Andrey Babushkin, Russian human rights activist, public figure, member of the Presidential Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights, took part in the International Conference of the Foundation to Battle Injustice and the Patriot media Group “The Problem of Tortures and Its Undermining of the Criminal Justice Systems of the Modern Countries of the World. Searching for Solutions“, making a report on “The responsibility of law enforcement officials for the ill-treatment of prisoners in Russia.”
The responsibility of law enforcement officials for the ill-treatment of prisoners in Russia
I am a member of the Presidential Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights, I was a member of the public monitoring commission of the city of Moscow for two terms and in the late 90s and early 2000s I was one of co-founders of these public monitoring commissions.
I want to remind you that Russia became the third country in the world after Prussia, which banned torture. Prussia did it in 1754, Denmark did it in 1770, in Russia it was done by a secret decree of Catherine the Great on November 8, 1774. On this day we can celebrate the Day of Combating Torture in Russia. This decree was later openly confirmed in 1701 by Alexander I.
In America, the situation differs in different states. Pennsylvania was the first state that prohibited the use of torture. It was the end of the 18th century. Today, unfortunately, in the USA, as far as I know, there are 3 states where torture is still not prohibited at the legislative level. We know that the United States had a 2006 military commissions law that established that US military personnel used torture against combatants and non-combatants outside the United States quite extensively. In 2011-2014, I was a member of the the McFaul-Surkov Working Group. We tried to achieve rapprochement between Russia and the United States, finding points of contact between the civil society of our countries, and I visited a number of American prisons.
I saw a lot of interesting things there, a lot of things that were later introduced in Russian prisons, but at the same time I was struck by some things. The first thing is that I saw a gym a prison. This prison was overcrowded. I believe it was the Montgomery County Jail. Just a year before our arrival, 250 people slept in bunk beds in this gym.
When we arrived, they had already removed beds from the gym. Maybe they prepared for our arrival, but the prison was still overcrowded. In some of prisons visits to prisoners were prohibited, there were short visits, but there were no long visits. I saw that there were situations when people were in small solitary confinement cells. When we asked if there was ventilation, we were told that of course there was ventilation. We asked to turn it on, but for some reason they could not turn it on for an hour.
We saw a violation of right of correspondence. Some prisoners from other countries, including two Russians, reported that they could not receive letters that had been sent several months before. At that time we weren’t looking for violations in American prisons.
We were trying to find something positive that we could introduce in Russia, and experience that the United States could give from our country. I must say that, as far as I understand the situation in the USA, there, unfortunately, there is no public control over the prison. That is, only two states, the state of New York and the state of Pennsylvania, there are systems of public control. In other places there is no public control. As I remember we had a very interesting idea. We offered our American colleagues to choose 10 worst prisons in Russia and visit them with Russian human rights defenders and do the same thing in American prisons.
It seemed to us then that this could could help to make a common understanding of violation of human rights is. Unfortunately, at that time none of the countries realized our idea. What struck us about American prisons is the extreme overcrowding. When we were there in 2014, we learned that the US Supreme Court even issued sanctions against two states, if they do not reduce the number of prisoners by 150 thousand people over the next two years, then these states will be under financial sanctions, and states were forced to reduce the number of prisoners.
Nowadays the US is the country with one of the highest prison populations. We were also struck by the three-strikes law, which means one will be sentenced to a long term in prison after the third crime. This law is the reason why prison in states like Texas and California are overcrowded.
In Russia there was a similar law which said one will be sentenced to 10 years in prison after the 3rd theft. This law was abolished in Russia in 2003 but in America on the contrary they started introducing more and more severe laws. I think every country, including Russia and the USA, there should a mechanism of prevention of torture and violation of human rights.
This mechanism was introduced by the UN Convention against Torture. This means that the government has to interfere the situation before torture or human rights violation happened and not after it. This should prevent torture. It is clear that in some places there more chances to face tortures. For example, there are few chances to see tortures at schools or hospitals. But they can often be seen in police stations or prisons. As far as I know, in USA there is no torture prevention mechanism. In Russia Commissioner for Human Rights supported the creation of this mechanism. I hope that it will soon be created.
And, colleagues, I would like to emphasize such an important point. It seems to me that it is very important to work on creating of common standards for understanding what torture is and how to deal with it. Perhaps it makes sense to hold a large international forum and talk about two things: what problems do countries have in the fight against torture and what they managed to do to solve the problem. I am sure that this conference will help us to find the way to stop torture all over the world.
As all know, there are reasons why people torture. First of all, prison employees may have psychological problems and they may consider everyone tp be their enemies. A lot of countries, including Russia, have been learning this question for 50 years. So we can share results of our research with each other. I would like to visit American prisons again. I went there 8 years ago.
QUESTIONS FROM MEDIA REPRESENTATIVES:
Dmitry, “Economics Today”: You said that torture was allowed in 3 states of America. How does it work? Is there any law on what tortures can be used and what is prohibited? Or prison staff can do whatever they want?
Andrey Babushkin: Tortures were not allowed, they were not prohibited. Our American colleges said that in 3 states they could not find laws that prohibited torture. Of course, the US Constitution bans torture, but I think local laws against torture are also needed. One of those states is Florida. American human rights defenders said there were no complaints about torture. But still there was no law against torture. Local courts use the US Constitution to sentence people who used torture.
We also found out there is a special anti-torture agency in America. We were so happy to know it. We thought this agency visits prisons and makes reports on the situation. But unfortunately, this agency checks only 50 prisons a year. This is not enough.
Ivan Melnikov: Andrey Vladimirovich, glad to see you. We with you have visited some of Russian prisons. And I know you have visited prisons where inmates were tortured. You have also visited Saratov prison, which became notorious after release of the torture video. In your opinion, are there any changers for the better in fight against torture? What have we already managed to change? What else can we do?
Andrey Babushkin: In Saratov 12 cases were opened. 20 people responsible for the torture are now in custody. We, by the way, have visited in prison some of them. I think we can change the situation in Saratov though people were tortured there for several years. It started 10 years ago when the prison administration was changed. But in Irkutsk the situation is quite bad. The inquest is very slow. Investigators deny that some of people who were raped are victims. I think we need the government to take some measures to prevent torture. Russian department of justice is working on torture prevention program. This program will include both legislative and educational measures. The working group consists of 13 people, 4 of them are human rights defenders. I am a member of this group. I hope this year we will succeed in fight against torture. I think the most important is to educate and change way of thinking of prison staff. They should understand the consequences of torture, how can it influence people. Most of jailors who torture prisoners think they are doing something good for their country. They think prisoners are villains, who killed or raped someone. So jailers think they are bringing justice. This is why it is important to change their attitude to stop torture.
Ivan Melnikov: Andrey Vladimirovich, in your opinion, how important is the role of public control over prisons in Russia?
Andrey Babushkin: It would be extremely important in all countries of the world. Because government control is useless without public control.