Lev Ponomarev: Information on the epidemiological situation in penitentiary facilities should be made public

18 April 2020

Lev Ponomarev, head of For Human Rights, a human rights NGO, and member of the Moscow Helsinki Group

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Эхо Москвы, 18.04.2020]

We are all not just observers, but also participants in the drama that is the coronavirus pandemic. The entire world is searching for a solution which would entail a minimum number of losses. In light of this, we see just how important having transparent information is. If such information doesn’t exist or it is distorted, it could lead to tragic mistakes being made. In an open society mistakes are often inevitable; what’s going on right now in Moscow can, for example, be rectified. However, human rights defenders are deeply concerned by what is going on in Russian prison colonies and pre-trial detention facilities. The situation there resembles that of a black hole: outward eruptions occur but checking up on the scant evidence just isn’t possible. It’s easy to imagine that if this dangerous infection, which continues to simmer away, gathers momentum, the damage it will wreak will be irreparable.

We are appealing to penitentiary system authorities to request they make information about the spread of corona virus in their institutions available immediately.

If you support this request, please sign the human rights defenders’ petition on change.org, via this link

Information on the epidemiological situation in penitentiary facilities should be made public


17 April 2020

We, human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, civic activists, and other Russian citizens, are extremely concerned about the total isolation of information currently being observed in respect of penitentiary facilities in Russia amidst the spread of the coronavirus epidemic and the lack of timely and comprehensive official information on the epidemiological situation within the institutions of the Federal Penitentiary Service.

The absence of official information serves only to increase obstacles present for lawyers and members of Public Oversight Commissions to gain access to Federal Prison Service facilities, while in various regions access to legal counsel has been prohibited entirely, in addition to which a blanket ban on family visits under the guise of heightened spread-prevention measures being adopted by authorities has also been issued. At the same time, the media regularly publishes material about the unfavourable epidemiological situation in Russian pre-trial detention facilities, penal colonies and prisons. Every day, human rights defenders and lawyers receive messages from inmates and their families in different regions in the country about the deteriorating health condition of those currently in detention, and the absence of an adequate response being shown by the relevant authorities. The epidemiological situation is such that the response needs to be proportionate, professional and in line with the requirements of the Ministry of Health, since Russian legislation guarantees nationwide healthcare standards in penitentiary facilities. In particular, as per the temporary methodological recommendations for prevention, diagnosis and treatment of the new coronavirus (COVID-19) infection, issued by the Ministry of Health [1], all cases of acute respiratory infections should be treated as suspected COVID-19 cases. The Ministry of Health’s temporary methodological recommendations also state that all those in detention facilities – irrespective of their organizational or legal form – are required to undergo compulsory testing for COVID-19.

Based on reports from prisoners and their families, human rights defenders are directing requests to regional departments of the Federal Penitentiary Service and the Prosecutor’s Office to carry out checks and provide safety measures to protect both prisoners and prison staff and prevent the spread of infection, as well as to provide adequate medical care for the sick. However, in response to these requests, there have been lightning-quick rebuttals and formal replies from the Federal Penitentiary Service claiming that the situation is under control, there have been no reported cases of infection and medical units are working round the clock. In some instances, the regional departments have made absurd statements such as they “see no basis for providing such information” since “monitoring of human rights in the penitentiary system” by human rights organisations “contradicts regulatory requirements. In accordance with Article 87 of Federal Law No. 323-2011, On the Basis of Protecting the Health of Citizens in the Russian Federation, oversight within the healthcare sector is carried out by authorised state bodies. Oversight by public organisations is not provided for by the law”. Such statements directly contradict Paragraph 6, Article 2 of the Regulation on the Federal Penitentiary Service, which states that “the Federal Penitentiary Service of Russia carries out its activities in conjunction with other Federal executive bodies, executive authorities of the constituent entities of the Russian Federation, local authorities, public associations and organisations”.

The current practice of information blocking and the total closure of federal penitentiary institutions to the public during the Covid-19 epidemic is unacceptable and should be stopped without delay. The Federal Penitentiary Service, as a state body, has an obligation to ensure the right to life and protection of all people under its control. An important part of this obligation is to observe the principles of openness and accountability to the public.

The public has every right to know what is really happening in penitentiary institutions and what measures are being taken by their administrations to protect the health of prisoners and staff. Federal Penitentiary Service institutions isolate people convicted or suspected of crimes, but these institutions are not isolated from society, starting with the fact that they are located in close proximity to communities and ending with the fact that they work in close co-operation with other state organisations such as the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Prosecutor’s Office. The people contained within them and those who work for them are our citizens, whose health protection is one of the primary roles of the state.

