‘Independent observers get in the way’ Meduza looks into the prisoners’ rights monitors who met with Navalny — and examines why these watchdog groups include so few human rights defenders
Having learned about Alexey Navalny’s deteriorating health “from social networks,” members of the Vladimir region’s prison watchdog group visited the opposition politician in Pokrov’s Penal Colony No. 2 on March 27. According to the head of the local Public Monitoring Commission (ONK), which is tasked with overseeing the observance of prisoners’ rights, Navalny asked for help obtaining an injection to treat pain and inflammation, though at the time he could walk on his own. Allegedly, the jailed opposition figure didn’t make any other requests. Following these statements, Navalny — who has developed back pain in prison and started experiencing numbness in one of his legs — conveyed via his lawyers that he had told the commission about a “bunch of complaints,” including the fact that he has yet to receive a diagnosis or his MRI results. Navalny called the commission’s members “a bunch of crooks and liars.” In response, the local ONK’s deputy head asserted that Navalny was “feigning” health problems. Meduza looks into the members of the Vladimir region’s public monitoring commission and investigates why there are so few real human rights defenders in these prison watchdog groups.
Who monitors the observance of prisoners’ rights in Russia’s Vladimir region?
The Vladimir region’s Public Monitoring Commission (ONK) has 19 members. It’s led by Vyacheslav Kulikov, the entrepreneur, owner, and director behind the lumber company Friz LLC. Kulikov’s deputies are more noteworthy figures. The first is Vladimir Grigoryan, a member of the Public Organization of Veterans of the Penal System in the Vladimir region. The second is Vasily Zemlyanikin, the co-founder of a local organization of special forces veterans called “Zakon-Monomakh” (Zemlyanikin didn’t answer Meduza’s phone calls).
In addition to Kulikov’s two deputies, at least three other members of the Vladimir region’s ONK have ties to the law enforcement system: Ivan Abramchuk, the former head of a juvenile detention facility in Likino (a township in the Vladimir region); Valery Nazarov, an ex-police major and the former head of a temporary detention center; and Pavel Khitev, a retired police colonel and the former head of the local Interior Ministry branch’s forensics center.
The commission also counts among its members three local entrepreneurs, a legal advisor to the state television and radio company “Vladimir,” and an Orthodox priest. In addition, there are several representatives of charitable organizations. One of them is Mikhail Veshkin, the director of the Pobeda (Victory) Foundation, which offers rehabilitation for people with drug and alcohol dependencies. Meduza was unable to find this organization’s financial records on the Justice Ministry’s website. Another is Sergey Chubko, the director of the charity Blizkie Lyudi (Close People) — according to its VKontakte page, this organization helps people who have fallen on hard times, and families with disabled or seriously ill members. Judging by the foundation’s financial reports to the Justice Ministry, it didn’t receive or spend any funds in 2019 and 2020.
Sergey Yazhan, the head of the local Armenian community, is another member of the Vladimir region’s ONK whose work has featured in media reports. In 2018, an inmate named David Mdivanishvili who was serving time for murder in Vladimir Central (a local prison for especially dangerous criminals) lost his tongue. This took place while he was in the toilet, out view of security cameras. ONK member Sergey Yazhan met with Mdivanishvili and came to the conclusion that he “bit off his own tongue.”
“Why he did this, I don’t know. When we spoke with him he couldn’t talk to us. We asked him: ‘Did you do this yourself?’ He says, ‘Yes, myself.’ He nods. He has no questions, everything is fine,” Yazhan told the local outlet ProVladimir. David Mdivanishvili’s relatives maintained that he physically could not have done this to himself: his front teeth had been missing for several years already.
Who exactly visited Alexey Navalny in the penal colony isn’t clear from the local public monitoring commission’s press release. The commission’s deputy head, Vladimir Grigoryan — who accused Navalny of “feigning” his health problems — told TV Rain that he was “in the hospital” and didn’t go to the penal colony himself.
