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17 Jul, 2009 12:08

Letter-openers: Russian rights revocation?

Letter-openers: Russian rights revocation?

Starting from July 21, Russian security services will have the right to open and inspect postal items without the decision of a court, according to a new order from the Ministry of Communications.

Secret services will be granted access to all the personal electronic information databases of the state postal service. Post offices are planned to be equipped with special isolated rooms for the inspection of the postal items of average citizens. None of these actions will require a court order.

The order does not even mention that, according to Russian law, any inspection of post should be made after a court decision only.

Legal basis

The Russian Constitution proclaims “the right to privacy of correspondence, of telephone conversations, postal, telegraph and other messages.”

Moreover, a decree of Russia’s Supreme Court of 2000 ruled that postal operators may grant access topersonal postal items for special service organizations only in cases where they are provided with the necessary documents from a court. Any other demands have no legal basis and contradict the Constitution of the Russian Federation.

Constitution of the Russian Federation

Article 23

1. Everyone shall have the right to the inviolability of private life, personal and family secrets, the protection of honor and good name.

2. Everyone shall have the right to privacy of correspondence, of telephone conversations, postal, telegraph and other messages. Limitations of this right shall be allowed only by court decision.

Article 24

1. The collection, storage, use and dissemination of information about the private life of a person shall not be allowed without his or her consent.

2. The bodies of state authorities, local governments and their officials shall ensure for everyone the possibility of access to the documents and materials directly affecting his or her rights and freedoms, unless otherwise provided for by law.

Besides the state postal service, order #65 does not specify how global post operators like DHL, TNT, FedEx etc. are expected to proceed with their work.

Another peculiar detail of the order is that postal personnel will not be authorized to enter those “isolated rooms”.

The Ministry of Communications insists that order #65 is “purely technical”; it has passed legal expertise and does not contradict the Constitution. The press-secretary of the Ministry of Communications, Elena Lashkina, said that “hysteria over the document is absolutely groundless” and the new rules are merely specifying the procedures prescribed by the Operational-Investigative Activity Act of 1995, informed Intefax news agency.

The Act permits that, in case of the urgent necessity to prevent a crime against the national, military, economical or ecological security of the Russian Federation, a dedicated authority of a special service agency to open and inspect mail and E-mail, and to tap phones is possible with the compulsory notification of a court within 24 hours, and the obtaining of a judicial decision within 48 hours – otherwise stopping such actions altogether.

“This is a flagrant violation of human rights”

The news about the new order has already caused a sensation in the Russian media, and the reaction of most experts is predictably negative. Human rights activists have threatened to sue the Ministry of Communications and prepare to file a claim to the Supreme Court.

Komsomolskaya Pravda daily has published several opinions from Russia’s legal experts on the issue, and their conclusions vary from skeptical to fiercely negative.

A member of Russia’s Public Chamber, lawyer Anatoly Kucherena says that, “This is a flagrant violation of human rights. Examination of private correspondence and phone tapping are prohibited under the Russian Constitution. This is a personal secret of a citizen and this right can be revoked by a court only. We’ll have to deal with this order to secure its cancellation.”

Deputy Chairman of Russian State Duma’s Security Committee, retired FSB colonel Gennady Gudkov, remembers that, “In previous years, a decision to make a postal inspection demanded numerous compliances and was strictly adhered to. What has happened this time? If there is a danger of some kind – please explain it to us, we want to understand the extent of this danger.”

An expert on economic intelligence, Roman Romachev, estimates that, “Business should be primarily aware of this order. Bookkeeping documents should not be sent by E-mail. Special services would have additional means to control the financial situation of a company, potentially in the interests of its competitors.”