The Supreme Court started on 7th of August the examination on the merits of the judgement delivered against 17 participants in a resounding protest that took place in the Kopeysk penal colony (Сhelyabinsk Region, Ural) in November 2012 in response to systematic torture practices. In April 2018, the defendants were sentenced to up to 5 years of prison by the Chelyabinsk Regional Court for “mass riots.” The appellate review provides the judicial authorities with an opportunity to remedy the serious violations of the rights of the accused, which were observed by an international observation mission during the trial at first instance. However, the conditions under which the Supreme Court began its consideration of the case are already questionable.
On 7th of August 2019, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation began considering appeals against the judgment delivered by the Chelyabinsk Regional Court on 14 April 2018 against seventeen of the participants in the protest that shook the Kopeysk colony n°6 (IK-6) in 2012. The Chelyabinsk Regional Court sentenced the defendants to sentences ranging between 3 years and 6 months (on probation) and 5 years. 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.
The Supreme Court is called upon to rule in particular on the question of whether the disobedience movement was a criminal offence of mass disorder. The peaceful nature of the movement had been noted by members of the fact-finding mission of the Presidential Council for Human Rights and the Chelyabinsk Public Monitoring Commission, among others. The Court must also rule on the proportionality of the sentences imposed to the accused in the light of the context of systemic torture in the colony and the ineffectiveness of the possibilities for detainees to legally challenge the prison administration’s action. The Court also deals with criticisms relating to the unfairness of the trial before the Chelyabinsk Regional Court, in particular with obstacles to the rights of the defence and imbalance in the assessment of the charges, especially when it comes to taking into account exculpatory evidence.
An international mission that observed the trial at first instance found serious violations of the defendants’ human rights. According to the report, these are due first of all to the conviction of the defendants ignoring the state of necessity of the persons concerned, given the systematic torture practices. The detainees had no other option to complain about the ill-treatment than to take collective action in protest. In these circumstances, their action should be considered as part of the protection of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
Procedurally, the monitoring mission concluded that the first instance trial cannot be considered fair. The high turnover of lawyers paid by the legal aid system, due to the transfer of accused persons to another region and the extreme stretching of the proceedings, had prevented them from receiving adequate legal assistance, also considering the exceptional volume of the case file (130 volumes). 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.
In this context, the Supreme Court has the primary responsibility to remedy the violations of fundamental rights thus established during the previous stages of the proceedings. However, serious questions arise with regard to the effectiveness of the protection of the rights of accused persons and the fairness of the proceedings.
First, some of the accused, who attend the proceedings via a videoconferencing system, are placed in cages. This is degrading treatment (Karachentsev v. Russia, no. 23229/11, 17.04.2018) that the Supreme Court should not tolerate under any circumstances. Secondly, it appears that several lawyers did not have the necessary time to study the case. Finally, corroborating evidence from lawyers and human rights defenders indicates that some convicted persons are assisted by lawyers appointed under the legal aid system who are clearly unfamiliar with the case and passively defend the interests of their clients.
A forced-march examination of this case would be all the more worrying from the point of view of the attention paid by the Russian judicial authorities to torture cases, given that the events in Kopeysk had been exceptionally well reasoned in Russia and internationally.
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.”
In June 2014, the UN Committee against Torture had questioned the Russian authorities about the ill-treatment of detainees in Colony No. 6 (CAT/C/RUS/QPR/6), the impossibility for the Public Monitoring Commission to enter the colony during the troubles and the complete ineffectiveness of the control mechanisms.
EPLN recalls that:
- 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, 19/07/1994, no. 17748/91), and that the judges “take into consideration the quality of the evidence, especially if the circumstances in which it was questioned its reliability” (Lisica Croatia, 25/02/2010, No. 20100/06);
- the mere appointment of a legal-aid lawyer does not ensure effective assistance. State liability arises where a lawyer simply fails to act for the accused (Artico v. Italy, 13/05/1980, no. 6694/74) or where he fails to comply with a crucial procedural requirement that cannot simply be equated with an injudicious line of defence or a mere defect of argumentation (Czekalla v. Portugal, 10/10/2002, no. 38830/97)
- the Russian authorities to strictly observe the fair trial requirements during the appeal examination and to take all measures to preserve the right for respect for human dignity of the defendants;
- the High Commissioner for Human Rights in the Russian Federation to send a representative to the hearing to observe the proceedings, as requested by the human rights organization Za Prava Cheloveka;
- the competent bodies of the Council of Europe to use all the means at their disposal to protect the rights of the defendants, and to persuade the Russian judicial authorities to carry out the necessary investigations concerning the situation in the penal colony No. 6 in Kopeysk.
Read the report of the International Monitoring Mission of the trial at first instance >> in English
For more information on the Kopeysk events, the context of the collective protest of prisoners, and the judicial case, see kopeyskjustice.info (in Russian only)
Press contact: Hugues de Suremain