Viasna launches campaign to monitor penal system
The obvious coercive focus of the state policy growing in connection with one or another socially significant event is more than ever before emphasizing the urgency of the issue of the country’s penitentiary legislation, law enforcement and the status of convicted persons, as well as those limited in their rights owing to restriction of freedom in different kinds of penal institutions. The poor human rights situation in Belarus is peculiar to both prisons in the traditional sense (colonies, detention centers and prisons) and institutions which declare other functions (special psychiatric facilities, medical-labor dispensaries, special educational institutions).
Respect for people’s rights, including of those deprived of liberty, is dealt by the influential international bodies. It was the understanding by the United Nations member-states of the vulnerable situation of prisoners that eventually led to the adoption of treaties that specifically define their rights. Adopted in 1955, the document “Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners” set the standards, which include the principles of medical care in detention. In 1977 the rules were extended to persons detained without charges, i.e. held in places other than prison.
Over the years, the minimum standards which guarantee the protection of persons in custody have been supplemented by other legal acts. In 1984, the UN adopted the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. In 1985, the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice were adopted for the protection of juvenile offenders. In 1988 and 1990, the UN adopted, respectively, the Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment, and the Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners.
The special rules relating to prisoners do not by any means supersede the state obligations to implement and respect the rights of citizens as stipulated by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as efforts to prevent torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
In addition to civil and political rights, prisoners can also enjoy economic and social rights, as set out in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Everyone’s right to the highest attainable standard of health, as proclaimed by this document, is also directly related to the hygienic conditions of detention and health care in prisons.
The national penitentiary legislation, including the Penal Code, internal regulations of various types of institutions, other relevant laws and regulations, in general implemented the principles enshrined in international treaties ratified by the Republic of Belarus; however, it does not account for trends in the European understanding of basic human rights. Moreover, the practice of keeping prisoners in detention or restraint of liberty is far from understanding and respect for human rights and freedoms.
Although declaring an intention to adhere to its obligations under human rights treaties, the state is in no hurry to reform the penal system performance; the control of public associations, even in the legally emasculated form, is rather fake than effective.
The functions of punishment by imprisonment, arrest, restraint, administrative detention, and detention of persons awaiting a court decision are implemented by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and its Department of Corrections, the State Security Committee (in relation to its own pre-trial jail), the Ministry of Defense (guardhouse), and the State Border Committee (pre-trial prisons). Statistics on persons serving a sentence and held in custody are not disclosed by the offices. Such data are sometimes voiced by the officials of different bodies. However, it is impossible to prove the reliability of the information, let alone analyze it, since the statistical structure of these figures is generally not disclosed.
The technical condition of prisons, with few exceptions, does not meet even national rules that define, in particular, the permissible number of persons per unit of area and volume of the room, as well as the sanitary and epidemiological standards. The premises of detention centers and places of administrative detention, and often colonies, lack light and fresh air, which contributes to the emergence and development of specific diseases.
Medical care of prisoners raises a lot of criticism due to lack of equipment, medicines and staff. Numerous reports say of an indifferent attitude of medical personnel to the complaints of prisoners and their failure to detect and diagnose diseases.
Most of the prisoners note the poor quality of food and clothing. Apart from that, their opportunities to purchase food and personal hygiene products and use their own clothes are often deliberately and groundlessly limited.
Prison labor, which ideally should serve as a means of re-socialization and allow to cover the material needs of the prisoner and his family, and also to compensate the victim’s damages, is currently on the verge of slavery, namely executed under duress and without payment, and sometimes crosses the border.
Among the main causes of the most serious human rights violations in prisons has been encouraging by officials of the administrations of correctional institutions to use illegal methods to make one part of the prisoners influence another part in order to create a favorable environment for investigative activities and put pressure on those who demand respect for and observance of their rights.
Insufficient measures have been taken to maintain the convict’s social ties and his social rehabilitation. In particular, the convict’s telephone and personal contacts with his family and friends are controlled or limited for no good reason or as a form of punishment. Educational opportunities are also limited.
Prosecutors’ supervision over the execution of punishments is formal and limited, as a rule, to a statement of the violations, which, owing to their ubiquitous and apparent expansion, such as the overcrowding of colonies and pre-trial prisons, are impossible to hide. Through the efforts of prison administrations and the indifference of prosecuting and judicial authorities a full understanding of the futility of complaints has been created. The powers of the prosecutor to institute criminal proceedings against police officers have been legally passed to the newly founded Investigative Committee.
Thus, research and analysis of the country’s penal legislation for compliance
with generally accepted standards that define rights and freedoms, as well as
monitoring of the penitentiary system will determine the prospects for the
humanization of punishment and form a correct attitude to the issue in society.
Ideally, systematic work in this area is able to induce the government to
reform both the legislation and its practical application.
We urge anyone who has information on the status of convicted persons and those limited in their rights due to detention in various institutions, or those who want to talk about their personal problems of this kind, to write an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or at P.O.B. 203, 220114, Minsk.