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Moscow Times
December 28, 2009
Justice Minister Vows Jail Reforms
By Alexander Bratersky

Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov said the death of Hermitage Capital lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow detention center would speed up prison reforms.

“The tragic accident in one of the Moscow’s prisons has become a large indicator of the illness of the system,” Konovalov said, speaking at a Justice Ministry meeting late last week.

Konovalov said drastic changes were needed in the “long-neglected system.”

President Dmitry Medvedev ordered a prison overhaul earlier this month after Magnitsky, a lawyer working for William Browder’s Hermitage Capital, once the largest foreign equity firm in Russia, died of heart failure in mid-November. Magnitsky was arrested in November 2008 on charges that his supporters say were fabricated, and he repeatedly complained about being denied medical care in custody.

Konovalov said new legislation to introduce the concept of house arrest for minor crimes would stimulate prison reform by reducing the number of people locked up in notoriously overcrowded detention centers.

Medvedev backed the legislation in a televised interview Thursday, and Federation Council senators approved it Friday. The law is expected to go into force Jan. 1.

Konovalov said about 30 percent of prisoners in pretrial detention facilities had committed economic crimes and other offenses that posed no threat to the public.

“We believe that this measure [detention] should only apply to those who have committed serious crimes,” he said.

Konovalov is a close ally of Medvedev and the president’s highest-ranking appointee so far. The Justice Ministry oversees the Federal Prison Service, where Medvedev fired 21 officials in connection with Magnitsky’s death earlier this month.

Federal Prison Service chief Alexander Reimer, who led the Samara region’s police force until being appointed by Medvedev to the Moscow post in August, has said prison reforms would start next year and include the improvement of prison facilities, the abolishment of the current system of penal colonies, and prison staff cuts aimed at increasing the salaries of the remaining staff.

The prison system currently employs more than 328,000 people and has about 1 million inmates.

Human rights activists expressed doubt that the reforms would materialize and criticized the government for not putting them forward for public discussion.

“They sound nice, but they are unreal,” Lev Ponomaryov, a prominent rights activist, told The Moscow Times.

Ponomaryov, who has visited many prisons and pretrial detention centers, described the situation there as “medieval,” saying prison authorities often try to silence prisoners who complain about the facilities.

Detention centers have harsher conditions than prisons because investigators often send prisoners there to pressure them into cooperating or, in the case of high-profile businessmen, to help business rivals snatch their companies, Ponomaryov said.

Reimer said 386 people have died in prisons this year, a third from suicide and various injuries.

The other deaths were caused by tuberculosis and other illnesses, he said.

“The hellish conditions will always exist for investigators to pressure people into confessions,” said Ivan Mironov, a radical nationalist activist who spent two years in a detention center on suspicion of involvement in an attempt on the life of Rusnano chief Anatoly Chubais in 2005. “Nobody is killing anybody. They are just helping [inmates] to die.”

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