Human rights defenders call on the Council of Europe to push for reforms of member-states' prison systems

posted 15 Feb 2015, 12:30 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 16 Feb 2015, 07:17 ]
13 February 2015

Source: (info)
Human rights defenders from 41 NGOs have issued a declaration addressed to the foreign ministers of member states of the Council of Europe calling on them to review current approaches to human rights issues in European prisons, OVD-Info reports. For this reason, the NGOs urge that the pace of reform of the European Court of Human Rights be increased.

The authors of the appeal believe that the reform that is most needed is to change the system of monitoring of execution of judgments handed down by the European Court.

The Council of Europe's Department for the Execution of Court Decisions should not only receive information from member states and NGOs, but also directly oversee the execution of court decisions and the required changes that those decisions demand.

Anton Burkov, a consultant with Sutyazhnik, an NGO based in Ekaterinburg and one of the authors of the appeal, explains the significance of the proposed reforms:

"The main purpose of the declaration is to protect the rights of prisoners in all European states, and to achieve structural changes. The fact is that the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights have on the whole a declaratory character: violations are exposed, compensation is awarded. But so far as real changes are concerned, the European Court is powerless. A prisoner may be awarded compensation for violation of their rights, but all the same they stay in prison, and sometimes in the same conditions that provided the grounds for appeal to the Court.

"For the situation to change, the Department for the Execution of Court Decisions must be given the power to investigate execution of the Court’s decisions and authority to oversee reforms made in practice and in legislation. After all, this is precisely what a judgment of the European Court of Human Rights often calls for.”

Kirill Koroteev, a senior lawyer with the Memorial Human Rights Center, comments on the main points of the declaration:

"The system of monitoring the execution of Court decisions works very badly. Indeed, one of the proposals put forward by the authors of the declaration is to reform the mechanism of oversight for the execution of decisions, which in their view should neither be diplomatic nor political. They propose that a body should be established with powers established in law. I would say that this should be a body with expertise and professional skills. The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe is hindered by politics. Ministers say to themselves: ‘If we don’t forcefully insist that this particular country carried out the judgment against them, then that country won’t insist that we carry out the decision against our own country.’ As a result, the Committee of Ministers ends up as a very strange forum, useless in so far as the work is concerned, because it cannot make effective decisions.

“The declaration is absolutely right in pointing out that for four-and-a-half years now the Committee of Ministers has had the power, under Article 46 (paragraph 4) of the Convention, to transfer a case to the Grand Chamber where there is evidence of systematic failure to execute a judgment. But it has not been used once!

A second important point is the participation of civil society and representatives of the claimant in the monitoring. The procedure that exists now is purely a written one that, for both civil society and the representatives of the claimant, is similar to a ‘black box’. They send their comments to the Committee of Ministers and receive at best the response that their observations have been received. But how these observations influence the work of the Committee of Ministers, and whether they have any influence at all, is far from clear.”

With regard to Russia, the question of the execution of judgments of the European Court of Human Rights is a serious one. Anton Burkov points out that back in 2002 a judgment by the Court was taken on conditions in pre-trial detention in the case of Kalashnikov v Russia, but the Court continues to receive applications concerning overcrowding in Russian prisons.

So far as the payment of compensation is concerned, the Russian government carries out the rulings of the European Court, Burkov points out, but no systemic changes are made. Legislation is not changed, and practice remains, in most cases, the same as before.

Meanwhile, the chair of the Supreme Cocurt, Vyacheslav Lebedev, stated on 10 February that the number of applications made against Russia at the European Court is declining each year. “Moreover, the number of cases when the European Court of Human Rights finds that Russian courts violate the right to fair trail are insignificantly small,” Lebedev said.

Koroteev, however, does not view the situation so optimistically: “First of all, the Supreme Court, it would seem, isn’t counting those repetitive cases that do not raise any new issues, for example concerning the excessive length of court cases or the lack of judicial reasoning in rulings when a defendant is held on remand. These cases relate to malpractice by the police. There are many of this kind, but they do not all reach the stage of a judgment by the European Court because the government makes an agreement with the applicant and accepts that there was a violation. Secondly, the issue is not about quantity, but about quality. If we are talking about cases that identify systemic problems, then one case is enough. Here the quantitative approach is quite irrelevant."

According to the statistics of the Federal Penitentiary Service, as of 1 January 2015 there were 671,700 prisoners in Russian prisons.

Russia holds first place in Europe in terms of the number of prisoners both in terms of absolute figures, and in terms of the number of prisoners for every 100,000 people. According to data from 2013, in Russia there were 475 prisoners for every 100,000 people, while the average number for Council of Europe states is 139.