The idea of the project ‘Protection of the Rights of Residents of the Republic of Chechnya and the Republic of Ingushetia who are Serving Sentences in Penal Institutions or Under Investigation in Jail’ came to us as a result of the constant appeals of convicts from Chechnya and Ingushetia serving their punishments in different regions of Russia, far away from the North Caucasus and their family members, in connection to rights violations. Violations have occurred and continue to occur on a national and religious basis.
The entire Russian penal system places human rights as a very low priority and all prisoners are kept in very bad conditions. Human rights defenders are constantly writing about this. The situation for those from the North Caucasus republics is further compounded by the hatred shown towards them by those working in the administration of correctional institutions. This is because many took part in ‘counterterrorism operations’ in the region. The quality of life for those from Chechnya who took part in armed conflict, and who are perceived by many employees of the colony to be their enemy, goes without saying.
The flood of complaints from convicts sent from Chechnya and other North Caucasus republics is increasing day by day. They complain about the use of physical violence, unjustified punishments, obstacles in conducting religious rites and the damage and confiscation of religious literature and objects.
Human rights defenders constantly write about these violations, struggling against this evil. There is periodic reform of the penitentiary system, the head of the Federal Penitentiary Service changes, but the situation doesn’t change. During the work of the project, we came to the conclusion that the only way to alleviate the plight of prisoners is constant monitoring by NGOs. This is most effective in the shape of regular meetings with prisoners.
For the implementation of this monitoring we engage with Public Monitoring Committees (PMC), human rights organizations working in regions where there are colonies, and lawyers when there is the possibility to pay for their services.
But the organization of public monitoring of prisoner’s situations is done with great difficulty. There aren’t PMCs in all regions, and in not all PMCs have members that are really concerned with the situation of prisoners. In several PMCs there are people who previously worked in the penitentiary system and were part of the institutional power structures. It’s not hard to guess how keen these newly public figures are to protect the rights of convicts.
Local bar associations often face difficulties in hiring lawyers: some of them are not ready to protect the rights of prisoners from Chechnya and Ingushetia in order not to spoil relations with the administration of correctional institutions. Therefore it is necessary to resort to the services of reliable lawyers from Moscow. Due to the remoteness of the colonies, this requires significant costs.
But, of course, these organizational challenges are nothing compared to the problems faced by the prisoners themselves.
Convicts from Chechnya and Ingushetia are often at the receiving end of pressure from the security services. In some colonies prisoners are allowed into the hands of the siloviki (the term silovik, literally translated as “person of force” is a Russian word for politicians from the security or military services, often the officers of the former KGB, GRU, FSB, SVR, the Federal Drug Control or other security services who came into power). They beat and torture them to confess to crimes that they were not previously charged with, or to testify against others. Such criminal activity is particularly rampant in colonies of the Vladimir region. Many prisoners from Chechnya and Ingushetia serving sentences in this region go through this grindstone.
Upon arrival at the colony all convicts spend the first week in so-called quarantine. During this period the first meeting between prisoners from the Caucasus and members of the local intelligence service occurs. For them the quarantine sometimes lasts for months.
There are colonies that have a reputation where the prison officers plant drugs on prisoners ending their sentence who are then sent back to court where new terms are added. This practice has developed in some colonies of the Novosibirsk region, for example in Correctional Institution 14. It is absurd to think that a prisoner, on his way to freedom, carries drugs on him. In this situation neither the prosecution nor the investigative committee bother to figure out how the convict was provided with drugs.
In some colonies of the Kemerovo region convicts are given the opportunity to serve their punishment according to the law as required by the criminal code, and not be under constant pressure. For this to happen they must, at their own expense, carry out repairs of the colony and its buildings. To do this they are forced to ask relatives to send them money for the purchase of construction materials.
I would like to mention another problem.
Under article 73 of the criminal code, prisoners are to serve their sentences in correctional facilities located within the region of Russia in which they live or were convicted. Only in case of the absence of an institution in the region can the person serve their sentence in another region. In 2005, this article was supplemented with a part 4, according to which those convicted of certain heinous crimes, including those for which the residents of Chechnya and Ingushetia are most often sentenced (articles 208 and 317 of the criminal code), are to serve their punishment in places as allocated by the Federal Penitentiary Service.
The law does not oblige the Federal Penitentiary Service to send prisoners from Chechnya and Ingushetia to other regions of the country, but all the natives of these republics who receive a sentence under the articles referred to in paragraph 4 of article 73 of the criminal code, serve their sentence in the most remote northern regions of Russia.
This established practice deprives the relatives of many prisoners from the North Caucasus republics the possibility of prison visits and to see family members, which is a violation of article 8 of the European Convention for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, guaranteeing the right to respect for private and family life. In the admissibility decision in the case Syzane and Aulona SELMANI v. Switzerland (complaint No. 70258/01) the European court of human rights pointed out that the holding of a person in prison at such a distance from their family, which complicates or makes it impossible for relatives to visit, may constitute an interference with family life.
Prisoners from Chechnya and Ingushetia are essentially banned from parole. To exclude the possibility of parole these prisoners are constantly being punished – without real reasons. In order to punish the prisoner, any prison officer can simply address a letter to the head of the colony detailing a violation of the prison regime and the prisoner will go straight to either solitary confinement, a single cell or placed on a stricter regime. Flimsy violations are used to change the prisoner’s regime to a stricter one.
This situation can be changed through the introduction of regulations governing correctional institutions and requirements for prison officers to have back up video evidence of their reports of violations. But this would require the good will of the legislator and appropriate technical changes to correctional institutions.
But our penal system is not focused on correction and a return to normal life. The fact is they leave as physically and psychologically broken men.
Serving punishment in Chechnya is fundamentally different from the situation in the rest of Russia.
In the republic there is a large correctional facility in the Chernokozova, Naur region – Correctional Facility 2. It is a colony with an ‘ordinary regime’ but also has a section with a ‘strict regime’ and a colony-settlement (a colony-settlement allows well behaved convicts to serve their sentence with greater freedom). Throughout the project (since 2011) we have not received a single complaint from prisoners serving their time in this colony. We know that complaints were made to the PMC, but they didn’t get in touch with the colony. If all colonies in Russia worked in the same way as this one then the penitentiary system in Russia would be in order, and human rights defenders in this area would have no work.
In Chechnya there are also detention centres in Grozny and Chernokozova. From these places we have also not received any complaints. Members of the PMC periodically visit these institutions and always do so without obstacles.
But if in describing the treatment of detainees and prisoners in Chechnya we only consider the evaluations of Correctional Facility 2, we are heavily sheltered from the truth. In places where people are held pending official detention a completely different picture emerges – not all live to see prison.
By project coordinator in the Chechen Republic Oub Titiev