25 May 2021
By Eva Merkasheva, journalist, laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group Prize, member of the Moscow Public Monitoring Commission
On 25 May the State Duma passed in second reading a bill which will no longer allow lawyers to record the injuries of convicts. They will also not be able to prove that something terrible is happening to a person behind bars. They will be prohibited from taking photographic, video, and communication equipment into Russian prisons.
The draft document was adopted hastily, without amendments and without taking into account sesvere criticism from the legal community. “Maybe the deputies think they’ll never end up behind bars?” – sighed one of the lawyers defending a former people’s deputy who is still in jail.
The bill has been called one of the trickiest (though there have been more and more such documents lately). What is the trick? It is “wrapped in a pretty wrapper”: in its first few lines it solves an old sore point about allowing representatives of the European Court of Human Rights and human rights protection bodies to enter prisons and provide legal assistance to convicts with regard to their intent to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.
Until now, they have had no access to prisons. Now, finally, they will have. By the way, it has been clarified that these visits may be of up to four hours duration and without any limitation to their number.
One can only applaud the innovation. But then comes the text that literally made most lawyers’ legs give way. I quote: “Lawyers or other specified persons entitled to provide legal assistance are prohibited from taking technical means of communication, as well as technical means (devices) that allow filming, audio and video recording onto the territory of the penitentiary institution.”
It should be noted that many high-profile stories of torture were made public thanks to lawyers. They would go to meetings with their clients in penal colonies and film them (usually with a phone). It was clear from the photos what a person had turned into. For example, the lawyer would find out that the prisoner had lost a lot of weight, that his face or legs were all bruised and bruised, and that he looked generally in a very bad way. The lawyer could attach all these pictures to his requests to various authorities, and when nothing worked, they could be made public through the media or social media.
“The few convicts who continue to be visited by their lawyers after their sentences can give signals that all is not well,” said Maria Eismont, lawyer and a prize-winner of the Moscow Helsinki Group. I used my phone to record skin rashes and other visible manifestations of illness, then showed the photos and videos to doctors on the outside so that they could give advice (including which specialist was needed for treatment).
I once recorded the story of a convict on video. He demonstrated the three postures that he was forced to adopt over 24 hours. Any change from these positions to a relaxed one aroused the anger of the prison staff and won him a subsequent beating.
So why have lawyers been stripped of the few tools that they had?
“In my opinion, this is in order to make it impossible to establish evidence of bodily injuries, such as traces of beatings,” according to First Deputy President of the Moscow Bar Association, Deputy President of the Federal Chamber of Lawyers, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group and of the Presidential Human Rights Council, Honoured Lawyer of Russia, Genri Reznik. “I can’t see any other explanation. It looks like an attempt to prevent any kind public monitoring.”
In our penal system, things are not always as they should be. There have been scandalous cases of unlawful violence. The authors of the bill explain their initiative by claiming that, by these means, provocations are arranged. Information is provided that is in fact false.
But excuse me, lawyers are under serious disciplinary oversight. They can be held to account and made to pay with their status. What’s more, the presumption of untrustworthiness with regard to our brother the lawyer is obvious in this case. Bringing telephones or iPhones to someone held on remand is banned for good reason, that is, it opens the possibility of revealing information that is an investigative secret. But as regards those who have already been convicted, such a prohibition makes no sense. What kind of secrets can there be in such a case?
The Federal Bar Association presented its assessment of the bill to the Speaker of the State Duma. This did not help in any way. No amendments at all were made in either the first or the second reading of the bill (technical amendments do not count). They say the bill is aimed at preventing convicts from sending audio and video messages. But, as Reznik said, defence lawyers are already at risk of losing their professional status in such cases, and they fully understand this.
“Only if they were in prison themselves would our present members of parliament understand how wrong they had been,” Eismont says. “I am surprised how confident they are they are untouchable, and that prison will never affect them. History proves the opposite. Today, many of our former senators and members of parliament are behind bars, and every one of them says that, had they known in advance, they would not have voted in favour of bills that have worsened the lives of prisoners.