Russia: Court judgement on life prisoner regime

Human rights judges say that Russia’s prison regime, allowing only short-term family visits twice a year over ten-year period, violated a prisoner’s right to family life.

In its 30 June Grand Chamber judgment in the case of Khoroshenko v. Russia (application no. 41418/04), the European Court of Human Rights held, unanimously, that there had been a violation of Article 8, in a complaint brought by Andrey Khoroshenko. He is currently serving a life sentence. After being convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1995, his sentence was later changed to life imprisonment some four years later.

As Just satisfaction (Article 41), the court held that Russia was to pay Khoroshenko 6,000 euros (EUR) in respect of non-pecuniary damage and EUR 11,675 in respect of costs and expenses.

During the first 10 years of his detention in a correctional colony for life prisoners in the Perm Region, Khoroshenko was held under a strict regime of imprisonment. This notably implied that he was allowed to receive no more than one visit of relatives, lasting no longer than four hours, every six months.

Khoroshenko was able to communicate with his visitors only through a glass partition or through metal bars, without physical contact, while a prison guard listened to his conversations with the visitors.

Such a special regime was normally applicable until convicts had served at least 10 years of their sentence, calculated from the date of their arrest. However, in Khoroshenko’s case, this period was calculated from October 1999 when he was placed in the correctional colony, in application of a special rule for prisoners who had misbehaved during their detention on remand.

The court found in particular that the strict regime had been disproportionate to the aims pursued and that such a regime seriously complicated a prisoner’s social reintegration and rehabilitation.

Given that a majority of Council of Europe member states did not make a distinction between life prisoners and other prisoners as regards the prison regime and that in those states the minimum frequency of family visits allowed for life prisoners was not lower than once every two months, Russia had only a narrow room for manoeuvre (“margin of appreciation”).

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