A Plan to Let Prisoners Make One Phone Call

When Sergei Sankin was taken to a Nizhny Novgorod police station after his wife told officers that she wanted him out of their home, police told him that he would not be charged. What they didn't tell him was that he would be punished.

Sankin believes that if he had been given the chance to let his relatives know where he was, he would not have suffered the concussion and numerous other injuries from a police beating that has left him disabled.

A bill submitted to the State Duma in June, if passed, would provide people who are detained with a right to something familiar to millions of Russians only from U.S. movies — a phone call.

Sankin's request to make a phone call was refused, in accordance with current laws that give police the choice of informing a detainee's relatives of his or her arrest themselves or of letting the detainee make the call. Often, the police do neither.

The bill's authors, human rights activists and police all say the initiative would help reduce this kind of police brutality and misconduct.

"The initiative is aimed at protecting civil rights, and we hope it will be supported in the State Duma," said Daniil Bessarabov, a deputy in the Altai republic and one of the authors of the bill.

Oleg Khabibrakhmanov, a spokesman for the Committee Against Torture, an interregional nongovernmental human rights organization said the proposed changes could help.

"Many don't have a chance to inform [their relatives] of the real state of affairs," Khabibrakhmanov said. "Often, we find out about torture when it's too late."

And Alexander Glebov, a legal expert at the Interior Ministry, said the bill "would not disrupt the Interior Ministry's work, but guarantee citizens' rights."

Sankin would have benefitted from such a guarantee.

When he was detained in May 2000, police told Sankin that he had committed no crime and that he was being taken in "merely as a formality" to register his wife's call to have him removed from the apartment, which is in his name.

But he said he was put in a cell with a few other prisoners and, when one of them started yelling, the police removed him from the cell and assaulted him, believing that he was causing the commotion. "I was black and blue all over and had a concussion," Sankin said.

In 2005, two of the police officers involved in the attack were found guilty of "violent abuse of power, with severe consequences" and "intentionally causing grave bodily harm." They were sentenced to 5 1/2 years each in a maximum-security prison. Sankin said three other officers involved were not charged, as they could not be found.

In June, the court ordered the state to pay him 3,137,000 rubles (over $132,000) as one-time compensation for the injuries he sustained at the hands of the police and further compensation of 17,000 rubles ($718) per month for one year, Sankin said.

Sankin said that if he had been allowed to make a call, the police would have been more concerned about the possible consequences of attacking him, thinking that his relatives would publicize the beating.

The new bill, a copy of which was obtained by The Moscow Times, introduces amendments to a number of Russian laws that go further than just assuring that detainees are allowed to make a call. The amendments would also broaden the range of people detainees would be able to contact to include friends as well as relatives — the bill makes no specific reference to lawyers — and shorten the period within which the police have to allow a telephone call to within three hours of an arrest.

Methods of communicating with relatives or friends would also be extended to include telegrams and letters if telephone service is unavailable.

Under the draft legislation, calls would be limited to five minutes, or less if the conversation strays beyond information about the reason for the detention, the detainee's whereabouts and his state of health. Police would still be able to refuse to allow detainees to contact anyone if there was concern this could disrupt their investigation.

"If the detainee is a member of an organized criminal group, he wouldn't be allowed to call within the time set out, but only after the investigator permitted it," Glebov said.

The bill itself does not define in which cases the right to a call could be refused, saying only that an order from a prosecutor would be required.

Not everyone agrees, however, that the bill is positive as currently written.

Gennady Gudkov, a member of the State Duma Security Committee, said the bill should be amended to require police to allow those arrested to make calls even more quickly, but to deny the right to make calls to suspected murderers and rapists.

"When a person's detention is not connected to a criminal case, he must be given the opportunity to get in touch with his relatives or lawyers immediately," Gudkov said.

But police should be given opportunity to ban suspects in serious crimes from making calls, he said.

"A criminal might give a prearranged signal" to his accomplices over the phone that could disrupt an investigation, he said.

For his part, Sankin is concerned that the effect of the changes could be blunted by general disregard for the law on the part of the police.

"They can just take the detainee somewhere and throw him out [of a car]," Sankin said.

Glebov said police officers violating the new rules would be punished "according to the gravity of the consequences" resulting from denying a detainee the opportunity to get in touch with relatives or friends.

"It could be a misdemeanor or a criminal offense," Glebov said.

If there were no grave consequences, the officer involved would be reprimanded and denied his or her next salary bonus, Glebov said, while multiple reprimands could be grounds for dismissal.

The Duma will consider the bill in the first reading in the fall, said Alexander Urmanov, spokesman for the Duma's Legislation Committee.

The bill would bring the law into accordance with an acting resolution of the UN General Assembly from 1988 that guarantees detainees the right to inform relatives or friends of their arrest.