Prisoners in the walking yard of the prison-1 PMR. Source: gsinpmr.org.In November, Moldovan officials reported on their compliance with the UN Convention Against Torture (OHCHR). Countries that have ratified the convention have to report every four years, while members of the Committee Against Torture (CAT), which monitors implementation of the convention, draw up their own conclusions, taking alternative reports from human rights campaigners into account.
One of the reporting organisations is the Promo-Lex, which represents the interests of victims of torture. I spoke to Promo-Lex experts Vadim Vieru and Nikoleta Khriplivy about the differences in human rights protection between Moldova and Transnistria, the neighbouring unrecognised breakaway state.
How does Moldova fit into the global context of protecting human rights?
Vadim Vieru: Right now the situation with decisions by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) is changing, as the financial penalties involved can be enormous — there is a growing consensus that it’s better not to generate decisions or let cases reach the point of fines. But judges are unfazed by ECHR decisions: at one point, the Moldovan Ministry of Justice started imposing the ECHR fines on individual judges, but then the Constitutional Court overturned that ruling.
At the moment, the EHCR has over 100 cases pending, some of them involving the Moldovan government. The judges defer, however, to the UN, so we work closely with the CAT.
If members of Moldovan law enforcement break the law, how easy is it to bring these operatives to justice? And how can campaigners influence police immunity?
Nikoleta Khriplivy: The situation has improved over the last few years, and it looks as though they are now willing to listen to us, but there are still problems.
When people approach us for help with cases where they’ve been subject to humiliation and extortion, public prosecutors do get involved and investigate the situation. But cases often get stuck at the pre-trial stage and end up being abandoned. Provision for rehabilitation of victims of torture is also far from perfect, but a law providing compensation for them is coming into force in 2018.
Provision for rehabilitation of victims of torture is also far from perfect, but a law providing compensation for them is coming into force in 2018
We aim to change this situation by bringing it to the attention of international bodies. We recently adopted a practice used by African countries: when we talk to diplomats and experts, we don’t exhaust them with lengthy reports, but give them short summaries of concrete issues and how best to resolve them.
Promo Lex also monitors elections. How serious an issue is this?
VV: In Moldova, there’s no practice of crude falsification, such as stuffing ballot boxes, but active attempts are made to sway voters’ choices via the media, and there’s use of “administrative resources”, such as bussing people to voting stations and gifts of groceries just before elections.
Is this connected with Moldova’s economic situation?
VV: There’s a dark joke, that people only come back to Moldova for the summer. Many Moldovans travel to Russia and the EU to find work. It’s common for people to hold up to six passports: Moldovan, Transnistrian, Russian, Romanian, Ukrainian and Bulgarian. Russia and Romania hand out passports with a minimum of bureaucracy. Andrei Braguta, for example, who died in suspicious circumstances in October and whose interests we represent, had Russian citizenship. He was arrested for exceeding the speed limit and beaten up by his cellmates in pre-trial detention, his name is now in the torture report for the UN.
The death of Andrei Braguta, who was arrested for a traffic violation, in a pre-trial detention centre in Moldova has caused public outcry. Source: Youtube. NK: The situation is also deteriorating in independent Transnistria [Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, often referred to as PMR]: the economy of the self-declared PMR is in a state of stagnation, and there has been less financial support from Russia since the start of the war in Donbas, leading people to leave their homes and cross to the other bank of the Dniester, which belongs to Moldova.
Some travel further: Moldova is a very poor country, parts of it only inhabited by pensioners who will sell their votes to anyone for a bag of sugar.
What is the situation with human rights infringements in the PMR?
NK: The Moldovan police have no powers in the so-called PMR, so our law enforcement bodies have no motivation to investigate what goes on there. Moldovan public prosecutors can’t travel there to look into the facts of any case, so they abandon their inquiries as soon as they can. The law hardly ever makes any effort to resolve a situation.
The courts could, for example, have put travel bans on people found guilty of torture in the PMR. We made the suggestion that PMR security services operatives found guilty of torture should be held at the border and questioned about concrete cases. Moldovan criminal law actually provides for these measures, but they aren’t implemented, so Transnistrian officials can happily travel to Europe via Moldova. Up to 2014 they could return via Ukraine, but that situation has changed.
Could it said that the Moldovan and Transnistrian police cooperate with one another?
