Statement by International Memorial Society on the proposed amnesty

posted 5 Dec 2013, 01:05 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 5 Dec 2013, 01:28 ]
3 December 2013

Source: (info)
Recently in society and the media there has been a wide discussion of the proposed amnesty to mark the 20th anniversary of the Russian Constitution. The most various forms of an amnesty have been proposed, and, fortunately infrequently, there have been doubts expressed as to its expediency.

The study of the history of political repressions in the Soviet Union over many years convinces us, just as does the experience of protecting human rights in the countries that arose in the post-Soviet space, that the amnesty is a necessary step.

We believe that an amnesty in the full meaning of the word is not only an act of mercy, not only a symbolic gesture, or a declaration of faithfulness to the humanistic principles that lie at the base of the Russian Constitution, but also an important act enabling the resolution of difficult social and political issues.

Objections to the amnesty are often related to the fact that people fear the simultaneous return to liberty of a large number of individuals who committed serious criminal offences. People are fearful for their safety and that of their families.

In determining the limits of the application of the amnesty, these concerns should probably be taken into account. The Constitution states that the individual and the individual’s rights and freedoms are the highest values in society, and the amnesty should not be applied to those who have been convicted of serious crimes involving violence against the person, intentional cause of serious harm to the life or health of citizens, or gross violations of their rights and freedoms. In particular, officials should not be amnestied who committed crimes against the justice system, whether it be law enforcement officials or those who work in the justice system who fabricated charges against innocent people, or who helped criminals avoid responsibility for their crimes.

In all other cases the amnesty must be as broad as possible. We believe it is better to release a certain number of people who perhaps do not deserve to be released (but all the same are deserving mercy, as human beings), than to leave in prison even one person whom justice and conscience say should be released.

An amnesty of this kind would have a whole series of important and socially significant outcomes. And it is not just a question of the fact that individuals who are amnestied are less likely to be recidivists than those who have fully served their terms in prison.

For many years there have been unsuccessful attempts to get rid of the inheritance of the Soviet justice system – the excessive severity and cruelty of punishments, which frequently do not correspond to the seriousness or social danger of the crimes that have been committed, and punishments that do not enable those convicted to return to a normal life in society, but on the contrary introduce those sentenced to the criminal world.

A broad amnesty will allow this problem to be resolved at least in part. A broad amnesty would bring about an amelioration of the consequences of a significant number of judicial errors and consciously issued unjust judgments, deriving from abuses at the stage of the preliminary investigation as well as from the imperfections of the court hearings, and the corruption and partiality of the judicial bodies.

A broad amnesty would save hundreds of thousands of people from a suffering not intended by the mere fact of their conviction, but inevitable given the poverty-stricken and archaic condition of the Russian penitentiary system that has yet to be reformed, and still bears the marks of the Stalinist Gulag.

A broad amnesty would reduce social and even political tensions in the country, which is riven by disputes and doubts about the quality of our justice system and its independence.

And most important, an amnesty of this kind would significantly reduce the sum of human suffering in Russia.

But to achieve this, the law on the amnesty, and the mechanisms of its implementation, must be based on strict legal grounds and be free from the influence of subjective factors.

In particular, the question of the application of the amnesty must not be given over to the discretion of the prison administration and made subject to an assessment of the ‘behaviour’ of an individual prisoner, since this would open the way to all kinds of injustice and abuses.

Moreover, the experience of Soviet history shows that the authorities, having once placed politics above the law, can be tempted in one way or another to exclude from the amnesty those who have taken part in opposition political actions (for example, those who have been detained in the ‘6th May case’) or in actions which, although they have no political element, were nonetheless perceived by the authorities as presenting a challenge to the state (for example, the case of the Arctic 30).

Such an arbitrary removal from the scope of the amnesty of particular individuals and actions that should properly fall within it would bring to naught the humanistic essence of the amnesty, undermine respect for the law, in any case not all that high in Russia, and demonstrate to the Russian and world publics the self-interested selectivity of the actions of the Russian authorities.

The character of the amnesty, declared to mark the 20th anniversary of the Constitution, will show to what extent Russia has been able, over these past 20 years, to realize the principles that formed the basis of the Constitution of 1993, and in what direction the country is preparing to move in the future.

Board of the International Memorial Society