The Russian Penal System. Can Public Oversight Make Much Difference?

25 November 2013

By Martin Dewhirst

Regular readers of Rights in Russia may remember an item in the issue for 11 November 2013 entitled ‘Human rights activists sound the alarm over Public Monitoring Commissions’. These Commissions (PMCs) were established by federal law No. 76 of 10 June 2008 and, according to an interview with Lyudmila Alekseyeva, the doyenne of Russian defenders of human rights, they are the first and so far the only ‘legislatively established instruments of public control over organs of state’. All the various ‘public councils’ are mere window-dressing (Novaya gazeta, No. 125, 8/11/2013, pp. 2-3). But who actually appoints the members of the PMCs? Not the federal ombudsman or the regional ombudsmen and their staff, but the Public Chamber in Moscow and its staff (for the most part highly and deliberately incompetent as well as biased, to judge from the article already published in Rights in Russia). Alekseyeva accuses those who finalise the selection of members of the PMCs of packing them with ‘veterans’ of the Federal Service for the Implementation of Punishments, the Procuracy and the police, which have their own ‘social/public organisations’ from which ‘volunteers’ to join the PMCs can legitimately be chosen. A fine example of this very ‘Soviet’ hypocrisy is provided in Novaya gazeta No. 123, 1/11/2013, p. 9, where Anton Tsvetkov, the chairman of the presidium of an organisation called ‘The Officers of Russia’ is said to be planning to replace Valery Borshchev, the long-standing, committed and very effective chairman of the Moscow PMC. The track records and achievements of these two men are amazingly different. 

Of course, such a blatant attempt to take over and weaken an independently functioning and reasonably successful organisation is harder to carry out in Moscow than in the provinces. I have recently been reading an impressive 171-page book (pp. 130-171 provide a short version of the contents in English) entitled Monitoring primeneniya pytok v ugolovno-ispolnitel’noy sisteme Chelyabinskoy oblasti (Monitoring the Use of Torture in the Criminal Implementation System of Chelyabinsk Region). (It’s available online at Rather than dwelling on relatively unimportant matters like the inadequate food provided for the inmates of 23 local penal institutions, the four authors (members of the Urals Democratic Foundation, the ‘Women of Eurasia’ Association and the All-Russian Movement for Human Rights) concentrate on the deliberate infliction of torture on people deprived of liberty in this region during the last few years. On 31 May 2008 (just ten days before the passing of the law on PMCs) four convicts being held in a transit facility near Chelyabinsk were beaten to death by guards (the head of the area’s penal service was given a suspended sentence of five years in 2010, reduced to four years in 2012). In June 2010 an inmate of a correctional colony nearby was murdered by another inmate with the connivance of penal service officers (three of whom were sentenced to terms of four and four-and-a-half years), but the murderer was declared to be not guilty, as was the head of the colony at the time of the murder. And exactly one year ago (24-27 November, 2012) in another penal institution almost all the 1,500 inmates staged a massive protest against their widespread mistreatment which passed off without any violence by the demonstrators but not without violence by representatives of the state authorities. One fears that it is only a matter of time before further tragedies take place – and not only in this region. It may be indicative that although at least three of the four authors of the report are members of the Chelyabinsk PMC they form a minority there (the other PMC members appear to be demonstratively inactive and even anxious to make difficulties for the authors) and write as members of other organisations. PMCs can consist of anything from three to 40 members, and it looks as though the bigger a PMC is, the greater the ballast of people who are trying to impede its proclaimed objectives. 

One often reads that Russian society is very weak, but a study of the PMCs makes it clear that this is at least in part the result of the political authorities’ clear desire to ensure that society remains very weak and uncoordinated (divide it and rule it!). Some would say that convicted persons don’t deserve to be treated in a humane way. In her recent interview (p. 2), Lyudmila Alekseyeva claims that when she talks with representatives of the Federal Service for the Implementation of Punishments they say (off the record, of course) that about a third of those currently behind bars in Russia are innocent. That is well over 200,000 people.