Federal Penitentiary Service announces new rules for defence of human rights: members of Public Oversight Commissions to become mere onlookers

4 June 2023

by Ekaterina Trifonova 

Source: Nezavisimaya gazeta

The Federal Penitentiary Service of Russia [FPS] has established a procedure whereby members of Public Oversight Commissions (POCs) may visit penal institutions. They will still be obliged to agree visits to prison colonies and remand centres and their conversations with prisoners may be interrupted by prison staff on any dubious pretext. Experts believe that the new set of rules assigns the POCs the role of passive onlookers of prison activities. 

The updated rules attest to prison staff having extensive discretion, where required, to block the work of POC members. At the same time, the FPS document also, as has become traditional, leaves numerous loopholes thanks to the vague wording already in use on the ground. 

According to an explanatory note, published by the FPS, the document aims to enforce amendments to the law on public oversight, which were adopted back in July 2018. Specifically, these relate to POC members being able to use photo and video technology during visits to penal institutions. It has become clear that POCs will have to use the official equipment available so that human rights defenders will be able to use their own technology only “if there is none available or it is broken”.

At the same time, the material obtained will be examined jointly by the head or the deputy head of the penal institution or a member of staff so authorised by the head, and the POC members.  At the latter’s request, copies of this material may be made and these will be given them in line with the regulations. A procedure to obtain permission to photograph prisoners has been established – the citizen’s written consent is required with the separate proviso that “filming is not permitted if such consent is withdrawn”. 

But particularly promising, of course, is the item in the regulations that provides for “explanatory conversations” to be held in advance with prisoners about the aims and tasks of POC work. However, as Nezavisimaya Gazeta [NG] was told by Aleksandr Brod, a member of the Presidential Human Rights Council, the document on the procedure for visiting detention facilities does, nevertheless, take account of human rights activists’ criticism and wishes. Thus, for example, the problematic norm of 48 hours’ notice to visit a remand centre has vanished from the final text. Previously, the plan was to decline to place information about POC members in penal institutions: “Now, there is provision to display contact details. Also, spelt out at greater length are the system for agreeing POC visits, the duties of commission members and restrictions by comparison with the earlier document.” Brod said that the provision whereby penal institutions’ administrations ensured that POC members had the chance to take part in communal activities, particularly cultural and sporting events, has also vanished from the document.  “It wasn’t specified properly, as if POC members were obliged to join prisoners in singing and cross-country running. Nevertheless, however, POC members are obliged to attend prisoners’ activities, acquaint themselves with how they are confined and fed, how they spend their leisure time, and with their medical treatment and assigned labour,” Brod stressed. 

Meanwhile, Ilya Shablinsky, a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group (abolished in the Russian Federation by a Supreme Court ruling), told NG that the FPS decree also contains several other points that are worthy of note. To begin with, however, he remarked that it is necessary to bear in mind that the architects of the law on the POCs initially sought to make visits to prisons and colonies as spontaneous as possible so that their management did not have time to prepare for them or to conceal traces of violations. Now, though, both advance warnings and preliminary conversations between prison officers and prisoners who are due to meet POC members are being introduced. As for photographs or video recordings of violations, if “the material obtained is first examined and approved by the head of the prison facility, what then is left of the very concept of the POC as an instrument for monitoring the activities of the said establishments, within the walls of which the very worst violations of human rights occur?”

As Vice-President of the Russian Division of the International Human Rights Defence Committee Ivan Melnikov explained to NG, the new decree clarifies a number of points that previously came in for frequent criticism as being too vague. In practice, in his opinion, they will change little. For instance, observers’ conversations with prisoners may be interrupted when they go beyond a discussion of the conditions of confinement. Melnikov pointed out that this wording continues to cause concern: “Clearly anything at all can be interpreted in this way”. “And this is the most dangerous and dubious of the law’s innovations. There have been previous instances of prisoners talking about things to do with violations of their rights, and prison officers interrupting them without good reason. They rejected ‘as not making the grade, let’s say, conversations about letters of complaint failing to reach the Prosecutor’s Office or the Investigative Committee. Melnikov said that human rights defenders had on more than one occasion insisted that censorship applied only to those conversations that were about, for example, the details of a criminal case and that might harm the investigation.

As for photography and video-recording, Melnikov believes that here too there is no shortage of stumbling blocks. “There are specific dangers and risks since we have already come across numerous stories of someone allowing their bruising and evidence proving the use of unwarranted force by staff of a penal institution to be filmed. And the management of the institution seems to promise to send the recordings in short order.”  Instead, the individual turned out to have withdrawn consent for filming and, accordingly, all recordings remain with the FPS. In a nutshell, while prison officers control the entire process, prisoners’ “lives will continue to be made a nightmare so that they don’t give or at some point withdraw their permission to record violations of some kind”. In general, Melnikov underlined, the law on the POCs has changed a great deal in recent years and not to the commissions’ advantage but rather towards a contraction in the rights and powers of public oversight. 

“Both the President of the Russian Federation and the Speaker of the Federation Council and a number of other ranking civil servants, including leaders of the Justice Ministry, are constantly talking of the need to eradicate torture and violence in penal centres, but why not then give one of the most effective tools for combating these features the freedom to do its work? Evidently, there are people lobbying for the system to remain closed. At the level of the country’s most senior leadership, it would be no bad thing to ask: if someone has an interest in prisoners continuing to be tortured and the collapse of the POC system, meaning that these violations, acts of extortion and corruption should not have been recorded, then surely someone can see some benefit in this and, perhaps, above all, a financial one? Which is why they are bending over backwards to tear down the institution of public oversight,” Melnikov told NG. And now it is possible “to count on your fingers” the number of truly effective and passionate members of the POCs that there are across the whole country and until there are changes in the selection of commission members, there will be no changes in practice either. 

Translated by Melanie Moore

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