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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Duma Seeks to Open Jails to Scrutiny

For Larisa Kharchenko, the six months she spent awaiting trial in a Moscow detention center was the most horrific experience of her life.

Kharchenko, 50, who suffers from high blood pressure, slept on a concrete floor and, she said, was denied essential medical attention. Kharchenko's cellmates wrote a letter to the prison authorities saying they feared she would die unless she was given medical help.

"I came out with only one thought - that 1937 had come again," Kharchenko said of her release earlier this year, referring to the height of the Stalinist purges.

Lawmakers in the State Duma are currently drafting much-needed legislation that will create a system of public scrutiny of prisons to prevent the sort of abuses that Kharchenko said she suffered.

However the government is blocking the law, saying that independent observers would interfere in the work of prison officials if they were given unhindered access to Russia's jails.

According to human rights advocates, abuses are allowed to flourish in jails precisely because there is no proper independent scrutiny of what goes on behind prison walls.

Valery Borshchev, a State Duma deputy with the liberal Yabloko faction and author of the proposed legislation, quoted Moscow deputy prosecutor Yury Sinelshchikov as telling a special Duma meeting on human rights that while prisoners in Moscow submitted about 2,000 complaints about violations of their rights in 1997, only 60 criminal cases were opened.

"Sinelshchikov said that it is very hard to prove such abuse because prison officers cover up for each other and hide evidence," Borshchev said.

Alexander Petrov, deputy director of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch, said: "The prison system is one of the most closed [institutions] in Russia. Most of the abuse takes place there because of this closed nature - there are beatings, sexual abuse and psychological pressure - the worst type of tortures."

Prison authorities frequently use physical and psychological pressure on prisoners to force them to testify, human rights activists say.

"The Russian authorities prevented us from visiting prisons in May and June this year," said Marianna Katzarova, an Amnesty International researcher on Russia, in a telephone interview from London. "If they do it to us, the biggest international organization on human rights, I can imagine what sort of access they give to the local public organizations.

Providing public access to prisons was one of the conditions of Russia's admission to the Council of Europe, Katzarova said.

The new legislation would not solve the most pressing problem threatening the rights of prisoners: the dire lack of funding.

But the bill allows nongovernmental organizations to nominate teams of observers, including lawyers and medical professionals. These observers would be allowed access to almost all parts of a facility at any time and without prior warning.

However, at preliminary hearings in the Duma last week, the government expressed its opposition to the bill. The government favors a less far-reaching version of the legislation, which was prepared a year ago by the Justice Ministry's chief department of enforcement of punishment, or GUIN.

The Duma bill demands unlimited access to prisons without any warning, which prison officials resist.

"They [public organizations] want to be an extra prosecutor's office," exclaimed Viktor Gnukhayev, deputy head of the judicial department of GUIN. "They want to take too many powers and to turn prisons into some sort of public thoroughfare."

In a written commentary explaining the government's opposition to Borshchev's bill, Deputy Prime Minister Yury Maslyukov said it violates the law "On Public Organizations," which "stipulates no interference of public organizations into the activities of state bodies and state officials."

Maslyukov also protested against professionals - attorneys or doctors - being included in the teams of observers because it "will inevitably cause clashes with the employees of the same profession from the [prison] administrations."

Borshchev countered that "public control is not interference and such a stance from Maslyukov is not acceptable for us."

"We are prepared to compromise on some points, but we will never compromise on access to the prisons. It must be unconditional, without any warning and be allowed at any time of a day. Also, we demand to monitor not only prisons but police stations and detention centers," Borshchev said.

Borshchev said that next week he is calling together a working group to hammer out a compromise between the government and Duma proposals. But he refused to speculate on when the legislation would become law.