On 31 August 2016, St. Petersburg City Court upheld a district court’s judgement in the case of Artyom Efimov against the Military Commissariat, a military enlistment centre. Efimov had argued that he should be allowed to photograph the contents of his file kept at the Commissariat – a request that the Russian military authorities have traditionally denied. The judgement in Efimov’s favour is an important victory in the long fight of human rights organisations for the right of military conscripts to access their personal information collected by Commissariats.
During the autumn 2015 draft campaign, St. Petersburg resident Artyom Efimov requested on several occasions to be allowed to familiarise himself with his local Commissariat file and photograph its contents. The Commissariat’s officers agreed to give him access to the file but prohibited his copying it, referring to the absence of relevant provisions in applicable Russian law.
On 28 December 2015, Sergei Baidarov, Chief of the Military Commissariat of Kalininsky District of St. Petersburg, again denied Efimov’s request and denied further correspondence with the young man, referring to provisions of the Federal Law on the Procedure of Processing Citizens’ Appeals. The conscript, assisted by lawyer Alexander Gorbachev of the Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg, challenged the denial in the Kalininsky District Court. Efimov pressed administrative charges, stating that the military official had imposed arbitrary restrictions on his right to access information, although such restrictions may only be imposed by a federal law and that his case file did not any contain state or military secrets.
On 31 March 2016, just before the start of the spring draft campaign, the Kalininsky District Court issued a ruling which fully satisfied the conscript’s claims. The court held that the Military Commissariat had not demonstrated that the conscript’s file contained any state secrets. The court further found, based on the Federal Law on Information, Information Technology and Protection of Information, that the Commissariat’s decision violated the plaintiff’s right to seek and retrieve any information in any form and from any source. Quite expectedly, the military authorities appealed the ruling to the second instance court, but to no avail: exactly five months later, St. Petersburg City Court upheld the district court’s finding.
Traditionally in Russia, the entire sphere of relations between the army and society has been difficult for human rights defenders to address, as the military authorities tend to avoid civilian oversight, using state or military secrets as a pretext. But very often violations of conscripts’ rights occur at early stages of their enlistment and draft as a result of military officials’ failure to observe the law. For example, negligent medical examinations before service often lead to tragic outcomes: soldiers whose health problems have been overlooked can suffer severe consequences and even die from physical exertion in the army. It is therefore essential that civilians may oversee the actions of military officials and access the contents of conscripts’ files.
In the Soviet Union, military conscription and draft were shrouded in mystery. Everything, including the list of diseases disqualifying from military service, was kept secret. But even at that time, citizens were fighting against the secrecy. Ella Polyakova, Chair of the Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg and member of the Russian Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, recalls a story from1990 when a group of conscripts’ mothers in Latvia borrowed the list of disqualifying diseases from army officers just for one night in exchange for two bottles of cognac and then retyped the list, eventually helping to spread this information all over the country. A copy of this list hung on a wall in the Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg office for quite a long time. A lot has changed since then, e.g. alternative civilian service for objectors has been introduced and the list of disqualifying diseases made available to the public. The Russian Constitution guarantees everyone the freedom to seek and receive information by any lawful means (Article 29) and requires that public authorities and officials should give citizens access to documents and materials directly affecting their rights and freedoms (Article 24). The constitutional right to access information corresponds to relevant international standards, such as Article 10 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Campaigning for more transparency in the army started by demanding access to Military Commissariats for third parties; in 2007, Oksana Paramonova of Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg took military officials to court for denying her access to the venue where recruits gathered before being sent to the barracks. She won the case, and thus broke the first barrier. Since then increasing numbers of civilians have demanded to be shown their files kept by Military Commissariats. In 2013, Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg asked Alexander Shishlov, St. Petersburg ombudsman, to intervene. On 5 December 2014, on the ombudsman’s initiative and supported by the Governor of St. Petersburg, the Military Commissariat of St. Petersburg was advised to give recruits and their representatives access to files and provide copies of medical documents. However, the staff of the Commissariats permitted only the viewing of files and making notes on paper, and prohibited taking any photos of the documents. Their reluctance was easy to understand, since many files were not stitched or stapled together, their pages were missing numbers, and some medical records were scribbled in pencil, making it easy for pages to be lost or for others to be added to the file, such as a summons allegedly served, which could then be used to justify the involvement of police in apprehending a conscript.
The recent ruling of St. Petersburg City Court finally put an end to this dispute between military officials and society. Efimov’s representative in the proceedings, Alexander Gorbachev, welcomed this outcome as both logical and fair, “There is nothing in the Russian law to prevent conscripts from accessing their files and making copies of documents, including by taking photos of them. Then if any document, such as a medical record, is found to be missing from the file, the conscript will have evidence with which to appeal to higher authorities asking them to verify the legality of such a loss.”