Eva Merkacheva: Dismantling the Public Oversight Commissions – Torture’s supporters are now the public defenders
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28 September 2022

by Eva Merkacheva, MK correspondent, laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group prize

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: MK]

After facts of torture in the Saratov prison tuberculosis hospital and the Irkutsk remand centre were disclosed, the country’s leadership started talking about the need to strengthen public oversight over prisons and prison colonies. The Russian Public Chamber “heard” this in its own fashion. Lists have been published of the new Public Oversight Commission (POC) members, who are supposed to ensure that prisoners’ rights are being observed. The lists do not include any human rights activists; on the other hand, they do include people who covered up the torture.

The penitentiary system is going to become even more closed, and more than likely you and I will never learn anything more about offences in the prisons.

Let’s start small. Even in a seemingly simple procedure, the Public Chamber has managed to make a botch of it. According to regulations, the lists of the Public Chamber’s new POCs were supposed to be published before 00:00 on 26 September. This happened 24 hours later, which theoretically might be grounds for deeming the elections illegitimate. 

Naturally, that’s hardly likely to happen in practice. No matter how much one wants it.

I’ll say right off, a huge number of genuine human rights activists applied to join the new POCs. Not one of them got through! 

Valery Borshchev, once the chair of Moscow’s first POC and the creator of the entire institution of public oversight in the country, did not get through. Nor did Igor Kalyapin, creator of the Committee against Torture (considered by the Russian Federation to be a foreign agent). Basically no one (!) from the anti-torture team got through. 

Svetlana Astrakhantseva, director of the Moscow Helsinki Group (the creation of the great human rights activist Liudmila Alekseeva), did not get through. Nor did Professor Pyotr Safoshin. Nor did the senior human rights activist, Liubov Volkova. Nor did Ivan Melnikov, vice-president of the International Human Rights Defence Committee, who was not allowed on the last time because of excessive activism. Nor did anyone from the committee created by Andrei Babushkin, the great hero and saviour of all prisoners. 

Nor did MK journalist Ekaterina Sazhneva, who was the main saviour for prisoners in the Moscow region on the last POC. Nor did Boris Klin, a journalist who has written a great deal and honestly about what goes in the temporary holding facilities and remand centres. Basically there are no representatives of the media on the new POCs.

The idea of not allowing journalists onto the POCs has long wandered around in the “hot heads” of individual representatives of the Public Chamber. I remember, I even prepared a report on this topic and tried to explain why it was important for the POCs to have journalists and how that might change the situation. Only thanks to publicity was it frequently possible to resolve the most important problems for those arrested and imprisoned. And they seemed to agree with me then. Or rather, pretended to. And now, in essence, not a single professional journalist has been included on the POCs.

What does this mean? It means prisons will become even more closed and civil society’s years-long efforts will all go for naught.

Who took the place of human rights activists and journalists on the POCs? You won’t find ANYTHING on the Internet about most of those who joined the new structure. Not about them as individuals, and not about their human rights activities (do they even have any?). These are the kinds of cyphers who have now been entrusted with inspecting the most terrible places in the country. 

But there are also perfectly recognizable individuals. I’ll take as an example Kirov Oblast, where a great many complaints of torture have originated. 

Late last year, members of the Presidential Council on Human Rights and Civil Society inspected Kirov remand centres and penal colonies. We were joined by the Kirov POC chair, the priest Vladimir Putintsev, about whom human rights activist Babushkin later angrily said: “He’s not afraid of God or the devil!”

While ill prisoners were complaining to us about not getting treatment and not being given their medications (even the medics agreed with this), Putintsev industriously concluded in his report something along the lines of: “The complaints were not confirmed.” When convicts told us about how they were plunged head first into excrement and raped, Putintsev nodded but with a firm hand wrote that no violations of human rights had been brought to light. His hand would not falter even after that: Mr. Putintsev would continue his activities in his role as POC member.

Joining the new Kirov Oblast structure are a certain Tashirev and Bronnikov, who in one of the penal colonies addressed convicts suffering from diabetes with a very strange requirement. They said that they wouldn’t get insulin unless … they calmed down one of the “complainers” (who wrote appeals to every office about the violation of his rights, arousing indignation among the Kirov “human rights activists”).

This kind of rotation is simply explained.

When the very concept of “human rights” loses its meaning for certain individuals, they think they don’t need institutions to defend it. This is exactly happened with the Public Oversight Commissions.

Dozens, even hundreds of thousands of prisoners we’ve visited on inspections expressed their gratitude to us for our support and real assistance. Today is a sad day for them. They realize that the fate of the POCs is basically sealed and are horrified at the thought of what this will mean for them as prisoners.

While officials from high-level offices… Oh, they’re confident, of course, that they will never end up “on the other side,” that they will go scot-free, and that means they definitely have no need of public overseers. Gentlemen, you are deeply mistaken. Many of you, I’m afraid, will come to regret the POC’s dismantling. Only by then it will be too late, unfortunately.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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