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26 January 2016

Serious concerns over proposed amendments to the law on Public Monitoring Commissions

Update: as of September 2016, the amendments still have not been considered in the second reading.

On 26 January 2016, the lower chamber of Russia's Parliament adopted amendments to detention regulations laws. If passed, the draft amendments will put an end to the independent and effective monitoring of places of detention by human rights defenders.

The State Duma of the Russian Federation (lower chamber) adopted amendments to the law regulating the work of Public Monitoring Commissions (PMCs) at detention facilities.

On 10 June 2008, the Public Monitoring Commissions were established by the federal law № 76-FZ "On Public Control for Ensuring Human Rights in Detention Facilities and Assisting Persons in Detention Facilities", with the aim of ensuring public control over respect for human rights and standards of detention in detention facilities, including but not limited to, temporary and pre-trial detention facilities and penal colonies. The PMCs are composed of representatives of civil society organisations who have been approved by the Federal Public Chamber. The primary task of the PMCs is to monitor places of detention and provide government agencies with reliable information on any violations of detainees’ rights discovered during their visits. The members of the commissions currently have a significant degree of freedom in their work, being able to unrestrictedly access any detention facilities, talk to detainees, receive complaints, request relevant documents from state bodies and use photo, video and audio equipment to document human rights violations.

In February 2016, a special working group shall be created with the task of developing the draft amendments to the Law on PMCs based on comments and remarks made at the first reading, where the main points of the draft were agreed on. Following this process, the draft amendments will be sent for the second reading at the State Duma, where they shall be considered article by article.

The draft amendments stipulate that representatives of NGOs recognised by the Ministry of Justice as organisations performing functions of “foreign agents” cannot become members of PMCs. As of the date, all main human rights organisations in the Russian Federation have received this qualification. As a consequence, the draft amendments shall exclude them from monitoring the situation in detention facilities and defending the rights of prisoners.

Moreover, if the amendments enter into force, candidates for the PMCs will be required to obtain a recommendation from the Regional Public Chamber or Regional Ombudsman before the Federal Public Chamber can take a decision on their appointment. Concern is expressed that in practice this would result in Regional Public Chambers seeking to defend the reputation of their regions by recommending only those candidates whom they could subsequently influence.

According to the the draft amendments, an employee of the Federal Penal Correction Service (FPCS) would be able to interrupt a discussion between a detainee and a PMC member at any time if he or she believes that topics unrelated to the protection of human rights have been brought up or that a PMC member has infringed the internal regulations of the detention establishment. Control by prison administration over the videos and photos taken in detention facilities by the representative of PMC would also be reinforced.

In a positive development, the draft law expands the list of facilities that can be submitted to monitoring by PMCs, adding psychiatric wards, hospitals and other facilities of involuntary hospitalisation.

Front Line Defenders expresses its concern for the significant impact that the amendments to the law may have on the independence of Public Monitoring Commissions and the ability of human rights defenders to work for the protection of detainees’ rights in Russia.