Russia: PACE resolution highlights urgent need to protect prisoners in transit

A resolution on prisoner transfers adopted today by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) must be followed by concrete steps to ensure that human rights of prisoners are respected while they are in transit, Amnesty International said today. The organization has previously documented the appalling conditions in which prisoners in Russia are transferred, and called on the Russian authorities to implement the PACE recommendations immediately.
“Prisoner transfers are often deliberately hidden from the public gaze, meaning people are subjected to appalling abuses without scrutiny. In Russia, where prisoners are often sent to remote locations to serve their sentences, people spend weeks or even months in cramped, windowless trains with no access to the outside world. While their families wonder where they are, prisoners suffer the miseries of infrequent toilet access, scant drinking water and severe overcrowding,” said Heather McGill, Researcher in the Eastern Europe and Central Asia Regional Office of Amnesty International.  
“The resolution by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is a welcome move which shines a light on the need to protect prisoners from these kinds of abuses, in Russia and elsewhere. We are calling for states to implement these recommendations and ensure that the rights of prisoners are respected at every stage of their imprisonment.”
The PACE recommends the states to revise the European Prison Rules to include specific guarantees relating to transportation. In particular, it recommends that states must ensure essential safeguards against torture such as access to doctors and lawyers. They must ensure that prisoners are not transported in overcrowded conditions, that transfers are limited in time and take the shortest possible routes, and that communication with the outside world is only restricted in exceptional circumstances. Moreover, the resolution urges states to allow prisoners to inform their families and lawyer immediately of their transfer to another institution. 
In a 2017 report, Prisoner Transportation in Russia: Travelling into the Unknown, Amnesty International documented serious human rights violations during prisoner transfers in Russia. The case of Victor Filinkov and Yuliy Boyarshinov, two youth activists arrested on terrorism related charges and believed to have been tortured to extract confessions, serves as a recent example of the ongoing problem. Arrested in Saint Petersburg in January and April 2018 respectively, on 20 July Filinkov and Boyarshinov were transported to an undisclosed location. Their whereabouts were unknown for more than two months, before it was revealed that they had been transported from Saint Petersburg to Penza – via a circuitous route measuring far more than the 1200 km that separates the two cities.
“We are calling on the Russian authorities to ensure that prisoners serve their sentences in the same region as their home, as required by national legislation. They should also shorten journey times to a minimum not exceeding a few days at most and improve conditions on trains,” said Heather McGill.
“It’s also essential that families or legal representatives are informed about plans to move a prisoner, and their intended destination, before they are moved. Prisoner transportation has been a blind spot for too long.” 
Russia’s detention centres, partly an inheritance from the GULAG era, are located in sparsely populated parts of the country such as the far north and the far east, and there is a longstanding practice of sending prisoners to serve their sentences in these remote locations. Women and juveniles in particular serve their sentences very far from home because of the small number of dedicated detention centres. During transit, prisoners are not allowed to communicate with relatives or lawyers for weeks or even months, which may result in enforced disappearance, and suffer appalling conditions of detention violating the prohibition on torture and other ill-treatment. Moreover, the fact that the prisoners serve their sentences thousands of kilometres from home violates their rights to private and family life.
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