By Clare Angeroth Franks, REEI alumna
Deaths which occur in state custody are a growing crisis in the Russian Federation. While there are no official statistics on deaths in custody in the country, more than one third of deaths associated with law enforcement agencies and the Federal Penitentiary Service (Федеральная служба исполнения наказаний or FSIN) are not adequately explained. Most often, the public only learns that a death has occurred and no other details. No other information about the deceased is communicated, and the public is left with questions. In 2018-2019, at least 282 people died while in state custody. These cases were learned of thanks to the investigative work of human rights defenders and media publications. The lack of state transparency on the matter, as well as regular messages from victims’ families requesting help from human rights organizations, leads these organizations to believe they have only scratched the surface.
Indeed, human rights defenders such as Natalia Taubina of Public Verdict Foundation argue that violence, including lethal violence, used by state authorities against those inside and outside of their care is “established practice” and considered acceptable among state officials. According to a 2019 poll by Levada Center, 1 in 10 Russians has experienced torture by Russian law enforcement. Justification for or consideration of the necessity of lethal force is not part of the state’s mindset. As a result, the deaths of people detained by state authorities in police stations, penal colonies, isolation wards, and other places of detention are simply perceived as a cost of the system. The lives of those in their care are considered expendable. However, no human life is expendable, including in the eyes of the law.
From 2020-2021, I worked with JD/MA candidate in law and Russian & East European Area Studies Rachel J. Myers on a legal memo addressing this issue for Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG), Russia’s oldest human rights advocacy organization. In late 2019, the organization hoped to launch an initiative to build connections with scholars, students, activists, and other colleagues around the world through legal research on particular human rights abuses. Indiana University was one of the first institutions to join the growing network, thanks to conversations between Russian Studies Workshop (RSW) Faculty Associate Dr. Emma Gilligan and Dmitry Makarov, Co-chair of Moscow Helsinki Group, following the November 2019 symposium The Life and Legacy of Lyudmila Alexeyeva, hosted by RSW. The topic of the memo, deaths in state custody, was one of several MHG deemed a priority. Emma Gilligan served as supervisor for this work, and our small research team received support from RSW to complete the memo.
The goal of the legal memo was to create a source of legal arguments to be used in cases concerning deaths in Russian state custody to the European Court of Human Rights and reports to UN committees, including UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. Our team analyzed Russian, US, and international laws and gathered data from nonprofit organizations, Russian media sites, and international court databases to craft the document’s arguments. Feedback from Emma Gilligan, MHG leadership, and Indiana University Maurer School of Law Associate Professor Dr.Asaf Lubin helped shape the project into its final form.
During the research process, an opportunity presented itself to add to a social journalism piece on this issue, Ne-Izhderzhki.ru (Not Expendable). In Summer 2020, our team wrote a short advocacy piece for the website, synthesizing our legal research for a general audience. The piece aims to raise public awareness and advocate for legal action in conversation with international courts on the issue of deaths in state custody. While the site is still being developed, it has already been recognized with accolades.
This research could not have been completed without support from MHG leadership, various Indiana University faculty in the fields of Russian studies and law, RSW, and the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. Thanks to their assistance in this project, our team produced a legal memo that reiterated the inalienable right to life and human dignity, including for those in state custody. MHG is continuing to work with Indiana University, including through discussions with the international legal studies student group.
For those interested in supporting the fight against deaths in state custody, which includes during arrest, you can join the conversation and support human rights organizations such as MHG, Public Verdict Foundation, or Zona Prava directly, but also work on this issue domestically. While our memo focused on this issue in Russia, it is important to note that such violations occur regularly in the United States, especially to members of Black, Indigenous, & people of color (BIPOC) communities. US citizens can work towards justice in solidarity with human rights defenders in Russia and around the globe. Contact local, state, and national representatives. Talk to members of the law enforcement community. Support groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, National Police Accountability Fund, and/or the Black Lives Matter movement. Attend protests and rallies. Speak out on social media and in person. Encourage domestic civil society groups to work with Russian partners on this issue.
As “Human Rights in Russia Today” panelist Tatyana Margolin stated, “The [human rights] issues [Russians] are facing today are not somehow radically different than what it is that we’re grappling with here. Things are much more global.” If we want to eradicate injustice, we must work together. If we want a better world for ourselves, for our children, we must join in the fight.