Lev Ponomarev: Prison Riot – Part 2. Minister of Justice vs. Human Rights Defenders

15 April 2020

Lev Ponomarev, chair of the national civil society organization “For Human Rights,” member of the Moscow Helsinki Group

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Ekho Moskvy]

As I have already written, there was a riot on April 9-10 at Penal Colony No. 15 in Angarsk. Human rights defenders issued a public statement demanding a thorough investigation. I know from experience how difficult it is to get an impartial investigation regarding people in confinement who are totally at the mercy of the prison administration. The situation is even more difficult because of the coronavirus pandemic, which can be used by the leadership of the Federal Penitentiary Service to hinder communication between prisoners and their lawyers. But meanwhile the investigation is underway. 

Regarding these events, the Minister of Justice Konstantin Chuichenko announced in an interview with Rossiiskaya gazeta that members of the Irkutsk region Public Oversight Commission, in spite of quarantine measures, conducted an inspection of Penal Colony No 15. “The Chairman of the Regional Oversight Commission Oleg Antipenko confirmed that people in the colony are moving around normally, and that living conditions and the provision of food were well organized,” related the Minister of Justice. “In agreement with the investigative authorities, human rights defenders are soon planning to meet with the convicts who participated in the disturbances. In addition, the Federal Penitentiary Service has opened a hotline for relatives. They can contact a call centre in order to make appointments and receive information about their relatives.  Therefore, all statements that human rights defenders are not allowed into the penal colony, and that the Federal Penitentiary Service is not providing any information, do not correspond to reality.” 

The rosy picture of the housing and feeding of inmates that was described by the Justice Minister permitted him to come to the following conclusion:  “We have information that the riots in question were orchestrated from the outside, that these people paid the so-called ‘human rights defenders,’ who are still trying to play up the situation in the mass media…”  

Now let me tell you what is actually happening, based on information that I have from one of the “so-called human rights defenders.”

About 300 inmates were removed from Penal Colony No. 15 in Angarsk. Nine people injured during the security services’ suppression of the protests were admitted to the medical isolation ward of Penal Colony No. 6 in Irkutsk. Another group of inmates was transferred to Pre-trial Detention Centre No. 1 in Irkutsk and to Pre-trial Detention Centre No. 6 in Angarsk. I have received some information that inmates were also taken to other establishments.  Relatives and human rights defenders do not know who is located where.

For five days, lawyers and human rights defenders did not have access to the 300 prisoners, among whom were the supposed instigators of the riot, the participants, as well as the injured. And the investigation into these individuals has been actively conducted the entire time. 

The leadership of the Irkutsk region division of the Federal Penitentiary Service issued an instruction that lawyers can enter the penal colony and the pre-trial detention centres only together with an investigator. The Irkutsk Bar Association has declared the instruction unlawful, but even that has not worked — the investigators are beyond the reach of lawyers.  The defendants still have not been allowed visits by their lawyers.

The lawyer Dmitry Dmitriev has a formal mandate to represent Anton Obalenichev, whose beating began the events in Penal Colony No. 15. Time is passing and the danger exists that the leadership of the Federal Penitentiary Service will be able to keep the injuries on his body from being seen.

The lawyer Vyacheslav Ivanyets, who has a formal mandate to represent nine of the inmates, is not being allowed into the medical isolation ward of Penal Colony No. 6. They are probably also waiting until the injuries heal over.

The hotline that was ostensibly opened for the relatives of the convicts is not working. The bewildered and upset relatives applied to the Irkutsk regional authorities for permission to hold a protest with 10,000 participants.  It will not, of course, be approved, but if the tension is not eased, the disturbances could spill over into the city.  And it is not, after all, that difficult to calm the relatives: it would be enough to give each convict the chance to call the home telephone of his family. 

In order to publicly demonstrate openness, they gave the chair of the Irkutsk Public Oversight Commission the chance to visit Penal Colony No. 15 accompanied by the local head of the Federal Penitentiary Service. But it is necessary to understand that after the removal of the 300 convicts, only those remained who had not been accused of rioting. They, naturally, refuse to participate in any conversations on the topic, especially in the presence of the head of the prison authority. 

So, what do we have as of today? Lawyers have not been given access to the 300 convicts removed from Penal Colony No. 15, and the investigators have most probably been actively working on these people. This is exactly what the lawyers were afraid of when they issued their statement. But it is exactly what has happened.

And how does the Minister of Justice – who is fully satisfied with the course of the investigation and on top of that makes accusations against the human rights defenders — understand the situation?

I have a number of questions for him:

1. Does the Minister regard it as lawful for lawyers to be barred access to their defendants for five days?

2. Does he agree that access for lawyers should only be with an investigator, which obviously means the absence of lawyer-client confidentiality? Just such an announcement hangs at the entrance to Pre-trial Detention Centre No. 1 in Irkutsk.

3. Does the Minister consider it necessary to use his high office to obtain immediate access for lawyers to their clients? From 10:00 AM on April 16 they will be standing at the doors of Pre-trial Detention Centre No. 1 and Penal Colony No 6. 

4. Does the Minister consider my article just one more attempt at stirring up the situation in the mass media?

In fact, one can regard the statement of the Justice Minister regarding human rights defenders as an accusation by a high official of the Russian Federation. How does his position differ from the one expressed by Ramzan Kadyrov in regard to the human rights journalist from Novaya gazeta and to Novaya gazeta itself? Only, I suppose, that his words seem far less bloodthirsty.  

Update from 16.04:
This morning the lawyers V. Ivanyets and D. Dmitriev tried to see their clients. They did not let Ivanyets in, citing the instructions of the head medical officer of the Federal Penitentiary Service, although they did not show the actual document. The situation with Dmitriev was more typical. They said that Obalenichev already had a lawyer, but they declined to name him. Obalenichev’s sister, who was there, said that the family entered into no agreement with anyone but Dmitriev. It is known from the president of the Irkutsk region Bar Association that Obalenichev made no application for a state-appointed lawyer.    

Translated by John Tokolish

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