articles of the Criminal Code and has been in custody for over half a year.  

Vorontsov told us that because of the quarantine, the court sessions for his case are taking place over video calls from the pre-trial detention centre. He sits in a cell and watches a broadcast from the courtroom on a small screen. With this setup, he can’t speak in confidence with a lawyer. He can’t review court materials, paperwork, or petitions. This results in incidents such as the following: 

“Your Honour, I have a report from the detention centre, I want to attach it to the case materials …” Vorontsov says to the judge via video link. 

The judge peers into a small screen, where he can see Vladimir in a cell, and thinks about how he could attach a piece of paper via video transmission. How could he get in touch with Detention Centre No. 4? 

“You can read it out loud!” the judge says, having found a solution. “Then you can send it to the court in the mail!” 

Communicating via video calls in court is a bad thing. It transforms the already often formal court hearings into an even bigger formality. The very meaning of the court is lost, where a question about the fate of a person is openly and transparently decided in the presence of multiple parties, on a level playing field. I think that it even feels easier psychologically for judges to make a decision AGAINST a suspect or defendant over video transmission, since the person isn’t even really present — they’re somewhere far away, “in” the video. The prisoner is already in the detention centre anyway, and the judge doesn’t have to look them in the eye. The defendant will also express their dissatisfaction “via the screen.”

A living person becomes a mere faraway image, and you can’t sympathize with an image. 

Vladimir Vorontsov also told us about the latest in a series of inmate abuses. Most of the staff at Detention Centre No. 4 are fine, but there’s one with whom Vladimir has constant conflicts. Recently, this officer took the inmates in a ward outside and turned his radio up as loud as possible. But he didn’t tune the radio to an actual station — he left it between stations, so the inmates had to spend the two hours of their outside time listening to crackling, scratching static at full volume. It’s like Chinese torture. 

In Matrosskaya Tishina, we spoke with a convict, B, whom basically the entire world has tried to help in recent months so he can have surgery on his broken jaw. He was accused of stealing a car. He entered the detention centre with a broken jaw. He could hardly eat or speak and was experiencing unbearable pain. Finally doctors at a public Moscow hospital performed the operation, but you wouldn’t believe the efforts of how many people it took to get it done. When someone is in detention, even simple matters turn into complex, almost insurmountable tasks. 

I want to list those people without whom this operation wouldn’t have taken place. There’s my colleague from the Public Monitoring Commission, Boris Klin, the chief expert on the Federal Penitentiary System in Moscow, Anna Karetnikova, the head of the hospital at Matrosskaya Tishina, Aleksandr Kravchenko, the governor of Detention Centre No. 1, Viktor Pastushenko, the human rights defender, Ivan Melnikov, the Human Rights Ombudsman for Moscow, Tatyana Potyaeva, and many more whose names I don’t know from the Moscow City Health Department. I have likely forgotten someone.

Thank you to everyone who did what needed to be done. The road to this operation getting done was long and hard. B. himself was forced to cut his wrists when they came to transfer him to a penal colony instead of hospitalising him. This story should serve as a lesson for everyone about how decisions about the lives and health of prisoners are taken. It should never be the case people are driven to cut open their wrists when they need medical assistance.

I would further like to thank the head of the Temporary Detention Facility on the Petrovka, Dmitry Viktorovich Semkin, for his humanity and understanding. When we paid a visit to the Facility recently, we discovered a man who had just been arrested, weighing 185kg! He found it difficult to stand let alone move around. Even when he was free it wasn’t easy being this weight, but inside the Facility it was quite difficult, particularly in the cells which unlike the Pre-trial Detention Centre cells, lack toilets. There are holes in the floor romantically termed “Genoese Bowls” which aren’t easy for a healthy individual to use. They have long promised to get rid of these “bowls” but they are still there. It’s not easy for a health person to use such a squat toilet. For a person weighing 185 kilos it’s simply impossible. Thank you to the head of the Facility for instructing two officers to take that inmate to use a normal toilet several times a day when it wasn’t his responsibility to do so.

I should also say that this particular inmate was charged with fraud, in other words an offence unrelated to violence. He hadn’t killed or beaten anyone. There was no danger to the public during the criminal investigation, so he didn’t need to be remanded in custody. Yet the judge still decided he should be held in jail. It seems to me the judge who made that decision hadn’t even looked at the man. Although this was not a case where the decision was made by video link. Now, when the judge is going to consider prolonging this man’s detention in two months’ time, he will only see the face behind bars – a picture on a screen. And so without a second thought, he will prolong the man’s detention.

Translated by John Tokolish, Nina dePalma and Fergus Wright

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