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By Nabi Abdullaev

Independent Prison Inspections Urged

The Moscow Times, June 6, 2002

Experts gathering Thursday on the heels of three major international summits said the West's Liberal politicians and human rights activists urged for the passage of a bill that would allow independent inspections of prisons and visits to inmates Wednesday, saying such visits would help root out prison abuses.

The bill, drafted by the State Duma committee on public organizations, has been in limbo for months after the Interior and Justice ministries complained that it gave too many rights to the visitors, representatives from civic organizations.

The Cabinet rejected the bill last June but promised to consider it again after the Kremlin-sponsored Civic Forum in November.

"We have already narrowed our demands in this bill, and for many it may seem useless and senseless now," Viktor Zorkaltsev, head of the Duma committee on public organizations, said at a round table Wednesday.

"We just hope to change the public's attitude toward prisons," he said, referring to the widespread opinion that torture and undernourishment are a normal part of prison life. "The lawmakers who come after us will make even bigger changes to expand the public's influence on the prison system."

The Cabinet has not set a date to consider the bill. Deputy Justice Minister Yury Kalinin said his ministry had no plans to sign off on it in time for it to go for a first hearing in the Duma in September, as supporters want.

"We will give the bill our approval when we get a normal draft," Kalinin told the round table.

The bill allows the formation of an inspection commission in each region of the country. The commissions would be filled with representatives from civic organizations whose candidacies would be approved by the chief Russian ombudsman.

The commissions would be able to visit detention centers and prisons and talk with the inmates. They could also collect complaints and defend inmates' rights to investigators, prosecutors and prison wardens.

The Interior Ministry is protesting the visits, saying a prisoner whose case is under investigation may pass on information to the commission that would impede the probe. The ministry also wants commission inspectors to have to get permission from the police before carrying out various activities.

The Justice Ministry says prison wardens should not have to answer to inspectors and has expressed concern about the technicalities of the appointment and dismissal of inspectors.

Yabloko party leader Grigory Yavlinsky said Wednesday that one reason the bill has gotten bound up in red tape is because of the peculiarities of existing legislation, an eclectic mix of Soviet-era laws that put the state's interests over those of individuals and newer laws that try to respect human rights.

"This is why [the government] says the bill contradicts so many laws," Yavlinsky said. "This bill, together with the bill on alternative military service and attempts to implement a ban on the death penalty, demonstrates that our legislation is developing in between these [Soviet and post-Soviet] principles."

Zorkaltsev said prison monitors could go a long way in doing some good in the overpopulated and underfunded prison system. He said 5 million people pass through the system a year, and there are about 1 million people behind bars at any given moment. They are all exposed to disease, undernourishment and torture at the hands of other inmates and prison officials.

There is one example of independent prison inspections. Human rights activists are allowed to visit prisons and talk to inmates and collect their complaints at any time in the Saratov region.

"Prison officials treat us well because they see in us an additional way to fight the scum in their system that they can't eliminate by themselves," said Saratov's ombudsman Alexander Lando.

He conceded that the activists only won the right to visit prisons due to his good personal relationship with Saratov Governor Dmitry Ayatskov.

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Human Rights

The Moscow Times, June 6, 2002

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