Andrei Babushkin: How to overcome the crisis of Public Monitoring Commissions in five steps

posted 11 Dec 2017, 08:44 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 19 Dec 2017, 05:10 ]
29 November 2017

By Andrei Babushkin, director of Committee for Civil Rights

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: 7x7]

The Russian National Congress in Defence of Human Rights took place in Moscow on 26-27 November. A key topic at the event was the issue of public monitoring at penal institutions. Activists Valery Borshchev (member of the Moscow Helsinki Group) and Andrei Babushkin (head of the Civil Rights Committee, member of the Presidential Human Rights Council), who were the pioneers of the institution of public monitoring commissions (PMC), spoke about how it is their opinion that the PMC system is in a crisis, and how this situation can be remedied.

Current membership of Public Monitoring Commissions: How they were chosen

In autumn of 2016, the Public Chamber of Russia formed public monitoring commission bodies in 42 regions of the country. Many well-known activists were not included in the new commissions: the places of those who worked for prisoners' rights for years were taken by people with no human-rights experience but who are likely loyal to the Public Chamber and the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN). Activists Elena Masyuk, Lyubov Volkova, and Lidiya Dubikova, who were not included in the new PMC bodies, filed a suit with the Public Chamber. The court did not grant the applicants' suit, but it did find procedural irregularities in the formation of commissions. As a result, in several regions a staffing increase was announced in the fourth convocation of the PMC.

Activists' opinions

The PMC issue was one of the most discussed topics at the human-rights congress. Activist Valery Borshchev, author of the law on public monitoring at detention facilities, sees the reason for this in that monitoring commissions have become a threat to the entire FSIN system. As chair of the Moscow PMC, Borshchev himself took an active part in investigating the details of the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. He notes that after high-profile scandals involving torture in penal colonies — from the riot in Kopeisk to the systematic violations coming to light in Karelia because of Ildar Dadin — the authorities decided to limit human-rights activists' access to prisons. Valery Borshchev believes that the Public Chamber has made an agreement with the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the FSIN. Because of this, a policy has been adopted that limits the powers of public monitoring commissions. This explains why Elena Masyuk, Lyubov Volkova, and many other activists were denied nomination.

Borshchev considers the decreased independence of regional public chambers to be a negative thing. Chamber members often associate with penal colony leadership and the Ministry of Internal Affairs in their professional occupations, so they cannot form independent and efficient commissions. Therefore, Valery Borshchev suggests not giving oversight of candidate selection to the regions, but instead strengthening the role of federal structures: the Human Rights Ombudsman and the Presidential Council for Human Rights.

Activist Andrei Babushkin believes that, since 2015, the institution of public monitoring in the country has been in regression. He named the following as indicators of degradation: the decrease in visits to detention facilities (in the first half of 2017 there were 4,000 personal interviews with convicts, compared to 9,500 in that same period in 2016); and the growth of PMC chairpersons' influence in matters of visiting colonies, accessing records, and suspending the development of legislation on public monitoring. Andrei Babushkin considers the adoption of modifications regarding additional staffing to be a positive thing, but he believes that without substantial changes to the federal law "On the Fundamentals of Public Oversight in Russia," it will be impossible to stop the degradation of this institution.

Proposed amendments to the law

Andrei Babushkin listed key amendments which could prevent the PMCs from finally becoming little more than formal institutions.

· For a start he advocates changing the procedures for creating the commissions. This would involve strengthening the role of the Ombudsperson for Human Rights and the President’s Council for Human Rights in choosing the membership of the commissions and specifying what ‘with experience of human rights activity’ means. He also proposes that the members of the commissions should have immunity from criminal and administrative investigations. This would make the appointment process more transparent, reduce the interference by regional authorities in the PMC’s activities, and avoid the inclusion of individuals who have nothing to do with defending human rights. For the commissions to work effectively, both the Ombudsperson and the Prison Service must be obliged to respond to the recommendations and criticism of the activists and, where the life and health of an individual is in danger, they must respond promptly. At present even in cases of serious illness it may take more than a month for the administration to reply.

· To increase the direct influence of the members of the commissions, each of them should have the right as an individual to visit places of detention. This would limit the ability of a commission’s chair to put pressure on human rights activists.

· In the regions, the commissions should be guaranteed an office and at least one clerk, preferably with a legal training. A modest salary would help to make this job more professional. It is also important to set up a group of experts – specialists, who could accompany the members of a commission when they visit the prison colonies and pre-trial detention facilities.

· The question of the observers using technical equipment on prison territory has still not found answer in the law. For the PMC to work properly – to be able to assess light, dampness, etc – they must have instruments that allow them to take measurements, but disagreements over this often arise with the prison administration.

· The problem of refusing to allow members of the PMC access to a prison colony or pre-trial facility must be resolved. This is a particularly acute issue in the regions. As a rule the prison colonies are long distances away from towns, and it can take several hours to reach them. On arrival the observers have little time for the visit, and the administration makes the most of this, dragging out the discussion and refusing the commission’s members access to the territory. Andrei Babushkin suggests that this problem would be resolved if the proposed amendments were introduced, and the independence and autonomy of the commissions strengthened, together with the filling in of the gaps in the legislation.

In November the process of submitting documents for places in the commissions was completed. The members of the Congress expressed the hope that this time round applications by well-known human rights activists would not be rejected by the Public Chamber. 

Translated by Mary McAuley and Nina de Palma