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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Irish Charm Gets UN's Robinson Into Jail

Rafik Ibragimov looked suspiciously at UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson from behind his desk. For Ibragimov, the director of Moscow's infamous Butyrka jail, Robinson's invitation from the Justice Ministry to visit on Wednesday was not enough.

Her delegation had neglected to go through the proper procedures, he said: "Things are just not done this way."

Robinson, a former president of Ireland, politely handed him her business card and explained the nature of her visit.

"I regret if the visit will cause you inconvenience, but I would like to see some of the cells and the situation in the SIZO [pretrial detention center] as part of my work as high commissioner," she said.

"No one who works here is violating human rights," said Ibragimov, who has been director for only a month.

With a little more persuading, Ibragimov agreed to open the heavy metal doors that separated Robinson from Butyrka's 5,904 prisoners. The incident was symbolic of the uphill battle faced by Robinson and other human rights campaigners who urge reform of Russia's notoriouslyovercrowded and inhumane prisons and jails.

Ibragimov said he agreed the situation is deplorable but said he was powerless to improve it f and he doubted Robinson could help him.

"We ask God for help," he told her.

Robinson, who left her post as president of Ireland in September 1997 to become the top United Nations human rights official, arrived in Russia on Sunday for a weeklong visit at the request of the government. Her trip to Butyrka came days after the State Duma, parliament's lower house, gave preliminary approval to an amnesty that would free about 80,000 people, including some 12,000 in pretrial detention centers who are minors or accused of petty crimes.

But human rights advocates and Justice Ministry officials stress that Russia needs comprehensive reform of the criminal justice system, not just a one-time amnesty. Robinson discussed this point with Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo, Russia's top police official, during a meeting Tuesday.

After witnessing conditions in a detention center in Saratov on Monday, she called for a joint task force between the Interior Ministry and the Justice Ministry to look into ways of reducing the amount of time people spend in jail awaiting trial.

Butyrka, whose population far exceeds its capacity of 3,500, is a glaring but typical example of Russia's dangerously overloaded detention system. Inmates, many awaiting trial and not yet convicted of a crime, are forced to take turns sleeping because of overcrowding.

Public health organizations say the system is fueling the spread of drug-resistant tuberculosis.

Vladimir Ovchinnikov, head of the department of the Moscow City Prosecutor's Office that oversees pretrial detention centers, told Robinson that his department has found that the average pre-trial inmate spends from eight to 12 months there.

"Some are here for four years," he added.

Robinson was not allowed inside the cells, and all her conversations with prisoners went on through the tiny windows of the metal cell doors. Ibragimov said that closer contact would be dangerous in large part because many of the prisoners have not seen any women f other than the 100 or so female employees f in months.

As Robinson's delegation made the rounds, the prisoners curiously peered out the tiny windows at the well-dressed visitors. The view from the outside in revealed little more than hundreds of legs, a few pot bellies and some tattoos, as inmates stood in the hot, humid cells in only their shorts. A few lucky ones had electric fans given to them by relatives.

In her patient, no-nonsense style, Robinson questioned a number of inmates about the conditions. An inmate in one cell built for 30 people told her he shared the space with 65 people. The man said he had been in Butyrka for three months and was accused of drug possession f a crime that many human rights advocates say should not put people behind bars but rather in clinics.

At Robinson's request, Ibragimov showed her the cell block for prisoners formally on death row. Although President Boris Yeltsin last month commuted all death sentences to life imprisonment as part of an agreement with the Council of Europe, many prisoners have not yet been transferred to long-term detention centers.

"During these seven years, if it weren't for the humanity of the people here, I wouldn't have survived," one death row inmate told Robinson as Ibragimov looked on.

Then he added, "This is for you," and handed her an intricately carved wooden doll.

Robinson listened sympathetically as Ibragimov told her of his painfully small staff f about 270 people apart from administrators, not enough to carry out basic rehabilitation efforts with prisoners. "Here, a prisoner can't even tell that anybody is working with him," Ibragimov said.

He also said he lacked funds to do structural repairs on the decrepit building, which was built under Catherine the Great.

Ovchinnikov of the prosecutor's office said his department is short-staffed as well, with only five employees for all five of Moscow's pre-trial detention centers, which house 18,500 people.

Though running late for her next appointment, Robinson accepted Ibragimov's invitation to join him for tea. This time, as they sat in his office, the suspicion was gone from his voice.

"Maybe I wasn't thrilled about your coming," Ibragimov conceded. "But after a meeting like this, as you say goodbye, one is left with a little bit of hope."

Robinson said afterward that the visit opened her eyes as well.

"It brought home to me the difficult conditions under which the director and his staff f and indeed the procurator f work," she said, "and I'm even more determined to see how we can support change that promotes human rights."