Round table “Access to court in prisons in Russia”: can prisoners protect their rights?

24 December 2020

The round table “Access to court in prisons” took place on 22 September. The round table was held within the framework of the project “Strengthening civic monitoring of detention facilities in Russia”. The speakers were the project team and representatives of Public Monitoring Commissions and Public Councils, who participated in the study of the situation with respect to the right of access to court in their regions. 

The meeting was opened by Olga Salomatova, a lawyer, expert of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, project coordinator for the HFHR. She briefly described the international standards that guarantee access to court to any person in prison. The expert stressed that access to a fair trial is a fundamental human right, which is enshrined in international legal documents and in the Constitution of the Russian Federation. A person can defend himself/herself only by having the right to an impartial trial. Persons in prisons face a great restriction of their rights. They are the most vulnerable group, as this is directly related to their legal status. 


The lawyer explained what the essence of the principle of access to court is. Thus, you cannot create obstacles for a person when applying to the court. Based on this position, public observers analyzed in practice how the right to a fair trial is implemented and the presence/absence of barriers to access to court. 


The project manager and human rights activist Sergei Poduzov told how the study had been conducted. In total, public observers from 14 regions of Russia visited 71 institutions of the Federal Penitentiary Service, where they interviewed 171 employees and 690 prisoners. Also, the members of the PMC conducted interviews with 44 advocates and 23 lawyers and visited 33 court sessions as observers. Based on the results of the monitoring, public observers prepared regional reports, in which they developed recommendations for improving the work of the Federal Penitentiary Service and other institutions that provide prisoners with access to judicial protection. 


In turn, the project coordinator from the organization “Man and Law” Olga Vasileva shared the main results of the monitoring. Despite the fact that each region has its own specifics, Olga noted common points. Firstly, in the regional laws on free legal aid, prisoners are not allocated to a separate category, and thus they do not have the right to use free legal aid. She stressed that from time to time human rights defenders, members of Public Councils and others help prisoners, but there is no systematic assistance to prisoners in the regions.


Secondly, in the institutions of the Federal Penitentiary Service, prisoners do not have access to relevant legal acts that could be useful for them to protect their rights. Nevertheless, there are regions where the Federal Penitentiary Service has electronic databases and regulations there are updated in a timely manner.


Thirdly, as Olga Vasileva noted, in a number of regions there is an acute problem with the unhindered access of defenders to detention facilities to meet with their clients. Lawyers are carefully searched, forced to wait excessively for admission to places of detention, refused to provide documents, prohibited to take the photo and video equipment, ignoring the decision of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation, and not allowed to talk to prisoners in conditions of confidentiality. Moreover, some institutions of the Federal Penitentiary Service do not allow defenders who do not have higher education and lawyers who do not have the status of an advocate to enter detention facilities. Prisoners have to use the time allotted for visits with relatives to meet with a defender. 


Fourthly, there is an issue of legal aid to foreign citizens serving sentences in Russia, because in prison there are no legal documents in different languages, and the defenders are not provided with the translator. 

Observers from the Tomsk, Sverdlovsk and Rostov regions agreed with the main theses highlighted by Olga Vasileva and in their speeches they focused on the most important problems and changes for their regions.

For example, Gennady Postnikov, a member of the Public Council of the Federal Penitentiary Service of the Tomsk Region, said that employees of the Federal Penitentiary Service consider the right to access to court only in one way: the transfer of a prisoner to the trial or the provision of a separate room for participating in the trial by video call. But the right of access to court for prisoners is much broader, it includes the issues of transfer to the court, meetings with defense lawyers, excessive period of serving sentence, sending correspondence to the court, access to documents. Postnikov also noted that it is very difficult to explain to the employees of the Federal Penitentiary Service the importance of observing this right in relation to prisoners.


Anton Guskov, a member of the PMC of the Sverdlovsk region, noted the problem of censorship of correspondence: each head interprets the right of confidentiality in his own way. He said that in the penal colonies there are cases when prisoners give open letters to their superiors. Moreover, in the Sverdlovsk region, the situation with the observance of the right of access to court is aggravated by the distant locations of the FSIN institutions (more than 700 km from the city). This fact practically deprives prisoners of the opportunity to receive timely legal assistance. 


Natalia Merkulova, a deputy chairman of the PMC of the Rostov region, drew attention to the fact that the Chamber of advocates of the Rostov region had not responded to the request from the Public Monitoring Commission. In some institutions of the Federal Penitentiary Service, rooms for court sessions via the video conference mode are not fully equipped (there is no table or additional chair). As a positive result of the monitoring, the speaker noted that the newly appointed assistant Chief of the Federal Penitentiary Service of the Russian Federation for the Rostov region had sent to all subordinate institutions application forms for applying to the European Court of Human Rights, as well as collections of ECHR decisions.

Human rights activist Irina Protasova highlighted the recommendations that will be addressed to representatives of the authorities in the future: the installation of electronic legal databases in institutions, ensuring access to documents in various languages, changing legislation (inclusion of prisoners in the category of persons entitled to free legal assistance, unhindered access of defenders to detention facilities, compliance with the confidential transfer of documents, etc.). The discussion of the recommendations resulted in a lively debate on how to promote positive changes in the FSIN system. 

To learn more about the study on how the right of access to court is respected in 14 regions of Russia, you can watch the video of the round table.


The project “Strengthening civic monitoring of detention facilities in Russia” is implemented by the human rights organization “Man and Law” together with the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (Warsaw). The European Commission is supporting the project within the frames of the programme “European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights”.


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