The Prison Service has supported human rights activists. Counting a day on remand as one and a half in a prison colony. An interview with Valery Borshchev

posted 2 Jul 2018, 04:46 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 2 Jul 2018, 05:01 ]
22 June 2018 

An interview with Valery Borshchev, a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a member of the public oversight commission for Moscow Region, and one of the authors of the law on public oversight in the Russian Federation 

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: OVD-Info]

The State Duma has passed on third reading a bill (introduced into the State Duma ten years ago and passed in first reading in 2015) that counts a day spent on remand in a pre-trial detention centre as a day and a half in a prison colony. All parliamentary factions voted for it unanimously, so that more than likely it will soon pass the Federation Council and be signed by Putin. The prediction is that with the recalculation of sentences about 100,000 prisoners will be released.

On the other hand, the future law equates two days under house arrest to a day on remand and, accordingly, a day and a half in a penal colony. (Right now a day under house arrest is equal to a day on remand.) The bill does not affect a number of articles of the Russian Criminal Code, including those concerning narcotics and terrorism — charges that frequently figure in political criminal cases. The bill’s text and the chronology of its passage can be reviewed in the State Duma data base.

Valery Borshchev, a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a member of the public oversight commission for Moscow Region, and one of the authors of the law on public oversight in the Russian Federation, answered questions for the OVD-Info internet project:

What do you think of the bill, which equates a day on remand to a day and a half in a prison colony?

This is a longstanding idea of human rights activists. We’ve been trying to achieve this for nearly 20 years. We were able to achieve it because the jailers have taken our side due to tremendous overcrowding in pre-trial detention facilities. I once spoke at the Public Chamber and proposed the following option. If a remand centre already holds as many people as regulations allow and they can’t take anyone new, they can put them in queue. That’s how they do it in Denmark and Sweden, for example. At the time, everyone laughed at me.

When did you propose this?

I think it was 2009.

How might something like that work?

Like this. The court convicts and there’s no room in prison. Then the prisoner is moved to house arrest, and he sits at home waiting for a place to open up in prison. My position is that the prison should be independent of the investigation and other structures. The prison should follow its own rules. For example, not accept prisoners over their limit. Such is the Western experience. Once the tremendous overcrowding in Moscow remand centres began, the prison authorities also started talking about how they needed to put people in a queue.

Independence of prisons also means that lawyers and investigators have equal access to the remand centre. Not the way it is with us. The investigator always has it, sure, but lawyers get in line early in the morning for the Butyrka and Matrosskaya Tishina in order to get in to see their client.

Human rights activists are long-distance runners. They propose something, and at first it's rejected. But ultimately they come round to agreeing with us.

I spoke about this for the first time [about needing to count days in a remand centre and a prison colony differently—OVD-Info] in 1999, when I was in the Duma. At the time, people didn’t agree with this, but Krasheninnikov [Pavel Krasheninnikov was justice minister in 1999, a State Duma deputy beginning in 2000, and a long-time chair of committees on legislation—OVD-Info] paid attention to the idea.

Krasheninnikov and I had a conversation, and I said that conditions on remand are significantly different from in prison colonies. A person isn’t guilty yet, but he’s already doing time, and the investigators don’t go into a remand centre for six months at a time, or even longer. I said that this kind of law might stimulate the investigation to get to work. So that investigators don’t go gadding about somewhere, leaving the person [in the remand centre — OVD-Info] to acquire new diseases. Take Nikita Belykh, whom I knew well before his imprisonment. A perfectly healthy man — he became an invalid in the remand centre, and there are many such examples.

Our foundation, Social Partnership, studies the problem of the spread of tuberculosis. I’ve been in the places where people suffering from tuberculosis are held in prison colonies, and I’ve seen that people are getting tuberculosis in prison. Generally speaking, this is nonsense in light of the antituberculosis policy being implemented in the country.

This bill plays an important role in achieving the independence of places of detention from the investigatory authorities. What does a day in a half in a penal colony for a day in a remand centre mean? First, it means money. Yes, not-guilty verdicts are now at 0.2%, but they do happen. Now, if a person is judged not guilty in court, he is due one and a half times more compensation than before.

Second, investigators aren’t going to get their high of holding a defendant on remand as long as they feel like it. The investigation is no longer so all-powerful. And the courts aren’t going to be sending people off to pre-trial detention centre so blithely. I’ve met people who’ve waited on remand for their trial for as long as six years. You can find people like that today. A person like that might as well have served nine years in a prison colony. That is, it’s more likely he’ll be given a sentence that they’ll count for time served in a remand prison.

So that it seems to me this bill is a victory for human rights activists. Considerable credit goes to Krasheninnikov, who promoted this bill. I want to thank Krasheninnikov myself.

It did take us nearly 20 years. But the Investigative Committee resisted all the way! Bastrykin couldn’t stomach this law, and it was slowed down. But this year there is tremendous overcrowding in remand centres all over the country, and as a result the Duma passed the bill.

It looks like simple arithmetic—a year or a year and a half—but it affects both the courts and the investigation.

How did Bastrykin’s resistance express itself—and in what way did the prison authorities support? Did the Federal Penitentiary Service send any appeals to the State Duma?

No. The Prison Service was part of the working group on this bill. There were representatives from Investigative Committee, the Prosecutor’s Office, and the Prison Service there. I wasn’t at the working group’s last meetings, but I know about it from the prison authorities.

The bill lay with the State Duma for ten years. How often did this group meet?

The participants changed constantly. These kinds of groups meet when a new reading of the bill is planned. At the most recent meetings, the Prison Service position became positive. My acquaintances in the General Prosecutor’s Office who deal with the penitentiary system have supported this idea — at least in conversations with me. I must say that at one time Yury Chaika supported the law on public oversight [regulating the work of the Public Oversight Commissions—OVD-Info] when I was trying to push this law through. Chaika supported it both as justice minister and as General Prosecutor.

According to my information, before the second reading of the bill, the Investigative Committee was opposed, the Prison Service was in favour, and the General Prosecutor’s Office was more in favour than opposed. I think the delivery of a positive conclusion on this bill from the presidential administration’s legal department was dragged out under pressure from the Investigative Committee. But now it’s appeared because the Prison Service no longer supports overcrowding of remand centres. I often visit remand centres, and I see people sleeping on the floor because there aren’t enough cots. It’s a hell of a thing.

Translated by Marian Schwartz