Summary of the Report of the Human Rights Ombudsman for Saint Petersburg on the human rights situation in Saint Petersburg in 2015

Summary of the Report of the Human Rights Ombudsman for Saint Petersburg on the human rights situation in Saint Petersburg in 2015[1]

 

The annual report of the Human Rights Ombudsman for Saint Petersburg (hereinafter - the Ombudsman) is submitted in accordance with the Law of Saint Petersburg of 17 December 1997 "On the Human Rights Ombudsman for Saint Petersburg". This report was presented to the Legislative Assembly of Saint Petersburg on 30 March 2016.

The report outlines current human rights issues in Saint Petersburg, contains information about the activities of the Ombudsman and his Office aimed at redressing human rights violations, bringing legislation in line with human rights standards, and improving law enforcement and administrative practices.


The number of complaints and other applications brought to the Ombudsman is one of important indexes reflecting human rights situation.

In 2015 the number of complaints in connection with social and economic rights, and, in particular, with housing and healthcare increased significantly.

Despite enhanced efforts of the authorities and NGOs to ensure the rights of persons with disabilities, the number of complaints about violations of their rights also increased.

As in 2014, the number of complaints from recruits and military servicemen continued to decrease.

In 2015 the number of complaints brought in the course of face-to-face meetings raised significantly. This is due not only to enhanced visibility of the Ombudsman. In fact, a growing number of complaints is the result of ignorance of rights, ways of realisation and protection of human rights, and unavailability of information for citizens.

The Ombudsman’s experience shows that securing the right to information is a necessary condition for enjoyment of other human rights. Another tendency is a growing importance of questions related to culture, especially in our city. Therefore, in 2015 for the first time the Report contains chapters on the right to information and cultural rights.

It is clear that human rights situation should be evaluated not only on the basis of complaints received, but also with due regard to a range of other factors, statistics, expert opinions, results of inspections, data from the authorities and NGOs, publications in the media. All this information was taken into account in preparation of this Report.

Cooperation of the Ombudsman with the authorities and NGOs developed successfully. Regrettably, socially important activities of many Saint Petersburg NGOs, including their human rights work, encountered obstacles due to recent amendments to legislation and controversial practice.

In 2015 the State Duma adopted amendments to legislation concerning federal and regional human rights ombudsmen. These legislative changes have a potential for strengthening the national mechanism for human rights protection.

Some of the Ombudsman’s recommendations formulated in his 2014 Report were taken into account by the authorities. However, a number of recommendations were not properly examined and thus remain relevant.


Right to life, liberty, personal security and respect for human dignity

Analysis of complaints, inspections, information from lawyers and media shows that in most cases violations of the right to life, liberty, personal security and respect for human dignity have their roots in:

-          abuse of power by law enforcement officers;

-          inappropriate conditions of detention;

-          legal lacunas concerning conditions of detention of vulnerable persons;

-          systemic problems of status determination of stateless persons;

-          non-respect of law, including international instruments, with regard to asylum seekers.

In 2015 cases of flagrant violations of the rights of children and parents drew particular attention of the Ombudsman.

On 13 October 2015 Umarali Nazarov, a 5-month-old baby, died in a centre for medical and social rehabilitation for abandoned children in Saint Petersburg. Earlier that day the migration authorities and the police had separated the baby from his mother, a migrant from Tajikistan with non-regularised status.

Criminal investigation into the death of Umarali Nazarov was launched. It should establish the circumstances of the baby’s death in the medical institution, as well as possible abuse on the part of the migration authorities and police. Prevention of similar tragedies in the future is impossible without establishing the truth in the present case.

2015 was a hard year for citizens of Saint Petersburg. Price increase, drop of real income, growing gap between rich and poor are serious threats to human rights. A raise of aggression together with indifference and disrespect for human dignity leads to serious, and often tragic consequences. On 3 February 2015 a 81-year-old lady died as a result of abuse on the part of employees of a supermarket in Kronstadt. Another death occurred in police station no. 26 of Krasnogvardeyskiy district, where a police officer allegedly committed a murder of a man. Shocking instances of inhuman treatment of patients on the part of emergency health care providers also took place.

