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Moscow Times
June 30, 2003
Pristavkin: Prisoners Not Better Off Today
By Robin Munro

Staff Writer

A ceremony Friday at the German School in honor of Friedrich-Josef Haass, who until his death 150 years ago worked to improve the lot of Russia's prisoners, featured a speech by the man who perhaps most carries on his work today: presidential adviser on pardons Anatoly Pristavkin.

And he said little has changed. Russia's prisoners still live in miserable conditions and those who try to help them face indifference or hostility.

Even the prisons are little better today than they were in the early 19th century, Pristavkin said.

"The buildings used date back to the time of Catherine the Great, only on the windows they have installed blinds, so-called muzzles, through which even less light and air enters the cell," he said.

"To this day the cells are dirty and the only toilet is a bucket, hygiene is lacking and the cells are so crowded that the prisoners have to sleep in shifts."

German Ambassador Hans-Friedrich Von Ploetz also spoke during the ceremony at the school, which was named in honor of Haass, a philanthropist and doctor whose work in Russia has led the Vatican to begin the process of making him a saint.

Haass was a practicing doctor when he moved to Moscow in 1805, and from 1828 until his death in 1853 he was a member of the city's prison committee.

Pristavkin, a writer who headed the liberal presidential pardons commission until it was abolished and replaced with commissions appointed by each administrative region at the end of 2001, said the cries for help heard by his commission were very similar to those Haass heard.

"We were called an island of mercy in a sea of cruelty; the cruelty was not only against those incarcerated, but also against those who sought to protect them," he said.

"We had to recognize that our population, our society and the authorities, despite all the talk about the great Russian soul, are extremely cruel -- perhaps even crueler than in the time of Dr. Haass."

Haass had argued that "the lucky should be reminded of the unlucky." In his time, prisoners on their way to Siberia were led through the center of the city where sympathetic citizens could give them a piece of bread.

"Today, I assure you, prisoners are neither led through the city ... nor do Muscovites express their sympathy; instead of them giving them a piece of bread, it is quite conceivable that citizens would throw stones at them," Pristavkin said.

He said his commission found little sympathy for prisoners. For instance, when the commission tried to stop the beatings in prison, it found no one in a high position willing to listen.

Haass also ran up against a bureaucracy that thwarted his efforts and suspected his motives. For 19 years, he was under investigation, accused of wasting state funds in renovating the prison hospital.

If Haass were around today, his efforts to help prisoners would fall under no less suspicion, Pristavkin said. "Today he would likely be accused of being corrupt or a spy."

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