Russia’s Handcuffing of Prisoners Chafes Rights Court

The European Court of Human Rights told Russia on Tuesday that it’s inhuman and degrading to put prisoners in handcuffs when they are let out of their cells in maximum-security prisons. 

The Shcherbinsky District Court is part of the Moscow City Court system. (Photo courtesy of the Moscow government via Courthouse News)

(CN) — While it found nothing wrong with Russia’s system for monitoring former inmates deemed at risk of returning to criminal activity, the European Court of Human Rights on Tuesday ordered Russia to stop handcuffing prisoners serving life sentences the few times they are allowed out of their cells.

The court’s rulings came in two separate complaints brought by inmates and former inmates seeking changes in Russia’s long-troubled prison system. 

On the matter of handcuffing prisoners, the Strasbourg-based court said the systematic handcuffing of prisoners when they leave their cells is degrading and inhuman. In its ruling, the court combined complaints from four inmates serving life sentences at different prisons. 

“Even a life sentence cannot justify routine and prolonged handcuffing that would not be based on the specific security concerns and the inmate’s personal circumstances and not be subject to regular review,” the court wrote. 

The judges found that prison staff in Russia routinely place handcuffs when inmates are “taken to the shower, for a walk, to meet defense lawyers, investigators and prosecutors, as well as during search of their cells and personal belongings.” 

“The applicants’ hands were cuffed behind their backs and pulled up by a warden, which forced them to bend down,” the court said. 

It noted that in 2006 the Council of Europe adopted a set of prison-reform recommendations that said handcuffs should be used inside prisons only when necessary, for instance when an inmate is transferred between facilities or is at risk of self-injury or injuring others. A 2016 report by the Council of Europe found systematic handcuffing of prisoners taking place in Russia and Ukraine as well as in Bulgaria, a member of the European Union. 

The Council of Europe is made up of the 47 nations that have signed the European Convention on Human Rights, a bill of rights drafted after World War II. Russia is a member and therefore subject to rulings by the court in Strasbourg, France. But the European Court of Human Rights has a mixed record in seeing its rulings enforced in some member states, such as Russia and Turkey. Both Russia and Turkey frequently appear before the court over allegations of a wide range of human rights abuses.

Tuesday’s ruling also shed light on the extremely tough conditions Russian inmates convicted of violent crimes endure. This reality was described by Vladislav Yuryevich Shylkov, a Russian inmate in his late 40s serving a life sentence for three murders, attempted murder and robbery. One of those murdered was a teenager, the court said. He also was one of the four inmates seeking to be free of handcuffs when he leaves his cell. 

Shylkov complained to the court about inhuman conditions he and other inmates live in at a maximum-security prison known as the “White Swan colony” in Russia’s Perm region, near the Ural Mountains. He has been there for about 19 years. 

He alleged that inmates are allowed out of their cells for walks, in handcuffs, only one or two times a week and permitted one telephone call a month. 

When it comes to personal hygiene, showers are allowed once a week for 10 minutes, and prison overalls are washed once every three or four months, he said. Every two months, he said inmates have their hair shaved off. 

He said artificial lights are kept on at night, and during the day inmates are not allowed to close their eyes, stretch or take off their slippers. 

On Tuesday, the European Court of Human Rights agreed that his conditions were inhuman and degrading. It said his isolation and limited outdoor exercise “resulted in intense and prolonged feeling of loneliness and boredom, which caused significant distress.” 

While the court found routine handcuffing of prisoners inhuman, it said Russia was not violating the Convention on Human Rights by keeping tabs on people released from its prisons who might be at danger of committing new crimes.

Upon release from prison in Russia, people convicted of violent crimes can be automatically placed under administrative surveillance — a status that requires them to not leave their homes between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., report to authorities in person one to three times a month, and notify the state about a change of address within three working days. 

The court examined complaints against these requirements filed by two Russian men, Vasiliy Timofeyev, a convicted murderer, and Arkadiy Postupkin, a convicted drug trafficker. Besides serving sentences for felony crimes, the men were placed under administrative surveillance for prison rule infractions. 

But the court said Russia’s post-prison monitoring surveillance system does not violate the Convention on Human Rights because it is meant to prevent recidivism. 

“In the present case the measures had the preventive aim of preventing recidivism and cannot be punitive in nature or to constitute a penalty,” the court ruled. 

The court did fault Russia, however, for not providing Timofeyev with legal aid when he sought to challenge the system of monitoring after his release from prison. 


Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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