2015 was marked by the raise of aggression, intolerance and violence in the world. Unprecedented terrorist attacks took place. Terrorism directly touched Saint Petersburg: on 31 October 2015 224 people died in an air crash above the Sinai Peninsula, most of them were from Saint Petersburg. It is crucial that investigation into this tragedy satisfies the requirements of effectiveness, thoroughness and promptness, and relatives of victims have access to the case file.


The death of people contributed to a further raise in already strong aggressive attitudes in society, xenophobia and renewal of the discussion on restoration of death penalty.

Terrorism in all its forms represents a threat to fundamental human values and public security. However, effective fight against terrorism is possible only in environment of non-discrimination and respect for human dignity.


Right to medical assistance and social security

 The number of complaints related to social security and medical assistance increased significantly.

In 2015 the Ombudsman received 133 complaints (in 2014 – 64) concerning social security. Analysis of these complaints and results of inspections revealed problems in the fields of provision of social benefits and pensions and social assistance.

During the winter season of 2015 the lack of heating points and tents for homeless people became acute. In previous years the number of heating points was also insufficient. However, in 2015 some of them were not open, exacerbating the problem even further (for example, in Vasileostrovsky district the heating point was closed). Some of these heating points (for example, in Kronstadt and in Kirovsky district) were open only in the afternoon, whereas in cold winter time homeless people need warm and safe night shelters.


In 2015 83 complaints concerning medical assistance were recorded (in 2014 – only 65).

The following previously identified problems remain relevant:

-           provision of medication to some categories of vulnerable persons;

-           inadequate medical assistance.

Disabled people experience difficulties in accessing free medication they are entitled to – around 90% of them spent their own money on necessary medication. During the economic crisis it is essential to put in place effective and clear mechanism of budget financing of drug procurement for persons eligible for social benefits.

The problem of quality of medical assistance remains acute. Inadequate health care often leads to violations of a fundamental human right – the right to life. Some alarming examples are described in the Report.


Protection from discrimination

Domestic violence

According to Saint Petersburg police data, more than 30% of murders and inflictions of grievous bodily harm originate from domestic violence. In most cases victims of such crimes are women. Domestic violence has concealed nature: not many victims are able to talk about it and seek help[2].

At present there are no effective mechanisms for protection of victims of domestic violence and bringing perpetrators to justice.

The police admit that existing preventive measures (for example, visiting households by the police and talking to family aggressors) are insufficient. Family aggressors can be taken to a district police station for 3 hours, and after that they are let to go home. As a result, family conflicts often only worsen.

In most cases acts of domestic violence are characterised as beatings or inflictions of light harm to health. Criminal proceedings in such cases can be instituted only upon the victim’s application and can be terminated by the victim (so-called “cases of private prosecution”). There are no public prosecutors in this category of criminal cases – the victims have to handle the case themselves, present evidence in accordance with the Code of Criminal Procedure, etc. During this procedure, the victim often lives at the same place as the perpetrator. For these reasons in such cases aggressors are rarely convicted.

The experience of other countries shows that a special law on prevention and combating domestic violence represents more adequate legal framework than numerous fragmented laws. Such law would contribute to a systemic approach in dealing with domestic violence. It should establish a framework for cross-agency cooperation, create mechanisms of victim protection (protection orders, etc.), provide for a system of social support for victims and perpetrators (rehabilitation programs and shelters).

The accession of the Russian Federation to the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention) can play an important role in changing the social attitudes to domestic violence.

Discrimination of aliens (non-citizens)

Although migration problems became less acute, xenophobia and nationalism are still present in Saint Petersburg. According to Analytical Centre “SOVA”, in 2015 17 persons became victims of assault on racial grounds, 3 of them died in Saint Petersburg.[3]

It is important to timely put an end to violent forms of xenophobia, and to prosecute those responsible for them. Moreover, prejudices which contribute to the rise of xenophobia should be combatted.