VV: Yes, there is unofficial cooperation. They share information and witnesses, for example — the Moldovans even handed a public prosecutor over to the PMR when asked. The ECHR has two such cases: they are banal, involving corruption and marriage agreements. It’s a common situation, where one brother works in a Moldovan anti-corruption office, and the other in a Transnistrian organisation. There are also a lot of links with the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic”, with 300 fighters having returned from the fighting there. Some PMR figures have worked for the Donetsk authorities.
But what is Transnistria’s penitentiary system like?
NK: The PMR has its own prisons, but conditions there are terrible — much as in Moldova until recently. The conditions could almost be equated with torture. And there is no one prepared to exercise control over the prison and the local police force. People are often locked away in psychiatric hospitals — we know about these cases thanks to a local monitoring group that makes contact with inmates when they leave. Our other sources of information are publicly available statistical reports and informants.
How can NGOs work in the PMR in such circumstances?
NK: Environmental campaigners can work there more or less now, but human and civil rights organisations are afraid to function in the region. Most of the locals prefer not to speak about pressure publicly, and people from the security services are forever inviting the activists to tea and probing them about their organisations. It has become a tradition that everyone takes for granted. There have been cases when active human rights campaigners and journalists have been threatened with prosecution, and there’s always the risk that you’ll be arrested if you get too active.
It’s in no one’s interests to resolve the conflict over Transnistria: Russian, Ukrainian and Moldovan interests are here interwoven
VV: When we set up Promo-Lex, we were engaged in a lot of activity, but the PMR Ministry of State Security started hounding us, claiming that our work was aimed at the destruction of their so-called statehood. Some of our colleagues were taken to court. The Moldovan government has drawn up, and regularly updates, a list of people — politicians, journalists and rights campaigners (including Promo-Lex legal experts) — who are banned from entering the country. Many fellow campaigners are under a similar ban on entering Russia. It’s probably a question of the specific issues campaigners are involved with.
Why do you insist that Russia should answer for the torture taking place in Transnistria? Are you not politicising what is a human rights issue?
VV: The PMR’s ex-president [Yevgeny Shevchuk] used to tell EU members that we were politicising these cases. In the summer he fled to Moldova in a boat and asked for help, as he was also threatened. The main question for our organisation is who is responsible for the torture and abductions taking place in our unrecognised republic.
NK: Yes, many of our critics claim that we are trying to politicise things when we call Russia as a co-respondent [at the ECHR]. We base our work on judicial practice, according to which whoever is in de facto control of an area is responsible for it. How it controls it — through “curators”, arms deliveries or troops — is irrelevant.
We keep telling our government that Moldova doesn’t just have rights over Transnistria, but responsibilities towards it
Russia and Moldova are now signatories of European conventions on torture, but Transnistria, as an unrecognised republic, hasn’t signed any such documents. The ECHR considers that since Russia is supporting the PMR, both economically and politically, it follows that according to international regulations on state responsibility, Russia should take responsibility for that territory. Eight court cases have established the need for Russia’s to shoulder that responsibility.
In other words, when Moldova declares that it can’t take responsibility for the situation in Transnistria, it abandons any rights it has over that territory?
VV: All these years, Moldova has been refusing to take any responsibility or any steps in that area. It says that it can’t defend the population of the area, but still regards the region as its de jure territory. It’s in no one’s interests to resolve the conflict over Transnistria: Russian, Ukrainian and Moldovan interests are here interwoven — huge traffic in contraband goods, including arms, goes across the unrecognised republic. The PMR is in itself an intensively militarised zone: the army now has not just armaments at its disposal, but powers as well. Moldova, for example, has no tanks of its own, whereas the PMR owns 25 of them, plus a Grad multiple rocket launcher system.
NK: We keep telling our government that Moldova doesn’t just have rights over Transnistria, but responsibilities towards it. Moldova needs to prove that it has done all it can to bring the criminals to justice. Unfortunately, the law enforcement agencies are still claiming to have done their best, although that’s not the case. The ECHR sometimes points the finger not just at Russia, but also at Moldova, which has a responsibility to protect its citizens.
So Transnistria is still left to its own devices, and its people are deprived their right to a just legal system. The region, alas, appears to belong to no one, but the European Court is clear that such territories simply can’t exist de jure and that we always need to decide who is responsible for the lawlessness reigning there.