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Zoya Svetova: Right to interview. How I took the Federal Prison Service to court [Open Russia]

posted 7 Jul 2017, 00:09 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 7 Jul 2017, 00:16 ]
23 June 2017


By Zoya Svetova, journalist, human rights activist, laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group human rights prize, and a former member of the Moscow Public Monitoring Commission

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Otkrytaya Rossiya]
On 21 June Moscow's Zamoskvoretsky district court heard the case I had brought against the Federal Prison Service for refusing to allow me to interview Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov who is serving a twenty-year sentence in Yakutiya.

The judge, Nelli Rubtsova, sided with the Federal Prison Service and refused to grant my plea. The Zamoskvoretsky court deals with all cases brought against the Federal Prison Service, and, usually, sides with the prison authorities.

But I have no regrets that I brought the case. For a start, as Mariya Sernovets, the defence lawyer who represented me in court said, mine was what can be called a strategic plea. Strategic pleas may influence the application of a law in a specific case, but they can also bring about a change in legislation.

In this case the aim was to influence the law, and in particular to effect amendments to Article 24 of the Criminal Execution Code. This article permits representatives of the media and other persons to visit facilities within the prison system with the special permission of the institution's administration or that of higher authorities. But the Article says nothing relating to circumstances in which a journalist can be refused permission to visit a prison colony or a detention centre. The silence regarding the grounds for a refusal gives a prison authority great scope for arbitrary decisions. In other words: ‘If I want to, I’ll let the journalist in, if I don’t want to, I won’t.’

I was very interested to hear the explanation offered by the Prison Service’s representative. I wanted to understand why, after all, I had been refused, and who in fact had taken the decision. I’ll begin with the objections raised by the representatives of the Prison Service. Translated from legal language into Russian: 'We haven’t broken any laws, we have our law – the Criminal Execution Code - and if Article 24 contains no reference to giving reasons for a refusal, it follows that we are not required to provide any. You say that we have infringed a Constitutional right but, heavens above, the Constitution is the highest law of the land and all laws are checked for accordance with it; since Article 24 of the Criminal Execution Code has been adopted, this means that it passed the test. If you don’t agree, take it to the Constitutional Court and test its constitutional status. You say that Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (‘each has the right to express their opinion’) is being infringed but you haven’t produced a single precedent that supports this.'

In other words, the other party in the first place refers us to the Constitutional Court, to which we do indeed plan to turn to lodge a complaint against the law. Thank you for that! And its second objection is a bow of obeisance in the direction of the European Court of Human Rights. It turns out that the Federal Prison Service, in contrast to the Russian courts where one can often hear jokes at the expense of the European Court in Strasbourg, recognizes that institution and pays attention to its precedents. 

But my suit, it turns out, has no grounds. The Federal Prison Service breaks no laws. But what about the federal law on appeals by citizens which specifically states that grounds must be given for a refusal? This law doesn't exist for the Prison Service. For the Prison Service only the Criminal Execution Code exists. 

But these are, so to speak, legal niceties, important for the observance of the formalities of legal procedures.

As for the nub of the matter, judging by everything the decision to refuse an interview was taken in Moscow. The head of prison colony No. 1 in the city of Yakutsk, where Oleg Sentsov is imprisoned, was most likely left out of the picture. In answer to my question as to who took the decision, a representative of the Federal Prison Service responded that it was taken by the person who signed the refusal. And the refusal was signed by the deputy head of the press service of the Federal Prison Service. In other words by the official within the Federal Prison Service whose job it should be to assist journalists in their work. But no. This official is not helping.

And the most interesting thing is that the representative of the Federal Prison Service, it turns out, genuinely does not understand why I need an interview with Oleg Sentsov at all. Why I could not send him these harmless questions in a letter, and then, after I have received the answers, publish them as if they had been the outcome of a real interview? I had to explain in court that an interview and a letter are not the same thing. And, by the way, at the same time to tell him that the letters from Sentsov very often do not reach either me or his other correspondents. 

In this story with the refusal what also amazed me was that in all the years of my journalistic work I have requested interviews with prisoners on a number of occasions and have received a number of refusals. As a rule, no explanations were given, but sometimes I was told that the prisoner himself did not want to talk with me, only later to find out that this was not true. This time the Federal Prison Service did not even begin to make up a reason. They simply refused and that was it.

One thing that was strange was that only two correspondents attended the court hearing, one from TASS, the other from Radio Svoboda. The issue was not sufficiently interesting. Although it would seem to be an issue that should concern many. After all I am not the only one to be refused interviews with prisoners. Almost everyone who asks is refused. Exceptions where permission is given are extremely rare and only confirm the rule. 

Prisons and prison colonies as before remain institutions that are closed to society. Journalists envy members of Public Monitoring Commissions who can visit prisoners, talk with them, and then publish what they have said. Sometimes this can save a prisoner from bad treatment or even from death. 

I shall definitely be challenging the article of the Criminal Execution Code in question at the Constitutional Court. And I shall probably send Oleg Sentsov the questions I had wanted to ask him in the interview by post. Just possibly, after my suit has been heard by the court, the letter he sends in reply will reach me. 

Translated by Mary McAuley and Simon Cosgrove

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