Aliens still become victims of discrimination at work. The migration authorities received 74999 notifications from employers about work contracts with foreigners on the basis of work patents, which is 2,5 times less than the number of patents issued for foreigners. This shows reluctance on the part of employers to legalise labour relationships with migrants, and results in delegalisation of foreigners, since the lack of notification about work contracts can be a ground for cancellation of a patent. In 2015 employers who use foreign labour committed 6 668 administrative offences related to migration[4], which constitutes 23% increase compared to 2014. The number of criminal cases on charges of organization of illegal migration and false registration of foreigners by receiving party also increased (in 2015 – 32 cases, in 2014 – 11 cases).

Discrimination of LGBT

Not only ethnic but also other minorities can become victims of violent intolerance. According to NGO “Coming out”, in 2015 19 assaults against LGBT persons were committed, 3 of them – during public events.

Inaction of officials and law enforcement agencies, refusals to open criminal investigation and administrative cases into the facts of aggressive attacks against members of LGBT community not only reinforce perpetrators’ feeling of impunity, but also destroy respect for law and belief in justice in society.

Correct legal characterization of acts taking into account motives of hatred is of particular importance. However, as practice of criminal prosecution of those responsible for assaults on members of LGBT community shows, investigation and prosecution authorities do not duly investigate the possible hate intent.


In 2015 numerous aggressive acts of intolerance against LGBT persons occurred. On 1 May 2015 certain self-proclaimed militia offended the demonstrators walking in the “rainbow column”,[5] screaming threats and greasy slogans. Other instances of discrimination took place on 19 November 2015 in front of “KARO 9 Warsaw express” cinema before the opening ceremony of VIII International LGBT film festival “Side by Side”. Participation of some Saint Petersburg officials in these organized aggressive acts is of particular concern.

Discrimination of persons with disabilities

Problems of providing access to urban infrastructure for persons with disabilities identified in the course of inspections in 2014 are still relevant. So-called “false accessibility”, when the authorities report about providing accessibility of an object of infrastructure to persons with disabilities while in reality the object remains inaccessible for them, is particularly striking.


The Ombudsman keeps paying attention to respect for human rights in social institutions for persons with mental disability (so-called “psychoneurological care homes”). Big size, closed nature of these institutions and insufficiency of staff result in a range of human rights violations. These institutions still apply instructions adopted in 1978 and 1981. A number of their provisions are outdated and contradict the Constitution and applicable law.


Right to information

The right to freely search, receive, transmit, produce and impart information is one of the basic human rights in modern society.

Over the last years a number of laws aimed at ensuring informational transparency of public authorities, accessibility of information to public and enhancing of human rights guarantees in the field of information were adopted.

However, analysis of human rights violations shows that very often violation of the right to information turns out to be one of the mains sources of breach of the right to free elections, to fair trial, to comfortable environment, to medical assistance, social security and housing. Every fourth complaint in relation with the rights of military servicemen and conscripts concerns problems of their access to information.

At the same time abuse of the right to information on the part of media took place. For instance, content of television program “Reaction” on “Saint Petersburg” TV channel twice in 2015 was reviewed by the Public board for complaints on press. The Board noted in its decisions that content of this program de facto represented “attempts of incitement for social hatred”, was “biased and ideological”, and “a total disregard for professional ethics of journalists resulted in replacement of journalistic product by ideological product aimed at creation of “an image of enemy”. It should be noted that to a large extent “Saint Petersburg” TV channel is funded from the city budget.


Right to freedom of peaceful assembly

 Refusals to approve public events

In 2015 the executive authorities systematically and not always reasonably refused to approve public events suggesting other locations where the goals of the event obviously could not be achieved.

Procedure of notification and approval of public events leaves the possibility of manipulation during the decision making process. Often refusals to hold public events were not well founded. For example, the authorities explained refusals by construction activities, previously authorized public events (including cultural and sporting events) and so on. Subsequently it was found that events and works cited as grounds for refusals had not in fact taken place.


Obstructions for holding public events

On numerous occasions cases of obstructions to public events took place, and in most cases they remained unpunished. Impunity for persons obstructing legal public events may create the illusion of permissiveness, and, as a result, encourage new abusive acts.

The number of notifications about public events openly aiming at obstruction other announced public gatherings is increasing. There is also an increase of public events de facto aiming at prevention of holding another public event.

