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Russia: Amnesty Bill Doesn't Solve Criminal Justice Problems

Russia's lower house of parliament last week approved a major amnesty bill for prisoners. Over the next few weeks, some 100,000 inmates are expected to be released in an effort to ease overcrowding in Russia's disease-ridden jails. The London-based human-rights groups Amnesty International, however, says the new Russian legislation does not go far enough. Our correspondent in the British capital, Ben Partridge, spoke with a Russian specialist at Amnesty about the problem

London, 22 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Amnesty International says the Russian State Duma's adoption of a new law to grant amnesty to up to 100,000 detainees and prisoners is welcome, but that it does not tackle the serious failures of the criminal justice system in that country.

The new law was adopted by the lower house of parliament on Friday, partly in a bid to improve pre-trial conditions in prisons and detention centers. Human-rights campaigners say such conditions amount to "torture." Unlike most bills, the amnesty does not need approval by President Boris Yeltsin or parliament's upper house, the Federation Council.

Russian officials say the new amnesty law will apply to people convicted of non-violent crimes, war veterans, pregnant women and women with children, adolescents, elderly people and invalids. It is not clear, however, how many people will actually be freed under the amnesty.

Amnesty International is appealing to the Russian government to fully implement the latest legislation, something it believes was not done following the adoption of an earlier amnesty law, when only about 30,000 people were released from prisons and detention.

There are now a total of 350,000 detainees in pre-trial detention and temporary isolation detention centers in the Russian Federation. Penal reformers say most are held in grossly overcrowded conditions in which fatal diseases like tuberculosis flourish. Deaths from suicide and lack of oxygen are common.

In a statement, Amnesty International says it welcomes the new amnesty law but hopes it will not be seen as a "quick-fix" solution to the serious deficiencies in the Russian criminal justice system.

The human rights organization says it is crucial the whole Russian justice system is reformed rather than simply adopting amnesty laws to release thousands of detainees, many of whom should not have been detained in the first place.

Mariana Katzarova -- Amnesty International's researcher for the Russian Federation -- says there is a need for Russia to adopt sweeping legislative reforms to replace old Soviet-type laws still in place.

"The conditions (in Russian prisons and detention centers) are really amounting to torture. Amnesty International has maintained for a long time that the Russian authorities should really focus attention on reforming the conditions of detention. But we realize that's not just a matter of political goodwill. It's also a matter of financial resources."

Amnesty says the Russian government should also introduce -- and the Duma should adopt without delay -- a full package of new legislative acts and amendments to existing criminal legislation. The package is aimed at reforming the entire criminal justice system in the Russian Federation.

An Amnesty statement notes that the new amnesty law does not cover young people charged with acts of theft committed together with criminal gangs (Article 158 section two of the penal code). According to Russian human-rights observers, in a number of penal colonies, up to 60 percent of the prisoners were convicted under this article.

The Amnesty statement expresses concern that most of the cases of charged or convicted adolescents appear related to petty theft in a gang, which "automatically excludes a huge number of adolescent detainees and prisoners from the new amnesty."

According to official statistics, there are more than 21,000 adolescents under 18 currently held in pre-trial detention centers and colonies in the Russian Federation. Independent sources estimate only up to 1,000 of those may now be freed from detention.

"Most laws applying to the criminal justice system are actually old Soviet laws where people are detained on charges of minor crimes, especially adolescents, children under 18, women with children, elderly people. Because the whole criminal justice system is dysfunctional, these people end up charged with minor crimes, waiting sometimes up to five years in appalling, torturous conditions of detention until their cases come up for a trial review."

Amnesty International is calling on the Russian government and legislators to review the imprisonment of those under 18 held for minor non-violent offenses. It notes that the Russian Federation's compliance with the provisions of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child will be considered at the next session of the Committee on the Rights of the Child in September.