Medvedev passes law to protect prisoners’ rights

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev has passed a law designed to protect the legal rights of prisoners and improve prison conditions. The new law comes after the President's first meeting with Russia's Human Rights Ombu

Maksim Zubrilin got seven years after stepping in to help his friend in a fight. In prison his luck took another turn for the worse. A search of his cell revealed banned objects and he was sent to a secure cell.

There the weekly visits began. Zubrilin says three men in prison officers' uniforms would enter his cell, lock the door and leave only once he’d been beaten unconscious.

Human rights groups say this is no isolated case and that violence is not only tradition, it's currency in Russia's prisons.

“Blackmailing inmates is rife in penal colonies. As soon as a prisoner arrives at the colony, the some steward approaches his and says, we need this, this and this. If you get your parents to bring it to us we won't touch you,” says Aleksey Sokolov from the Legal Basis organisation designed to help those let down by the legal system.

Sokolov believes the government itself is a victim of a whitewash in Russia's prisons and that much of what goes on is hidden from view.

But information is now trickling out and for the President, who based his electoral campaign on human rights and freedom, it's time to deal with these issues.

“People write to us about a variety of problems, but most of all these are problems concerning the enforcement of court decisions. We have a paradoxical situation, where the courts are an authority, and yet their decisions are not carried out,” says Vladimir Lukin.

Russia's new leader doesn't shy away from the problem.

“Certain changes have taken place in the penitentiary system, but it needs new legal approaches, new financing and changes in the way the system as a whole is viewed by the public,” said Medvedev.

The country's legal system is in need of major change to ensure fair trials, fair punishment and the swift enforcement of the courts’ decisions.

Many unresolved cases go to the European Court of Human Rights, which in 2007 received around a quarter of all its complaints from Russia.

“The large number of appeals is linked to the fact that we have a very liberal system in working with complaints. In a number of countries, you need to get through a large number of channels to get to the European Court, but in our country it all happens quite quickly,” said Medvedev, while acknowledging that, nevertheless, it’s a worrying symptom.