For example, the Ombudsman received a complaint about refusal by the administration of Vasileostrovsky district to approve the “March against hatred”[6] planned for 31 October 2015 in the usual location. The administration proposed to hold the event in remote area on the quay of Smolenka river. The ground for refusal was approval of another event for 550-600 participants in the requested location and on requested time. The organisers of the “March against hatred” proposed different options as to the time, route of march and location of the public event which would correspond to its goals. However, they were all rejected for different reasons. For example, one of the grounds for refusal to hold march on Makarov quay were renovation works on the frontside and the roof of the Pushkin House. However, no renovation works were carried out there on 31 October 2015.

The Ombudsman’s representative revealed that only four persons instead of 550-600 took part in the event which had been a ground for refusal to approve the “March against hatred”. They left much earlier than it was announced.

Holding of non-approved public events.

“March against hatred” which was not approved for the first time in 11 years was held in form of a walk and people gathering.[7] Only after the Ombudsman’s intervention and his negotiations with representatives of organisers, police and city authorities a legal way of holding the “March against hatred” was found. This allowed avoiding arrests of its participants.

Refusals to approve public events on unsubstantiated grounds more frequent than before create obstacles for the exercise of constitutional rights.


Special dedicated locations for public events (Hyde-parks)

In 2015 50 applications for public events in a special dedicated location on the Field of Mars were submitted. During the same period the administration of Krasnoselsky district received only two applications for public events in Yuzhno-Primorskiy park. Administrations of Krasnogvardeysky, Nevsky and Primorsky districts received no applications for public events in special dedicated locations in those districts.

The absence of demand for four special dedicated locations previously noted in the Ombudsman’s 2014 Report shows that they do not satisfy the requirements for special dedicated locations provided for by the federal legislation. In particular, they do not allow achievement of goals of public events.

The Constitutional Court of Russia found that the regional authorities, when they choose sites for special dedicated locations, should take into account the possibility to achieve the goals of public events. Therefore, it appears that instead of four unpopular special dedicated locations or in addition to them it is necessary to designate special dedicated locations on territories demanded by organisers and participants of public events (on the basis of locations most frequently mentioned in applications for public events, for instance, on Lenin square).


Security at public events

In 2015 the number of registered offences committed at public events, and the number of arrests of their participants dropped significantly. To a certain extent this is due to enhanced professionalism of the police officers who ensure public order during public events, including non-approved gatherings.


Right to freedom of association

Vibrant civil society is one of the essential conditions for enjoyment of human rights. NGOs are inherent elements of civil society and rule of law. Participation of individuals in activities of NGOs promotes civic responsibility.

As of 31 December 2015 12 161 NGOs were registered in Saint Petersburg. However, only less than half of them are functioning.

The authorities provide support for NGOs’ activities in accordance with law. Significant support for NGOs is provided by presidential grants – in 2015 42 Saint Petersburg NGOs received 43 grants for a total of 150 million roubles.

Unfortunately, in 2015 NGOs continued to meet serious challenges. One of them is an artificial opposition of socially oriented and human rights NGOs. The so-called law on foreign agents is another major difficulty. Problems faced by NGOs in relation with enforcement of this law are described in detail in the full version of this Report. Quantitatively this law affected relatively insignificant number of NGOs. However, it is exactly those NGOs which carried out useful activities promoting rule of law and strengthening civil society.

Inclusion of an NGO in the list of “foreign agents”, and even the mere possibility of being included makes their activities difficult, and in a number of cases NGOs had to decide on liquidation or suspension of their activities.

The Russian Constitutional Court noted that “any attempts to reveal a pejorative sense in term “foreign agent” are based on outdated stereotypes formed during the soviet era which had lost their significance in modern realities, andare void of any constitutional grounds”. However, the practice shows that the label “an NGO carrying out functions of a foreign agent” leads to stigmatization of NGOs included in the list. Moreover, this contributes to compromising of non-commercial sector as a whole.

Over many years NGOs now included in the list of “foreign agents” have been conducting human rights protection, research and socially-oriented activities. There is no reliable information that the activities of NGOs included in the list were in the interests of foreign States and contradicted the interests of Russia. It appears that it is high time now to consider the abandonment of the notion of “NGO carrying out functions of a foreign agent”.


