On 24-25 November, 2015 the UN Forum on Minority Issues, a special event held within the framework of the UN Special Rapporteur on minorities, took place in Geneva. The eighth session of the Forum was devoted to the challenges faced by minority groups around the world in the criminal justice system, including the limited access to a fair trial, discrimination at all stages of the penal system stages (the lack of proper investigation, police abuse, inhuman treatment and torture, appalling conditions of detention in prisons).
The format of UN forums provides for presentations at the thematic sessions, as well as brief (3 minutes maximum) statements of participants wishing to draw attention to the situation in their countries or regions. Although the organizers of the event called on the participants to keep discussions within the topics for individual sessions (international and local laws, minorities and law enforcement, equality and non-discrimination of minorities within the criminal justice, struggle against the causes of discrimination against minorities during the administration of justice), many of the participants in their presentations raised painful questions, which did not quite fit into the program of the Forum.
These UN forums generally help to understand the overall global context of various problems and their scope. Both residents of “safer” countries (e.g., Veneto minority in Italy, which struggles for recognition of itself as a proper ethnic minority, or Francophone minority in Belgian Flanders, which complains of linguistic discrimination) and people coming from less safer countries, where human rights violations are more widespread and often fatal (e.g., Azeris living in Iran, Christians of Pakistan, Tamils from Sri Lanka, etc.) have spoken out at the Geneva Forum. Some delegates shared their testimonies of the terrible crimes, such as the Yezidis, persecuted and murdered by the ISIS militants along with other ethnic and religious minorities in the region (Christians, Turkmen, Shabak), they called on the international community to recognize what is happening as acts of genocide and to save the kidnapped people, to help restore the areas damaged by the war, which were liberated from the ISIS militants.
Many of the speakers talked about unlawful prosecution of minorities, especially activists who are fighting for the rights of their communities. This issue was also described in the joint statement of ADC “Memorial” and the Center for Civil Liberties (Kiev, Ukraine), which drew the attention of the Forum participants to the criminal cases, fabricated against Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians in Russia. This dangerous trend concerns not only representatives of minorities, affected by the recent military conflict between Russia and Ukraine, but also indigenous peoples, whose rights to preserve the traditional territories, in fact, should be protected by special laws that exist in the Russian Federation. Instead of guarantees of rights and protection from destructive way of doing business by Russian mining companies, representatives of indigenous communities are being criminally persecuted and sentenced to prison terms (e.g., the case of Evenk activist Sergey Nikiforov, who had been recently sentenced to 4 years of strict prison regime by the Amur regional court in the Russian Far East).
The statement issued by ADC “Memorial” also raised the issue of torture and ill-treatment in places of detention faced by prisoners of Caucasian origin (Chechen, Ingush and others) in the Russian Federation. Official Russian delegation at the Forum was represented by an official of the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN), who, without saying a word about the situation of Caucasians in the Russian penitentiary system, shared with the audience the country’s achievements in “spiritual care” of minorities: according to his report, penitentiary institutions opened more than 600 places of worship for people of different faiths, where believers could pray freely. Other achievements of Russia, according to the FSIN representative, supposedly include easy access of public monitoring commissions to the penitentiary institutions (supposedly human rights defenders can come to check any prison or camp with a mere quarter of an hour notice to the penitentiary authorities).
Here we can refer to an example of a recent – and once again failed – visit by a public monitoring commission to the St.Petersburg detention center for foreign nationals. This time the public monitoring team had to be “reinforced” by Andrey Babushkin, the chairman of the Permanent Committee to assist the activities of the Public Monitoring Chamber affiliated with the Human Rights Council under the President of the Russian Federation. He was included into the monitoring team by his St. Petersburg counterparts especially because the latter were repeatedly and illegally denied access to the detention center for foreign nationals. However, even his presence did not help to get the public monitors to this institution: following negotiations with the head of the Federal Migration Service Mr. Romodanovsky and the head of the Federal Migration Service of St. Petersburg and Leningrad region Mrs. Dunayeva, public monitors were continuously offered to visit foreign nationals’ detention center №2 in Gatchina (Leningrad region), instead of the detention center №2 in Krasnoye Selo (leningrad region) as they repeatedly requested. Public monitors spent about 5 hours in the freezing cold near the detention center, trying to get access to it via long telephone conversations with various representatives of authorities. Although “spiritual care” of prisoners indeed exists in this detention center, the general conditions there, as had been pointed out pointed out by the ECtHR ruling in the case of Roman Kim v. The Russian Federation, were considered inhuman: almost no walks were provided to detainees, only “partial privacy” existed in the toilets, relatives of prisoners had to stand for hours waiting in the street to be let into detention center, no proper medical care was provided to inmates, there were no conditions for joint stay of families (including children), no proper access to legal aid, etc.
This example eloquently shows how cunning the representatives of the official delegations can be while reporting to this high assembly on the non-existent progress of states in these or that particular issues. This applies, of course, not only to the Russian Federation. For example, the representative of Pakistan, responding to criticism by the activists of the country’s Christian community stated that in general the country is very tolerant of Christians and that terrorist attacks, such as explosions, happened not only in Christian churches, but also in mosques, while the representative of Mauritania, disputing his opponent (who had been forced to flee to Senegal and spend years away from home), claimed that the fact his opponent publicly spoke at the UN Forum was the evidence of the good will of the Mauritanian state.
This makes actions in defense of those who cannot, for whatever reasons, achieve truth and justice by themselves even more important. Activists and human rights defenders at these forums should help to raise and discuss the problems of vulnerable people in order to draw international attention to their plight and in some cases even save their lives.