The bill outlining use of physical force, special technical devices and firearms on convicts was signed by President Putin on 29 December 2016. It is not as harmful as human rights advocates feared it would be, but it is unlikely to eradicate violence in prisons.
Russian media outlets buzzed with worrying headlines on 21 December, saying that the country’s lower chamber of parliament – the State Duma – had passed “the sadist law”. The legislation to which they were referring 1“On amending the law of Russian Federation ‘On state institutions and bodies that carry out criminal sentences of imprisonment’ and the federal law ‘On holding suspects and defendants in custody’ in the parts that outline the use of physical force, special equipment and firearms by penitentiary officers, as well as in parts that outline other issues of organising and maintaining the penitentiary system”, Законопроект № 802242-6 http://asozd.duma.gov.ru/main.nsf/(Spravka)?OpenAgent&RN=802242-6 relates to prisoners and the way guards should treat them. It outlines how and when guards can use physical force on inmates– including with devices such as stun guns, rubber batons and firearms.
Russia’s penitentiary system is notorious for its cruel, borderline torturous treatment of inmates, and initially human rights activists and independent prison watchdogs feared the new law would only lead to more abuse.
But the amended version of the bill, which passed its third reading on 21 December and was signed by President Putin on 29 December, is not as bad as the original version, according to Igor Kalyapin, head of the NGO Committee for Prevention of Torture. But it hardly tackles the problem of violence in prisons. “These regulations are great for those penitentiary officers who are willing to abide by the law. Those who are not are unlikely start doing it because of the new law,” Kalyapin told Legal Dialogue.
Making ‘Sadist Law’ Less Sadist
The controversial bill – publicly referred to as the “sadist law” – was first introduced to the State Duma in May 2015.
It allowed prison guards to use physical force and permitted other devices if inmates violated prison regulations, committed, or were about to commit, crimes, or attempted to flee from custody.
The clause about violating prison regulations was what most concerned human rights experts. Unbuttoned uniform or unmade beds, for instance, could be interpreted as such, Kalyapin argues, and under the bill, physical confrontation was considered adequate response to such minor infringements.
Under pressure from human rights advocates, after the bill’s first reading, several amendments were made to it, leaving out the most controversial recommendations.
As a result, the amended bill prepared for the second reading on 14 December 2016 excluded the clause on violation of prison regulations. Both physical force and special devices were allowed to be used only to prevent crimes and misdemeanours in prisons, or to punish them. Moreover, this version of the bill obligated prison officials to provide immediate medical care to inmates subjected to physical punishment. It also recommended video recording any such use of physical force or special devices, in order to prevent abuse.
All of these amendments made it to the third reading on 21 December, and the law was passed.
Pros and Cons
Lawyers and human rights advocates agree that the law will not make the situation in penitentiary facilities worse than it is now. “All the right things are outlined in this law,” says Kalyapin.
Yuri Blokhin, a lawyer and a member of the Public Monitoring Commission, Russia’s independent prison watchdog, echoes his sentiment. “I haven’t noticed any serious drawbacks,” Blokhin told Legal Dialogue. “Moreover, the law has a clause limiting the number of situations when physical force and special devices can be used. Existing legislation didn’t have that.”
From that point of view, Blokhin adds, the law can be seen as quite progressive – and calling it “sadist” an exaggeration.
At the same time, this legislation doesn’t help eliminate one of the biggest problems in Russian prisons – abuse of force towards inmates. Lack of progressive laws is not the reason it takes place, Blokhin points out. “Penitentiary officers are convinced they are allowed to do certain things they really aren’t. They believe they can and should use the most traumatic means of dealing with prisoners.”
Kalyapin, from the Committee for Prevention of Torture, agrees. “The problem with the Russian penitentiary system is that people prone to violent behaviour work in it, and this law won’t change that. We need laws that outline adequate punishment for violence in prisons – laws that would make these people understand they can’t get away with abuse anymore,” he says.
Russia’s penitentiary system, adds Blokhin, is designed to suppress personality, and not a single law can change – rather, a fundamental change of the overall mindset is required.[:]
|↑1||“On amending the law of Russian Federation ‘On state institutions and bodies that carry out criminal sentences of imprisonment’ and the federal law ‘On holding suspects and defendants in custody’ in the parts that outline the use of physical force, special equipment and firearms by penitentiary officers, as well as in parts that outline other issues of organising and maintaining the penitentiary system”, Законопроект № 802242-6 http://asozd.duma.gov.ru/main.nsf/(Spravka)?OpenAgent&RN=802242-6|