Environmental rights

Questions related to preservation of environment are always connected with a conflict of interests. Environmental disputes concern technical data and technological procedures which require specific knowledge. Broad public discussion around them is impossible without a sort of “interpreter”, i.e. an expert. Therefore, in the exercise of environmental rights a special role is accorded to public environmental expertise.

In 2015 strong public discussions related to projects potentially affecting environment took place. For example, the fate of the site of hazardous wastes “Krasniy Bor” and bringing into service of new power-generating units of Leningrad nuclear station generated high public interest. In such serious matters a clear mechanism for public environmental expertise could facilitate a constructive public dialogue instead of conflicts.


On 17 February 2016 the Legislative Assembly of Saint Petersburg adopted the law of Saint Petersburg on organization by the city authorities of public environmental expertise on request of residents.[8] This new law can constitute a good starting point for legal framework of public environmental expertise in Saint Petersburg.


Cultural rights

Probably in no other city in Russia preservation of historical and cultural heritage, care for historical monuments and cultural sites are as important as in Saint Petersburg, its whole historical centre being included in the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites.

Ownerless monuments

One of the problems is preservation of monuments, sculptures and obelisks which are listed neither as sites of cultural heritage nor even as city property. Andrei Sakharov monument, monuments for victims of political repressions on Voznesenskaya quay and on Troitskaya Square are among such ownerless monuments. Their inventory started in 2013 on the Ombudsman’s initiative, and is not yet completed.

Vandalism

Over the last years offences related to destruction or damaging of cultural monuments have become more frequent. Destruction of a bas-relief called “Mephisto” on a historical building produced a strong public reaction.

With regards to offences related to damaging of cultural monuments the logical question which arises is who are victims of such offences. On the one hand, cultural monuments represent historical value for every citizen. On the other hand, indefinite number of individuals cannot have victim status in criminal proceedings. It appears that the possibility of granting the victim status to relevant city authorities in such cases should be examined.


Handover of cultural monuments to religious organisations

Russian law provides for a mechanism of handover by the State of religious cultural monuments to religious organisations. While supporting the policy of such handover, it is necessary to mention that religious culture is just a part of common culture of our society and cannot replace it.

According to law, if a building occupied by a cultural organisation is transferred to a religious organization, the authorities should provide the cultural organization with an equivalent building.

Unfortunately, this requirement is not always respected. For example, in 2015 the relevant authorities transferred the Smolny Cathedral to Russian Orthodox Church. However, no equivalent building was granted to the cultural organization which was located there.

It appears that the authorities should strike a fair balance in order to secure the rights of all Saint Petersburg citizens in such complex issues of transfer of public property to religious organisations.




[1] See full version of the Report in Russian http://ombudsmanspb.ru/files/files/doklad_2015/DOKLAD_2015_site.pdf

[2] According to a survey carried out in 2015 on request of the Saint Petersburg Committee for social policy, only 28% of victims of domestic violence asked for help. 56% of them referred to relatives, 54% - to police, 19% - to social workers and psychologists. Only 7% of victims referred to social shelters and crisis centers, 6% of victims used hot line. Moreover, only 30% of victims were aware of relevant authorities, hot lines, crisis centers, social agencies and organizations.

[3] http://www.sova-center.ru/racism-xenophobia/publications/2015/12/d33572/

[4] Articles 18.9, 18.15, 18.16 and 18.17 of the Code of administrative offences.

[5] http://ombudsmanspb.ru/ru/otchet_o_nabljudenii_za_shestviem_i_mitingom_1_maj

[6] The “March against hatred” is an annual march in Saint Petersburg dedicated to struggle against intolerance, xenophobia and discrimination on grounds of sex, race, nationality, colour, language, origin, sexual orientation and other grounds. The event has been held since 2004 in memory of an anthropologist and human rights defender Nikolay Girenko, who was murdered by neo-Nazis. Nikolay Girenko appeared in courts as an expert witness at trials concerning hate crimes. The march commemorates the birthday of Nikolay Girenko.

[7] http://ombudsmanspb.ru/02_10_2015_otchet_o_nabljudenii_za_progulkoj_i_nar

[8] The Law of Saint Petersburg of 17 February 2016 No 83-11.


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