Prison monitoring report: “We cannot help everyone, but manage to highlight violations in prisons”
The Human Rights Center "Viasna" presented yesterday its annual report on the results of monitoring places of detention in Belarus.
When presenting the report, Pavel Sapelka, Viasna's expert on the prison system, noted that the human rights activists view the preparation of the analytical document to be as significant as their work the monitoring itself and assisting the victims of human rights abuses in prisons.
“I believe that the human rights work of monitoring places of detention should be open and its results should be communicated to the general public,” he stressed.
Closeness of the prison system and lack of statistics remain a significant obstacle
The monitoring was primarily aimed at protecting the rights of prisoners, the number of which has been slightly increasing for the third year. Thus, according to the Interior Ministry, as of 1 January 2017, 35.2 thousand people were held in prisons, which is 5.5% more than that in early 2016, including 28 thousand people (9% more) in adult penal colonies, and 279 persons (20.8% more) in educational colonies for minors. Meanwhile, the number of colonies has reduced. Such a pattern gives cause for concerns regarding the conditions of detention, which do not correspond to the standards guaranteed by the national legislation and the country’s international obligations.
Pavel Sapelka pointed out that the Human Rights Center "Viasna", due to the limited capacity, cannot carry out a full and comprehensive monitoring of every aspect of detention conditions, but highlights the most vulnerable issues in terms of violations of human rights. This applies to violations of prisoners’ labor and political rights, problems of health care, opportunities for complaints and correspondence, the work of medical and labor dispensaries, restrictions of public control over the penitentiary system and others.
The expert noted that all these violations of human rights should be corrected and the process must begin with the establishment of a meaningful public control over the places of imprisonment.
“However, the legislation of Belarus, unfortunately, has severely limited the possibility of public scrutiny, despite the fact that the state itself has failed to create a preventive system that might prevent the violation of human rights in places of unfreedom,” Sapelka said. “That is, we have no ombudsman who would regularly visit places of detention without the consent of the administrations of these places, and to take some steps to improve the situation of prisoners in the field of human rights.”
The possibility of obtaining reliable information on the situation in prisons is limited, among other things, by lack of official statistics. Above all, the number of prisoners is not credible. According to the report, the official 35 thousand do not cover all persons deprived of their liberty. This category also includes 6,700 persons confined to the medical and labor dispensaries, which essentially constitutes a deprivation of liberty; a little more than 3 thousand people, who during the year pass through the detention houses, one of the most severe forms of deprivation of liberty; nearly 42,000 administrative detainees; and more than 7,000 people detained in facilities of open type, which is a less severe form of deprivation of liberty. In addition, places of detention hold those deprived of freedom by a court decision and sent for compulsory treatment, and teenagers who are sent to undergo treatment or study in closed medical or educational institutions.
No comprehensive coverage, but thorough assistance in specific cases
Speaking about Viasna’s work on the prison system, Ales Biliatski noted that human rights efforts are not focused on addressing all existing problems at once, but rather on studying specific cases in order to examine in detail related issues of concern. This principle is reflected in the report, which shows the cases in which the organization’s lawyers and counsels were working.
“Indeed, we cannot help everyone who became a victim of human rights violations in prisons, and even everyone whose rights violations were very serious, but we were able to draw attention to the problems themselves,” Pavel Sapelka said.
The most notable cases of the period are: those of Aleh Bahdanau and Ihar Barbashynski, who died in prison No. 8 in Žodzina, which are now under investigation in criminal proceedings, as well as the case of the death of Ihar Ptsichkin in jail No. 1 in Minsk, for which a prison officer was eventually convicted.
“Ptsichkin’s case continues, as on March 23 the court of Zavodski district of Minsk will consider a claim by the victim’s mother and sister, Zhanna and Iryna, to recover non-pecuniary damage from the government. This, too, is a kind of test of the government’s readiness to be responsible for violations of human rights that occur in prisons,” Pavel Sapelka said.
In addition, during the year human rights defenders worked with cases of ill-treatment during detention and delivery to police stations, paying attention to how law enforcement agencies can violate the rights of these persons from the beginning of conducting an administrative or criminal proceedings, create an atmosphere of humiliation and bullying against detainees. Such cases are also reflected in the report.