Why are there so few human rights defenders on public monitoring commissions in the regions?
The law on public oversight of human rights in Russia’s prisons was adopted in 2008. According to the legislation, special public monitoring commissions are supposed to monitor prison conditions in every region. Even when this law was still under discussion, one of the most important questions raised was who exactly would determine the composition of these commissions. “In my version of the law, the ONK members were approved by the [presidential] human rights commissioner, but then this right was transferred to the Civic Chamber,” Soviet dissident and Russian human rights activists Valery Borshchev, who co-authored the law, told Meduza.
As a result, the procedure is as follows: regional non-profit organizations that are involved in protecting human rights can nominate two candidates to the ONK, who are then approved by the Federal Civic Chamber’s Council. For some time, the Civic Chamber’s decision-making was guided by the opinion of a special expert council, but this advisory body was disbanded a few years ago, Borshchev notes.
2016 marked the first year that the composition of the public monitoring commissions in all of Russia’s regions was determined without the involvement of the expert council — scandals ensued. Human rights defenders complained about the arbitrary approval of applicants and the “destruction of public oversight”: at the time, many well-known human rights activists were excluded from public monitoring commissions, including, for example, Human Rights Council members Andrey Babushkin and Elena Masyuk, and the president of the Social Partnership Foundation, Lyubov Volkova. Meanwhile, Dmitry Komnov — who was in charge of the Butyrka remand prison when Sergey Magnitsky was in custody there — was made a member of the Moscow ONK. “By the way, he worked normally [within the ONK], but the very fact that he was included in the ONK was a challenge for civic human rights defenders,” explained journalist Eva Merkacheva, a member of the Moscow ONK since 2016, in conversation with Meduza.
Human rights activist Zoya Svetova, a member of the Moscow ONK from 2008 to 2016, gave the following explanation for these changes:
“Somewhere around 2014 — after Crimea — both representatives of the prison system and representatives of related departments, such as, for example, the FSB and the Investigative Committee, realized that independent public observers get in their way. Therefore, in the future, those who had previously worked in the security forces or in the prison system and had nothing to do with human rights activities began to be chosen [as] ONK members throughout Russia.”
“In response to complaints about the composition of the ONKs, [then Civic Chamber Secretary Valery] Fadeyev said: well, we don’t know who’s a human rights defender and who isn’t,” Borshchev recalled. Fadeyev, who now heads Russia’s Human Rights Council, told Meduza that he doesn’t see a problem with public monitoring commissions including members from law enforcement. “The problem is that ONK members often resolve their own financial problems rather than [provide] human rights protections — this goes for both former law enforcement officers and so-called human rights defenders. There are recorded and proven examples,” he told Meduza. (Fadeyev was likely referring to the case of Denis Nabidullin, a member of the Moscow ONK who was charged with attempted fraud at the end of 2017 and received a suspended sentence).
In 2018, the procedure for forming public monitoring commissions was tightened, along with the law itself: now, civil society activists can only speak with inmates about the conditions of their detention; any other conversations must be avoided. And NGOs labeled as “foreign agents” no longer have the right to nominate candidates for public monitoring commissions. At the same time, the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) and the Interior Ministry can file complaints against monitors with the Civic Chamber. The amendments also prevent anyone with an unexpunged or outstanding conviction — or close relatives serving out a sentence — from becoming members of an ONK.
The composition of the regional ONKs changes every three years. The Federal Civic Chamber confirmed the most recent list in 2019. According to Valery Borshchev, at that time they relied heavily on recommendations from local civic chambers, which, in turn, often listened to the opinions of the FSIN and the FSB. Other human rights defenders subsequently noted that their colleagues had been excluded from the commissions on formal grounds.
The Vladimir region’s Civic Chamber is headed by Anatoly Anin, a professor from RANEPA’s State and Municipal Administration Department. Anin didn’t respond to the requests for comment that Meduza sent him via his secretary.
Translated and abridged by Eilish Hart