20 March 2020
Vera Vasilieva is an independent journalist, the head of Radio Svoboda’s project “Svoboda and Memorial”, and a Moscow Helsinki Group prize winner in 2018 in the field of human rights
The main news recently about Russian pre-trial detention facilities and colonies is, as I see it, that these facilities are closed to relatives of prisoners because of the coronavirus. But the pandemic will eventually end, and the inmates’ problems, including those related to parole, will not have gone away. Recently I saw in press reports that the Supreme Court of the Republic of Mordovia has once again denied parole to a seriously ill prisoner, 74-year-old Petr Stakhovtsev, who was sentenced to life imprisonment and has spent 31 years behind bars. In the 1980s, he investigated police corruption and was subsequently sentenced to death, which was commuted to life imprisonment. Now Stakhovtsev’s release has been opposed by the prosecutor’s office and the management of the Prison Colony No. 6 colony in the village of Torbeevo.
Life imprisonment was introduced into the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation by the law of 17 December 1992, but it was mainly used only for pardons of persons sentenced to death. Boris Yeltsin signed a decree on the phased reduction of the death penalty in connection with Russia’s accession to the Council of Europe in May 1996. Since then, death sentences have ceased to be applied, the last one being carried out on 2 September 1996. In April 1997, a moratorium on the death penalty was introduced in Russia, and since then courts have been applying life sentences. Under Russian law, parole is possible for life convicts after they have served 25 years of their sentence. If their release is refused, as in Stakhovtsev’s case, a prisoner can appeal to the court again after three years.
According to staff at the International Protection Centre, a non-profit organisation founded by lawyer Karina Moskalenko, a total of seven people who were sentenced to life imprisonment in our country have been released to date. None of these cases were related to parole: they were all related to reviews of sentences, primarily in connection with European Court of Human Rights rulings.
For example, the life sentence of prisoner S. (I’m not giving his full name as I haven’t asked for his permission to publish information about him) was annulled with the help of the aforementioned Centre’s lawyers, due to repeated rulings by the ECtHR and the Council of Ministers of the Council of Europe on the illegality of the jury’s composition. This is a violation of the right to a fair trial guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The annulment was followed by a retrial in the court of first instance, at which a new life sentence was passed by a new jury. The Supreme Court subsequently reduced the sentence to 19 years 11 months, which means it ended about two years ago, and so the former ‘lifer’ was released.
I have already discussed the fate of the prisoner Aleksandr Markin, who was initially acquitted on all charges by a jury when his case was heard by the Moscow Regional Court. His case was then re-examined, and he was handed down a sentence of imprisonment for life on the basis of highly questionable evidence which had been obtained – according to Markin himself – in the same Penal Colony No 6 by means of beatings, threats of torture and forced labour. Although Markin had submitted a written request to the representative of the Federal Penal Correction Service asking to be transferred to a different penal colony, this request was not granted. He had previously been extradited to Russia from Spain – his permanent country of residence – on the condition that he would not remain behind bars for the rest of his life if he were found guilty, since life sentences are not imposed under the Spanish legal system. Although the practical outcome is that the Russian courts infringed the terms of extradition, the Supreme Court (which refused to grant the appeal submitted by Markin and his defence team) claims that Russia formally complied with them, since Markin will be granted the opportunity to apply for early parole at the end of the period stipulated by the law – a full 25 years after his arrest.
I personally believe that this hypothetical and illusive opportunity is nothing but hypocrisy. Someone who has been deprived of their future quickly stops believing that there is any purpose in living, and to date there has not been a single instance of a “lifer” being granted early parole, even though some of them have already been in prison for over 25 years. Instead of trying to solve Russia’s problems, the authorities prefer to pretend that they simply don’t exist. It is easier to lock people up and throw away the key than to tackle the reasons why they turned to crime in the first place and minimise the likelihood that they will reoffend.
When the death sentence imposed on Stakhovtsev (and others) was commuted to lifetime imprisonment, this represented a fundamental reform of the penal system by humanising it to an unprecedented degree; after all, the lack of any correlation between the severity of the punishments imposed and crime rates is widely acknowledged. Yet this commutation should logically have formed part of a series of reform measures, because by itself it does nothing to solve the problem of what should happen to those who have spent 25 years behind bars when they are finally eligible for parole, and how they should be reintegrated into society. The authorities chose to ignore the problem, but it is encountered on a daily basis by the prison guards who work with the prisoners, and (via the employees of the Federal Penal Correction Service, or in other words indirectly) by everyone they contact in the course of their daily existence. The risk of crime comes not from the release into society of individuals who have served their time behind bars, but from failing law enforcement authorities that choose to turn their back on crime and focus their energies on opposition activists instead, to cite but one example.
In Russia the term “life imprisonment” means that a prisoner will be kept locked up until the end of his or her days; the term has a different meaning in European countries, where it means that the individual retains the status of a former prisoner for the rest of his or her life. At the same time, it goes without saying that the prison doors do not swing open automatically and indiscriminately for every prisoner in Europe after a certain period of time has elapsed. Sentencing decisions are taken on a case-by-case basis, with reference to the accused’s character and his or her life before and after the crime was committed. Once the sentence has been completed, the prisoner is either refused parole, granted conditional parole or granted full parole. The reason why Russia takes a different approach to Europe is because life imprisonment was initially regarded as a more lenient alternative to the death sentence in Russia, and it was assumed that the prisoners receiving this sentence would never be released. This traditional way of dealing with them has remained in place to this very day.