Leonid Nikitinsky: It’s easy enough to jail people, but there are far too many in the cells

19 April 2020

Leonid Nikitinsky, Novaya gazeta correspondent, member of the Presidential Council on Human Rights and Civil Society, laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group Prize for Human Rights

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group  [original source: Novaya Gazeta, 19 April 2020]

The Federal Penitentiary Service has called on the courts to use “custody” less often, and this provides an occasion for rethinking the relationship between the state and civil society.

On Saturday, 18 April, we learned that Federal Penitentiary Service director Aleksandr Kalashnikov sent a letter to Supreme Court chair Vyacheslav Lebedev calling on judges, during the epidemic, to apply extrajudicial restraint in the form of confinement for crimes of minor and medium severity more rarely. This was motivated by the fact that on 1 April the so-called capacity limit had been exceeded in 22 remand centres, with the situation being worst of all in the remand centres of Moscow, Moscow Region, St. Petersburg, and Crimea.

“The total number of people who have entered a remand centre in the past month on charges of committing crimes of minor and medium severity is 8,018, or 43.7% of the total intake,” Kalashnikov reports in the letter, and to justify his proposal he cites how difficult it is for Federal Penitentiary Service institutions to operate in epidemic conditions.

At the same time, the letter, that has not been formally made public, contains no facts about the total number of people infected by the coronavirus in places of imprisonment, although there have been numerous signals about this from inmates and their relatives, and it’s impossible to imagine there aren’t any. It’s a matter of scale.

It is entirely possible that the number of people ill was cited in appendixes – this data exists, of course, although it is approximate – but only the letter to the Supreme Court was allowed to leak. First to publish it was an anonymous Telegram channel, but RBK was able to confirm the document’s authenticity through its sources in the Federal Penitentiary Service.

Why did this proposal come in with a delay of at least two weeks, and why is implementing it going to begin with a lag of another week or two? There is no doubt that the Supreme Court will accommodate this: such things are agreed upon higher up than where the letter’s sender and even its recipient sit.

Hence the delay.

A petition about an “amnesty,” with some similar content, was published on the Novaya gazeta site on 5 April and so far has accumulated 7,500 signatures. This is not a lot, but the question is indeed ambiguous and interesting to far from all our readers. At approximately the same time, actually, there were other initiatives from human rights activists and in a mild form from the chair of the Presidential Human Rights Council.

It would be a mistake to think that appeals from civil society did anything to help along this sensible decision. More likely, on the contrary, they delayed it for somewhere around a week, giving rise to additional hesitations. Are we really going to give way to pressure from human rights activists?. . .

What won out was not society but rationality, which does exist in the Federal Penitentiary Service, unlike the Investigative Committee.

However, the main bearer of “communicative rationality” (Jürgen Habermas’s term) is society, and that rationality is developed in the process of communications between official structures and NGOs (nongovernmental organizations; this term is preferable to “noncommercial” [nonprofit] organizations). Although nearly all of them were purposely destroyed in recent years. The Public Chamber, itself a pure simulacrum, has largely transformed the Public Oversight Commissions into a simulacrum, weeding out the human rights activists and appointing instead amenable people, including retirees from the Federal Penitentiary Service itself.

And where are the Public Oversight Commissions now, at this truly critical moment? They aren’t sticking their heads out, and the human rights activists remaining in these Commissions are not being let into the prisons under the pretext of the epidemic.

The greatest loss for civil society, beginning in 2012, was inflicted, of course, by the “law on foreign agents”: thousands of conscientious NGOs that had been rendering assistance to various people who found themselves in difficult situations were shut down due to a lack of money or simply a reluctance to bear the shameful stamp. Oh, how useful these structures, the experience and aspiration of the people working there to help others, would be now! How useful the remnants of local self-government, which amendments to the Constitution are getting ready to kill off, are in emergency conditions. How necessary the exterminated independent media, without which “communicative rationality” does not function, would be.

Unfortunately, though, this is the “last war.” We know who lost it as a result – but who “won”?

Let’s put it this way. Civil society, at base, accepts with understanding the state’s sensible measures, in particular extreme measures in connection with the quarantine, although the legality of the majority of them is dubious – but we’ll get back to that later, when things calm down. So why does the state regard the structures and initiatives of civil society with such suspicion? There is some hope that as a bonus the coronavirus epidemic will weaken at least this paranoia of the state.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

Leave a Reply