Statement by Public Verdict Foundation on torture in the prison system: First and foremost – consider the victims

9 October 2021

Statement by Public Verdict Foundation. A Basic programme for the protection of prisoners: to ensure the safety of people who survived torture in Russian prisons.

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Новая газета]

The foundation of human rights work is the protection of a specific person and the restoration of the rights of those who have survived torture. We defend human rights in cooperation with the prisoner, and not in place of them; every legal action, most particularly any public one, is the result of an important joint decision. There is no other way to both protect human rights and ensure the safety of the prisoner.

The release of recordings of prisoners being tortured reveals (once again) the problem of systematic torture and abuse in the Russian prison system.

Society should not turn away – this is exactly the kind of prison in which prisoners are subjected to the ritualized sexual violence that exists in Russia. These are not isolated incidents, but a routine management practice – torture is planned and carried out by the prison officers and administrators themselves.

Create a safe environment for victims and restore the rights of victims of torture; conduct an exhaustive investigation and ensure just punishment for the officials who committed and organized / condoned the violence; make violence that’s invisible inside closed institutions visible: all of this lies at the heart of human rights work. Furthermore, this is not only a legal and psychological/mental task, but a journalistic one as well. In pursuit of such goals, it is first and foremost important to do everything we can to ensure victim safety and to prevent any possible falsification and distortion of facts.

The task of releasing video evidence of prisoners being tortured into the public domain is a serious challenge, one in which the media – which shapes and supports the agenda – has a part to play. The replication of degrading actions against people whose data and faces are in the public domain and who will not be difficult for the authorities involved in the torture to identify, can with a high degree of probability lead to the exact opposite effect of what was intended. After all, those responsible for the crime are still not deprived of the opportunity to exert pressure on the victims, their family members and human rights defenders themselves, or, at the same time, of the ability to influence the investigation and subsequent consideration of the case. Those who can testify about the crimes are also under threat – in other words, these witnesses are at the complete disposal of those who have already been accused or may still be accused.

Public attention should not be limited to the sharing of shock content: this will ultimately transfer any subsequent disclosure about this type of violence into the area of everyday coverage in the information field, and the victims themselves will ultimately be deprived of the opportunity to receive public sympathy and legal protection.

In this sense, the media have a serious responsibility to monitor both the investigation of torture and the safety of the victims.

Now, after the disclosures, there is no reason to believe that the investigation will be carried out thoroughly and in good faith. There is no information in the public domain, with the exception of the ‘cheerless’ statements regarding the launch of seven criminal cases. Notably, these were issued by both the authorities themselves and the victim’s defenders.

We see that not one person has been detained, even though it has been reported that seven criminal cases have been opened. Some management personnel have been removed from their positions; the head of the Saratov Federal Penitentiary Service has submitted a letter of resignation – the simplest thing that can be done in such a situation. But this is not enough. The investigation must be thorough, public and comprehensive. (Ombudsman Tatyana Moskalkova promised to personally supervise the investigation and provide journalists with a full report on the findings.)

We consider it necessary to not only fight for the abolition of torture, but also to adhere to ethical values such as: 

  • it is obligatory to obtain the consent of the victim for the disclosure of photo and video materials related to the violence that was used against him / her; in the absence of consent, the disclosure of these materials is unacceptable;
  • mandatory preliminary and accompanying disclosure work related to ensuring the safety of the victim; if it is impossible to ensure their safety, it is unacceptable to disclose materials.

We find the ‘you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs’ stance – in which the potential success of an important job is built upon retraumatization, marginalization, repeated suffering and threats to the safety of the victims whose stories have been made public – to be unacceptable.

Translated by Tyler Langendorfer

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