12 March 2021
by Vera Vasilieva, an independent journalist, host of Radio Liberty’s “Freedom and Memorial,” and laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group Prize for Human Rights
Once again, public oversight in prisons is under threat. Human rights activist Marina Litvinovich has been removed from the Moscow POC, the Public Oversight Commission for the observance of human rights in places of incarceration. Voting in favor were 22 commission members, with seven opposed and three abstaining. As might seem to someone far removed from the subject, I see in this particular instance an attack on human rights behind bars as a whole. And it is precisely there that people are the most defenseless!
The reason given for this action was Litvinovich’s interview for Dozhd television late last year in connection with the arrest of Lyubov Sobol, opposition politician Aleksei Navalny’s comrade-in-arms. The removal procedure was initiated by one of the commission’s members, who alleged that Litvinovich had divulged certain secrets of the investigation in this conversation with the television channel. I find this accusation baffling. How is such a thing possible? Litvinovich told journalists that Sobol had been interrogated at night and they had taken away her anticoronavirus mask and shoes. Where is the investigation secret here? In my opinion, this is really about the rules for treating a prisoner, which POC members are explicitly obligated to inquire about. By the way, jailers allow detainees to be questioned only about violations of the conditions of detention, otherwise the meeting is cut short. Especially since Litvinovich, as far as we know, did not receive any written complaints from the investigator in Sobol’s case. This makes me worry that Litvinovich’s interview is merely a pretext for removing from these matters yet another of the few “inconvenient” commission participants remaining.
The POC operates in places of incarceration in accordance with the Federal Law of 10 June 2008, no.76-F3, “On public oversight over the guarantee of human rights in places of incarceration and on assistance to persons held in places of incarceration” (passed, by the way, under pressure from human rights activists). POCs were created in dozens of regions of Russia. Public organizations nominate their own representatives in them, and the regions’ Public Chambers approve them and send the list of candidates to Russia’s Public Chamber. Then these lists are approved at a meeting of the Public Chamber’s Council. This is how the first commissions were formed, which began to function in 2008.
Human rights activists in places of incarceration–Interior Affairs departments, remand centres, and penal colonies–have always been awkward and unwelcome. Therefore in the POC re-elections, an attempt was made to remove them from these organizations and replace them with representatives of the security forces or more compliant public activists. Thus, they did not allow Zoya Svetova, Lyudmila Alpern, and Elena Abdullaeva to continue their work in the Moscow POC or Sergei Marin in the Mordovan POC. “Dead souls” occasionally wind up on a POC, people who are listed but do not actually either visit places of incarceration or try to defend prisoners’ rights. For some, this “checkmark” in their biography is a convenient springboard for a political or bureaucratic career.
I have known Marina for nearly 20 years, and in all this time her activity–be it defending the rights of the victims of the Beslan tragedy, her work with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, her support for arrested Yukos employees, or her selfless assistance for detainees in the special detention centre in Sakharovo after the recent protest rallies were put down–has inspired my profound respect. Because this is real work for the good of suffering people. In a report that Litvinovich published on her page in Facebook, she cites facts about how many places of incarceration she visited while on the POC. It is no accident that the petition in support of the human rights activist and against her removal from the commission has already collected nearly 15,000 signatures.
Concerns have been expressed that others who do not fit the existing system, who are not indifferent to others’ misfortunes, such as Moskovsky Komsomolets journalist Eva Merkacheva and human rights activist Lyubov Volkov, might be removed from the Moscow POC on fabricated pretexts. In my opinion, the trend toward tightening the screws and restoring pre-perestroika ways is obvious. Apart from everything else, it stems from a divergence in understanding of the POC’s goals, a divergence in ideologies. The law speaks about public oversight over the observance of human rights in places of incarceration, while the warders believe that this is merely oversight over the conditions of detention. In reality, though, the conditions of detention are just one of the components of human rights observance.
In modern European prisons, the ideology is fundamentally different. Aleksandr Markin, who was convicted in a case I’ve already written about, has recounted how in Spain’s prisons even the words “guard” and “prisoner” aren’t used, to avoid excesses. It’s just that some are forced to be behind bars, by court decision, and the others are there voluntarily, doing their job there. Depriving someone of their freedom does not necessitate humiliating them and depriving them of their dignity. An understanding of this could change the Russian prison, too, which still retains so much from the Gulag. This is the aim of the efforts of human rights activists working on the POC.
Translated by Marian Schwartz