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Mikhail Savva on legal amendments absolving prison officials from liability

9 September 2014

Source: (info)
Professor Mikhail Savva comments on the new amendments put forward by the Justice Ministry: “In view of the lack of oversight, this amounts to giving the Federal Penitentiary Service a free hand.”

Recently, the Government Commission on Legislative Activities approved for consideration by the Cabinet of Ministers a draft law giving employees of the Federal Penitentiary Service virtual carte blanche over those in their custody. The package of amendments has been developed by the Russian Justice Ministry, of which the Federal Penitentiary Service is a part. The draft law absolves employees of the penal system from liability for harm caused to prisoners through the use of physical force, non-lethal weapons or firearms, if such occurred on the basis of lawful grounds.

The phrase “on lawful grounds” is a mere formality since investigations into such incidents are carried out by the public prosecutor based on the testimony of prison officers. Similarly, CCTV cameras are always out of order.

The bill gives prison officials the right to use physical force, including techniques used in military combat, if non-coercive methods prove ineffective in applying punishment and dealing with violations of the prison regime, or the transporting and detention of convicted persons and prisoners.

Proposals also include allowing the use of physical force “to overcome resistance to the legal requirements” of official representatives of the prison system.

Under the draft law, while transporting or detaining those convicted or arrested, “if their behaviour gives reason to believe that they could escape or cause harm to others or themselves,” employees of the Federal Penitentiary Service have the right to handcuff them or “apply other means to restrict their mobility.”

If there are no specific means available, the use of “improvised binding mechanisms” is permitted. The same means of neutralising a prisoner can be used for “suppressing resistance or insubordination” by prisoners, and for detaining them in the act of escaping or subsequent recapture.

These methods are already widely applied: there are known cases involving people being suspended by their arms. However, up to now, after such incidents have come to light there has been a wave of public discontent. Once the amendments are approved such use of torture will become legal.

The draft law removes the current regulations specifying that water cannons and armoured vehicles may only be used on the orders of the head or deputy head of a penal institution “with the subsequent notification of the public prosecutor within 24 hours of its employment.”

Are the public prosecutors overloaded with work? Or is it a question of no longer putting them in an awkward situation when they have to justify the misconduct of prison officials?

On the whole, this draft law creates the conditions for legalising torture, of which there is already enough. After its adoption it will become easier to turn the screws on undesirables.

The trend towards an increase in “turning the screws” is clear: the number of deaths in places of detention is rising.

The number of deaths in pre-trial detention centres in 2013 was 3% higher than in 2012, while in prison colonies deaths went up by 9%.

At the same time prosecutorial oversight of employees of the Federal Penitentiary Service continues to weaken, which is clearly evidenced by a series of emergency situations that have arisen over the last few months in Krasnodar Region.

These changes should not be introduced into an environment where official oversight of violations of the law in the penal system is virtually nonexistent.

Public oversight by members of Public Oversight Commissions can only in certain regions, and even then only partially, make up for the shortcomings of public prosecutors.

The practice of providing nothing more than an appearance of oversight can be seen with these Public Oversight Commissions themselves – when their members are selected these include an excess of veterans from the very same Federal Penitentiary Service.

You can try to alter this situation by appealing to the Prime Minister. It is unlikely to have any effect but you have to do everything possible.

Source: Official site of Mikhail Savva

Translated by Natascha Kearsey