You represent a well-known regional organization – “Man and Law” from the Republic of Mari El. It has even become an interregional organisation lately. Can you please tell us more about how you manage to continue your activities in the light of the fact that “closed institutions” remain closed in Russia?
We have been doing the work on human rights protection for almost 16 years. Originally, our field of activities included human rights protection in the penal system and the police system, child rights protection, and protection of civil activity rights. Hence, we have several areas we have been involved in. One of them is civilian oversight over places of forced imprisonment in general and authorities in particular.
Our second area of activities is legal enlightenment of the public officials. Since 2004, we have had a very professional team of trainers, which works in almost 50 per cent of Russian regions. We had a seminar on human rights with the staff members of the Federal Penitentiary Service and the Ministry of the Interior. We are currently providing educational activities with our colleagues from other regions to enable them to conduct such seminars on human rights for staff members of the Federal Penitentiary System and the Ministry.
And the last area of our activities is legal assistance. All three areas of our activities (legal assistance, civilian oversight, and legal enlightenment) have proved to be efficient and turned out to be fruitful.
Can you please tell us, whether you take part in the work of civilian oversight committees? How do you assess their job?
Yes, we do. We have started our civilian oversight activities in 2004. Initially, we worked within the Public Council of the Federal Penitentiary Service and the Ministry of the Interior. Even before the law on the civilian oversight committees was adopted in 2008, we had initiated civilian oversight in the Republic of Mari El already. We had attended temporary detention jails, pre-trial detention centres, and juvenile correctional facilities. We accustomed administrations and the general staff of these facilities that the civilian oversight was important. When the law on civilian oversight was adopted and first civilian oversight committees were established, representatives of our organisation very soon became their members. The personnel included 6 people with Sergei Poduzov as Co-Chairman of our organisation and Chair of the civilian oversight committee. The second convocation of the civilian oversight committee of the Republic of Mari El was partially under the authorities’ control. We are having currently the third convocation. I am now the Chair of the committee, and we have 12 people.
In my opinion, the law on civilian oversight committees is a very good one. I believe that it is a Russian know-how. We often discuss this topic with our foreign partners. Yesterday, we had a conversation with our colleague from Italy. In other countries, human rights organisations do not have such authority. In Russia, according to the law, we are allowed to enter temporary detention jails without any hindrance. We are allowed to talk to all the convicts. We are allowed to enter all the facilities. And we have access to all documentation, which is related to the freedoms and liberties of those who are in the closed institutions.
Our foreign colleagues from the human rights organisations do not possess this authority. Yes, there are certain national preventive mechanisms. But as a rule, they are based on the ombudsman’s activities, ie these mechanisms are not impartial, as they are connected to the public officials. Someone deals with the Ombudsman PLUS System, someone invites human rights organisations. However, our colleague from Italy does not have authority to talk to the convicts. Nevertheless, they conduct civilian oversight based on good will of members of the penal system.
The same situation was in Russia prior to the adoption of the law on civilian control. We also had to get an approval from the administration of the facility. However, nowadays we have the full authority to enter the building. I think that civilian oversight is a success story in Russia. We know a lot what is happening in jails, because people in the civilian oversight committees in the majority of regions are very active. They represent human rights organisations, they are highly interested in the topic, and they raise this issue. Activists come to the jails very often. If we count, how many visits are paid to the penal institutions annually, we may say that the figures reach out to several hundreds or even several thousands. Only in the Republic of Mari El and only in the penal institutions, there were more than 30 supervisory visits last year. In addition, there were 50 visits to temporary detention jails. People are actively involved.
The problem is that the current procedure of formation of the civilian oversight committees is not transparent. The right to invite people there is reserved by the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation. NGO representatives, who applied for the membership in committees, do not have hope that their candidates would be selected. For example, one person (former Chairman of the civilian oversight committee from Krasnoyarsk), who is very experienced, very professional, and very hard-working, applied as a “Memorial” member. However, the Public Chamber did not include his name into the list of the civilian oversight committee members. The reasons are unclear. No one knows, why he was rejected, the decision was groundless. This is the danger I am talking about. The civilian oversight committees will include people, who are favourable for the authorities. If the work continue to be as it is now, it would be wonderful because civilian oversight is a very efficient thing.
Can you please tell, whether you have access to other closed institutions? I mean mental hospitals, orphanages, etc.
