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Grigory Pasko: The GULAG and its Rules

The GULAG and its rules

Grigory Pasko, journalist

I want to apologize to alert readers right from the start: I have no doubt that some of the examples I’m about to give are going to appear familiar to them. The fact is that on this topic – the topic of the absurdity of the rules of internal order (PVR) in Russian investigative jails – I have already written. And even right here on this blog. But the reality of life in Russia compels one to repeat oneself.

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Rules feel themselves snug and cozy amongst laws when nobody pays attention to them – even the Supreme Court… [L-R: Penal Code of the RF, Ministry of Justice Rules of Internal Order of Educative [i.e. Juvenile] Colonies, Constitution of the RF] (photo by Grigory Pasko)


The occasion this time was such a fact. On 3 February of this year, theSupreme Court of the RF disallowed a claim of ex-head of YUKOS MikhailKhodorkvsky, who was challenging the rules of internal order of aninvestigative isolator, confirmed by the Ministry of Justice of the RF.Khodorkovsky was challenging a clause pursuant to which the on-dutyprisoner in a cell must report to an employee of the SIZO [investigative isolator, also known in English as a remand prison; this is where Khodorkovsky is currently being held–Trans.]about the quantity of persons found in the cell. The fact is thatearlier, they had given Khodorkovsky three days in the dungeon becausehe had named an untrue number of persons in the cell.

The essence of Khodorkovsky’s application to the Supreme Court issimple and comprehensible: ensuring the regime – to which, in part,belongs also continuous control over the number of suspects andaccuseds – is the duty of the administration of the SIZO and its employees,who bear liability established by law for its non-execution (part 2 ofart. 15 of the Law), and can not be shifted onto the persons being heldin detention. That is, even if an on-duty prisoner does report thequantity of persons found in a cell to a jailer, the employee of theSIZO does not have the right to trust such information. Therefore, therequirement of inmates to report something is unlawful a priori.In such a manner, the regulating introduced by the Rules does not serveand does not even facilitate the achievement of the objectivesprescribed by the Law.

So what happened in court? As usual – nothing whatsoever that hadanything to do with legality. Here’s what Khodorkovsky’s lawyer YuriSchmidt had to say: “Both the procuracy and the Ministry of Justicewere saying nonsense, they could not give a proper answer to a singlequestion by the judge, and there was a total feeling that we had theclear advantage and were beating them, but in the end the court adoptedthat decision which it adopted».
A situation when an inmate is challenging prison rules – the PVR – isfar from the first in the history of Russia. And, I’ll venture, not thelast. In our time, my lawyer and I challenged even the orders of theMinistry of Defense. (And even achieved success: certain items of theidiotic orders were changed).

I think that nobody in contemporary Russia is going to go changingthe idiotic rules in the jails and the camps. I’ll warrant that thesystem of overlapping laws (in their majority good and correct onpaper) with idiotic departmental orders and rules is not accidental,but well thought out by those who create them.

These departmental orders-instructions have one amusing feature -they, as a rule, bear the classification “secret” or “top secret”. Atbest – «for official use only». What is most frightening, however, isnot so much the very existence of these contrary-to-the-law acts, butthe fact that the courts use them in verdicts in order to justifyguilty verdicts. (Despite the fact that this is directly andcategorically prohibited by the Constitution of the RF (see art. 15,pt. 3).

Often it is precisely to the internal rules that the administrationof a colony too makes reference, raising its demands towards convictedpersons. In so doing, the administration itself regularly violates thelaw. As an example, short-term visitations are never longer than twohours, although according the Penal Code you’re supposed to get fourhours. Another example: according to the Penal Code, the length of thework time of those convicted to deprivation of liberty is establishedin accordance with the legislation of the RF on labor. In the Code oflaws on labor (the KzoT) is recorded that «the normal duration of worktime…can not exceed 40 hours per week». Need it even be said that incamp it does exceed, while the work week is not five days, but six- andeven seven?

Non-specific wording allows unscrupulous representatives of thestate, in essence, rob the convicts. (Who, by the way, are already evenwithout this degraded by the conditions of detention to the state of ananimal). In such a case, how is the state – robbing an inmate of whatlittle rights he still has – any better than the inmate himself, lockedup for having stolen a chicken or a bag of potatoes? No better at all.And even worse, because it hides behind the law.

Of course, the laws need to be changed. To be brought intocompliance with the norms of international law. And for a start, weneed to strike out from them such wordings as allow the organs ofexecutive power to adopt their own, sub-legal, normative acts.Including about questions of the execution of punishments.

…I recall how once the former/future Russian president proposed toparliamentarians to review ALL Russian laws for the subject of theircompliance with one another and with actual reality.

Many new laws and new departmental rule have been thought up sincethat time. And a review of their compliance with one another? I don’tseem to recall one…