We demand the following:
• publication (with regular daily updates) of the results of laboratory tests carried out for the purpose of determining the COVID-19 and pneumonia status of prisoners and employees of institutions operated by the Federal Penitentiary Service of Russia, with a breakdown of the data by region and institution;
• publication (with regular daily updates) of data on current or past measures carried out in line with the recommendations of the Ministry of Health to prevent the spread of infectious disease, including acute respiratory viral infections, among both prisoners and employees, with a breakdown of the data by region and institution;
• publication (with daily updates) of data on the situation relating to transfers of prisoners under guard from one institution to another and on the measures carried out during these transfers in line with the recommendations by the Ministry of Health to prevent the spread of infectious disease, including acute respiratory viral infections, with a breakdown of the data by region and institution;
• publication of data on other measures taken to control the spread of infectious disease, including measures aimed at reducing the number of prisoners in institutions operated by the Federal Penitentiary Service of Russia;
• publication of data on the number of individuals whose cases have been examined by an administrative committee and who have been recommended for early parole or a commutation of their sentence not provided for by the courts in connection with the quarantine restrictions.

[1] The fifth version of the Methodological Recommendations for Coronavirus has been made available as an infographic. 14.04.2020. Website of the Ministry of Health of the Russian Federation. https://www.rosminzdrav.ru/news/2020/04/14/13714-pyataya-versiya-metodicheskih-rekomendatsiy-po-koronavirusu-stala-dostupna-v-vide-infografiki
[2] Response to a query by Ya. S. Gelmel, a lawyer from Legal Basis, from the Federal Government Health Institution Medical-Sanitary Unit No. 66, Ekaterinburg, 13.04.2020 No. ОG-157-479

Irina Alebastrova, doctor of Law

Galina Arapova, director, Mass Media Defence Centre

Svetlana Astrakhantseva, Executive Director, Moscow Helsinki Group

Vyacheslav Bakhmin, co-chair, Moscow Helsinki Group

Irina Biriukova, lawyer, Public Verdict Foundation

Valery Borshchev, co-chair, Moscow Helsinki Group

Aleksandr Verkhovsky, director, Sova Centre

Svetlana Gannushkina, chair, Civic Assistance Committee

Yana Gelmel, lawyer, Legal Basis

Vera Goncharova, lawyer

Sergei Davidis, head of the Political Prisoners’ Support Programme at Memorial Human Rights Centre

Yury Dzhibladze, Centre for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights

Arkady Dubnov, political analyst

Grigory Durnovo, OVD-Info

Natalya Dzyadko, director, Criminal Justice Reform Centre

Natalya Yevdokimova, Executive Secretary, St Petersburg Human Rights Council

Dmitry Yegoshin, head of Human Rights Lawyering at Public Verdict Foundation

Aleksandr Yermolenko, Phd in Law

Roman Kachanov, lawyer, chair, Human Rights Centre

Sergei Krivenko, coordinator, Citizen and Army Human Rights Initiative

Leonid Krikun, lawyer, St. Petersburg International Bar Association, member of the St. Petersburg Human Rights Council

Olga Kryazhkova, PhD in Law, member of the editorial board of the journal Comparative Constitutional Law Review 

Natalia Kotenochkina, lawyer

Elena Lukyanova, doctor of Law, Agency for Monitoring Enforcement Effectiveness

Sergei Lukashevsky, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Executive Director of the Sakharov Centre

Dmitry Makarov, co-chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group

Eva Merkacheva, member of the Presidential Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights, columnist at Moscow Komsomolets

Karinna Moskalenko, lawyer, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group, programme manager at the International Protection Centre

Leonid Nikitinsky, columnist for Novaya gazeta, member of the Presidential Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights

Oleg Orlov, member of the board of Memorial Human Rights Centre

Aleksandr Peredruk, lawyer, member of the Human Rights Commission of the board of the Bar Association of St. Petersburg

Olga Podoplelova, lawyer at the Charity Foundation for Assistance to Prisoners and their Families

Sergey Poduzov, co-chair, Individual & the Law [Chelovek i Zakon]

Ella Polyakova, Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg

Lev Ponomarev, chair, For Human Rights

Irina Sergeeva, legal expert at the International Protection Centre, lawyer at Moscow Helsinki Group

Maria Sernovets, lawyer

Ilya Sivoldaev, lawyer at the Human Rights House, Voronezh

Olga Sidorovich, director, Institute of Law and Public Policy

Anita Soboleva, senior lawyer, Institute of Law and Public Policy

Aleksei Sokolov, director,  Legal Basis 

Irina Surat, philologist

Natalya Taubina, director, Public Verdict Foundation

Oyub Titiev, Memorial Human Rights Centre and Civic Assistance Committee

Valentina Cherevatenko, chair-coordinator, Women of the Don Union

Svyatoslav Khromenkov, human rights activist, chair, Siberia without Torture

Sergei Shargunov, writer, editor-in-chief of Yunost magazine, deputy chair of the Committee on Culture of the State Duma of the Russian Federation

Elena Shakhova, chair, Citizens’ Watch, St. Petersburg

Denis Shedov, lawyer, OVD-Info

Valentin Gefter, director, Human Rights Institute 

Translated by Nathalie Wilson, Nathalie Corbett and Joanne Reynolds

Leave a Reply