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Russia: detainees who had rebelled against systematic torture sentenced to heavy sentences

EPLN – Press-release

At the end of a lengthy trial, 17 participants in a protest that took place in the Kopeysk penal colony (Ural Region) in November 2012 in response to systematic torture practices were sentenced to up to 5 years of prison by the Chelyabinsk Regional Court for “mass riots.” While the events of 2012 sparked at the time a broad debate in society about the use of torture in Russian prisons, this verdict is an alarming signal of impunity for torturers.

After a trial that lasted two years and ten months, the Chelyabinsk Regional Court sentenced seventeen of the participants in the protest that shook the Kopeysk colony in 2012 to sentences ranging between 4 and 5 years (six defendants who had taken part in a rally outside the prison were sentenced to lighter sentences). On 24 and 25 November 2012, the detainees climbed onto the rooftops of the prison to protest against the torture and racketeering practices that were in place in the facility. They stopped their protest once their claim was met: the arrival of a Moscow prosecutor and of television crews in order to investigate the situation in the prison. According to the substantiated information, the protest inside the Colony passed off peacefully. However, on the evening of 24 November 2012 clashes erupted between the OMON officers who had cordoned off the Colony outside and the relatives/friends of the prisoners who had not been admitted inside the Colony, during the “Open Doors Days” (days of planned visits by relatives to the detainees).

In its judgment rendered yesterday, the Court refused to take into account the arguments of the defense, which argued that the mass riots were not, in the absence of violence, legally made out, and that the protest was the only way to stop the torture practices constantly perpetrated by prison staff. The Court remained indifferent to the testimony of the representative of the Presidential Council on Human Rights of the Russian Federation, who explained that the fact-finding mission conducted a few days after the events had confirmed the torture-related allegations . Nor did the Court take into consideration the testimonies along the same lines of a State Duma MP and several members of the Chelyabinsk Public Monitoring Commission. Despite the lack of evidence regarding violence in the video recordings, the Court agreed with the arguments of the prosecution, based first of all on the testimony of detainees members of a informal structure affiliated with the administration and whose involvement in acts of torture had been established by the Presidential Human Rights Council, and secondly, on the damage done to an internal fence.

Procedurally, this trial cannot be considered fair. The defendants, whose lawyers were paid through the legal aid scheme, did not have the time and facilities to prepare the defense. It was clearly not possible for them to analyze the 12,200 pages of the indictment – although they were very repetitive – under adequate conditions. The extreme staggering of the trial inevitably forced lawyers to intermittently defend their clients and substitute for one another. Even more seriously, the absence of any notice of the witness summonses has prevented any meaningful preparation of the hearings. In general, the defendants have not been able to adequately discuss the reliability of the evidence presented by the prosecution.

More fundamentally, the conviction of the defendants ignores the state of necessity of the persons concerned, given the systematic torture practices and the climate of impunity that prevailed in the prison. This situation was, however, firmly established. In its investigation report of 11 March 2013, the Presidential Council on Human Rights pointed out “massive, systematic and flagrant violations of the rights and interests of detainees“, concluding that “all of these circumstances have led to a situation in which (…) the safeguarding of the rights and interest of the persons carrying out a sentence in the prison IK-6 was impossible “. This situation had “consequently led the prisoners to carry out a protest action, which has received public attention (…) throughout the country. “. The Council had uncovered a system of extortion and widespread use of violence, involving the prison management, guards and prisoners of the affiliated with the administration. In addition, it strongly criticized the shortcomings of the investigation into the death of an inmate during the summer of 2012, allegedly due to AIDS, but attributed by the Chelyabinsk Public Monitoring Commission to a beating by the penitentiary staff. Similarly, the Court has refrained from analyzing allegations of ill-treatment during the investigation phase by some defendants.

The conviction that has been handed down is all the more unjustified, since the perpetrators of torture have enjoyed a great deal of impunity. At the disciplinary level, 12 officials received warnings. The director of Colony No. 6, Mr. Mekhanov, was dismissed. Some other officials of the colony and the regional directorate of the prison service, including the director of the penitentiary service, were forced to resign or take up a position in another establishment. At the criminal level, only the former director of the colony, Mr. Mekhanov, was prosecuted. On December 22, 2014, a court sentenced him to three years of suspended imprisonment for extortion and illegal manufacture of knives in prison. On June 5, 2015, the court also sentenced him to one year in prison for excess of official powers (other  acts of extortion against detainees and their relatives), a sentence that later fell under an amnesty. The acts of torture did not give rise to any legal proceedings. Yesterday’s verdict can only reassure the perpetrators of ill-treatment in Russian prisons in their belief that they can carry out their misdeeds with impunity. 

EPLN recall that:

  • the absence of a thorough and effective investigation leading to the identification and punishment of those responsible constitutes a violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECtHR, Lyapin v. Russia, 24 / 07/2014, No. 46956/09). The organizations urge the authorities to put an end to this situation of impunity by conducting full investigations under conditions that allow for public scrutiny (Lyapin v. Russia, op.)
  • the fair trial “implies the obligation to offer each party a reasonable opportunity to present its case, including its evidence, in conditions which do not place it in a situation of great disadvantage compared to its adversary” (Ankerl v. Switzerland, 19 July 1994 – difference of treatment in the hearing of witnesses), and that the judge “take into consideration the quality of the evidence, especially if the circumstances in which it was questioned its reliability” (Lisica Croatia, 25 February 2010, No. 20100/06, §49).

An international mission has been observing the hearings. Its report will be published shortly.