Barrister Ben Keith writes in the Times on prisons, human rights and Russian extradition.

Do prisoners deserve human rights?

The prime minister has had a difficult relationship with extradition law and human rights. She has publicly decried judges for being “on the side of foreign criminals” when dealing with immigration and Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (right to private and family life). However, when it came to the case of Gary McKinnon, the pentagon hacker diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, she blocked extradition on the very same ground.

Extradition is different from deportation and immigration because it always involves criminal offences in relation to both convicted and accused persons. It is political: the relationships that establish extradition treaties are not based on a considered approach to human rights or civil society, but on the need for trade and diplomacy. That’s why the UK has extradition treaties with Libya, Iraq and Russia.

The Divisional Court is presently examining the case of Stanislav Dzgoev, a joint Russian/UK national. He is wanted in Russia to serve a three-and-a-half-year sentence and face trial for the street robbery of a watch in the Irkutsk region of Russia. Dzgoev is HIV positive and will be remanded in pre-trial detention if extradited. The hearing took place on February 24. Judgment has been reserved is expected in the next three to four weeks.

Persistent overcrowding and dreadful conditions in Russian prisons led to the European Court of Human Rights issuing the judgment of Ananyev v Russia in 2012, ruling that Russian prisons were in such poor conditions that cases would be automatically fast-tracked and win if prison conditions were raised as an issue. That judgment is still in place today, as despite Russia’s efforts to improve prison conditions, they have not changed enough to overcome this hurdle.

This has led to the extradition courts in the UK examining the conditions in Russian prisons in detail. The culture of human rights in Russia is different to the UK. Putin rules with an iron fist not even disguising it in an iron glove. Prisoners are second-class citizens and to afford them with rights is an anathema. Torture of political opponents and the threat of incarceration is enough to subjugate all but the most fearless to the will of the authorities.

Conditions in Russian prisons are stark. Prisoners live for 23 hours a day locked in a large room with bunk beds piled three high and a hole in the corner as a toilet, often without any screen. Not all prisoners have their own bed and so they often sleep in shifts, or share beds; food is eaten in the cell — on the bunk beds next to the toilet — and only one shower a week is allowed. The close proximity of inmates leads to the rapid spread of diseases; tuberculosis is rife. Those with HIV are stigmatised and isolated. They are labelled and bullied by inmates and guards alike.

As well as the conditions, there are beatings from the guards or the sinister special forces units, squads of prison guards wearing balaclavas and sporting batons, who descend on prisons to administer discipline in the form of extreme violence. Prisoners cannot complain against an unknown man in a balaclava who acts with the blessings of the state and so they must suffer in silence.

Russia has purported to co-operate by letting UK inspectors into their prisons. However the authorities have hidden the real conditions faced by prisoners. In one inspection 160 prisoners were removed from the prison in the days before the inspection and at the same time Gérard Depardieu was paraded in front of the Russian media to say “these prisons are better than in France”. More recently all the independent prison monitors have been replaced by government stooges, unable and unwilling to criticise the authorities. This leaves those who are incarcerated without recourse to help or support of any kind and at the total mercy of the authorities.

So back to our original question: do prisoners deserve human rights? Of course criminals should pay for their crimes, but the price must be fair, surely. And when Britain has a key role in deciding how fair this price is, it has to face up to the consequences — and the ethics — of the decision it makes. A considered approach to human rights, as well trade and diplomacy issues, is required.

This article was first published in the Times on 9 March 2017.