This is a problem. We receive complaints from psycho-neurological boarding houses, where people with psychological and psychiatric diseases are stationed. They think that violations of human rights take place in these facilities. Like other NGOs, we do not have access to nursing homes, homes for the elderly, homes for the disabled, because there has been no relevant law so far. No one allows us to enter these facilities by a good will. Only authorised regional representatives are allowed to go there. But again, these people represent the state. They are public officials. If they witness violations – and they see them a lot, they do not necessarily talk about, what they saw. They are very cautious and do not always lodge a complaint to the Prosecutor’s Office. Last year, a new law on civilian oversight over closed institutions was adopted. This law provides the regions of the Russian Federation with a procedure to establish their own laws on civilian oversight. Members of local legislatures have to define subjects and objects of civilian oversight. The law itself defines regional public chambers as subjects of civilian oversight. At least they are in charge for that. But today even they are not fully involved in these activities. There are Public councils within the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Social Protection. They are not human rights activists, they have no direct interest in altering the situation, and they do not always fully understand, which standards should be applied in these facilities. Nevertheless, the very presence of people from “outside”, the very fact that they can pay a visit to orphanages, would change the situation for the better. It is very important. However, this is not the case yet.
We are not allowed to enter such places. The objects of civilian oversight are ill-defined; the subjects do not work properly. But we face another terrifying thing. People, who are stationed in these institutions, do not realise that their rights are violated. Neither children nor seniors nor people with mental diseases understand that their rights are violated. Even convicts know more about their rights than the people mentioned above.
It seems that another problem is evolving in this respect regarding access to penal institutions. Your organisation was included into the list of “foreign agents”. At the same time, you have Certificates of Honour from the Federal Penitentiary Service. How do you manage to go on with your activities?
Yes, frankly speaking, it is a pity we were included into the list. I have a Certificate of Honour from the Federal Penitentiary Service of the Russian Federation for our contribution to the humanisation of the penal enforcement system. We have so-called “The Wall of Glory”, which is covered by certificates of honour from different authorities – the Ministry of the Interior, the Federal Penitentiary Service, etc. However, it turned out this does not mean anything. Now we have a different situation. Authorities are cautious towards organisations, which were included into the list. Now we enter penal institutions not as members of our organisation but as members of the civilian oversight committee. The law provides an open access for the members of civilian oversight committees. No one puts a limit to our activities. I personally think that the local authorities are confused because we have worked for 15 years together, our activities were supported, everything was fine. Our activities have not changed at all. However, the situation has changed. Our cooperation with the Federal Penitentiary System reduced the number of human rights violations in the penal institutions. When we talk to the convicts, they tell us that they do not experience any violations, at least in the Republic of Mari El. We have recently been to a close confinement facility. The level of the problem is as follows: The convicts complained that the table in the dining-room was too small. We said to them: ‘You have one more table. And it is a really large one.’ They responded: “Yes, but we play chess there”. The problem is not that they are tortured or harassed but it is about improvement of their conditions, giving one more table to them, because another one is used for chess. It only means that the conditions became better – at least in this Republic. We are aware that the situation in other regions might differ. In the course of 10 years of close cooperation to the people in the penal system, most of them attended our seminars. That is why they do not understand the law on “foreign agents” themselves. For many of staff members, it does not play any role that we were included into the list. They continue working with us and send convicts to the “Man and Law” organisation, if they face any problems.
Your organisation is a member in the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. Why do you think this membership is important for you? What challenges do you see in the EU-Russia relations?
I think all the challenges lie on the surface. Anti-EU attitudes are fostered, as if European countries were hostile states, which conducted anti-Russian policies. There is a point of view that we do not belong to Europe, and – again – these attitudes are fostered. However, I believe that Russia has been a member of the European community for a long time. For us, it is very crucial that human rights activists and civil society members think we should continue participating in the joint projects in order to integrate Russia into the European and world community. We have to publicly say that international values are our values, which we should support. I believe there should be more joint projects on the federal level, where Russia would participate. I have an example. There was a project “Altus”, the best police department in the world. Russia was actively involved and even won this competition. It helped to change and improve standards of cooperation with people in police departments. We need more of those projects in cooperation with the European community. For example, the best juvenile correctional facility for females. Let Russia participate. We will understand that we are integrating into Europe, then. Of course, the constant dialogue is important. We need European countries to closer work with the Russian organisations.
Yes, the reverse policies take place. Someone says we should follow our own path. However, we have to draw attention of European human rights organisations to this issue in order to have more joint projects.
What would you like to wish to the members of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum?
I would like to wish them to be more positive. I do not think that everything is bad. We can still improve many things. We can work and we should work.
The interview was prepared on 16 June 2015 by the Secretariat of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum.