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2016: Annual report of the Human Rights Ombudsman in Saint Petersburg


The annual report of the Human Rights Ombudsman for Saint Petersburg (hereinafter - the Report) is submitted in accordance with the Law of Saint Petersburg of 17 December 1997 "On the Human Rights Ombudsman for Saint Petersburg". It is the key document on the human rights situation in Saint Petersburg. It outlines most important human rights issues and contains information on the Ombudsman’s activities, as well as recommendations for improvement of legislation and practices.

Human rights situation is reflected not only in complaints submitted to the Ombudsman. Many other data and sources are used for preparation of annual reports: results of inspections, statistics, expert opinions, information provided by the authorities, NGOs and media. This report was presented to the Legislative Assembly of Saint Petersburg, published and posted on the Internet. In order to implement recommendations of the Ombudsman, the Report was also transferred to the relevant authorities.

A number of recommendations contained in the Report for 2015 were duly considered and implemented in 2016. However, many recommendations of the Ombudsman are being ignored and thus remain relevant, which is mentioned in corresponding chapters of the Report.

Pursuant to Article 1 of the Law “On the Human Rights Ombudsman for Saint Petersburg” the Ombudsman’s top-priority is protection of civil and political rights provided by Articles 2-21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These fundamental rights are guaranteed by the Constitution of the Russian Federation, and their respect is a prerequisite for effective exercise of all other human rights and liberties.

In 2016 the Ombudsman payed special attention to respect of electoral rights during federal and city legislative elections. Unfortunately, despite tangible improvements in voting procedures, public confidence in democratic election could not be restored during these electoral campaigns. Therefore, effective exercise of the constitutional right to participate in managing state affaires remains problematic.

Effective exercise of the right to freedom of speech, assembly and association, of the right to access to information and of other constitutional rights also meets serious obstacles. In many cases these problems should be resolved at the federal level, since corresponding issues are regulated by federal law. Nevertheless, as experience shows, many human rights issues can successfully be addressed in Saint Petersburg, and such examples are mentioned in the Report.

As in previous years, the Ombudsman received a lot of complaints about inaction and the lack of diligence of law-enforcement authorities. There is a raise of complaints from citizens who are not informed about practical exercise of their rights, or often even unaware of their own rights. The Ombudsman’s experience shows that securing of the right to information is a necessary condition for respect of other rights and liberties.

In 2016 the Ombudsman further developed his cooperation with the authorities, NGOs, media, as well as with personalities working in the field of science, art and education.

The Ombudsman sincerely thanks those who contribute to promotion and protection of human rights in Saint Petersburg, and those who helped him to prepare this Report.

Social rights

In 2016 the number of written complaints to the Ombudsman raised by 30%, and this is primarily due to the raise of complaints concerning the right to housing and other social rights, notably, those in relation to health care and social protection.

Right to housing

Over the last years a considerable number of complaints to the Ombudsman concerned refusals of district administrations to include a person on the waiting list for social housing.

Violations of the right to housing often took place as a result of administrative practices in breach of the Housing Code of the Russian Federation.

For instance, numerous violations took place with regard to persons suffering from heavy forms of chronic diseases. This category of people has the right to separate social housing regardless of the surface of their current housing shared with family or neighbors (Article 51 of the Housing Code). However, many applicants received unlawful refusals to be included on the waiting list on the ground that they already had housing exceeding certain surface.

In his Report for 2015 the Ombudsman made recommendations in order to change this unlawful practice, and in 2016 they were implemented by the Housing Committee of Saint Petersburg which issued an instruction for district administrations in order to avoid unlawful interpretation of housing law. Following this instruction, no further violations were found by the Ombudsman.

However, the number of complaints about violations of housing rights keeps raising. This is due to a number of factors, one of them is slowing down of resettlement of shared apartments, and reduction of number of families entitled to social benefits for resettlement of shared apartments.

Despite all work done, the authorities’ efforts for securing the housing rights of citizens are insufficient.

For example, budget funds allocated for social housing benefits for young families were reduced. Accordingly, the number of families eligible for the grant program “Accessible housing for youth” has reduced.

Another problem is expropriation of private property of citizens for public needs. For instance, during construction of a multifunctional maritime transshipping junction – port “Bronka” – there was a breach of the procedure for publishing of information about expropriation of citizens’ plots of land. As a result, many landlords learned about expropriation belatedly and could not take reasonable measures in order to protect their property rights.

Right to health care and social security

The topic on which the Ombudsman received the second highest number of complaints is health care and social security.

The most acute problems in the field of health care remain provision of medication and medical items to certain categories of citizens, as well as the quality of medical assistance.

A considerable number of complaints concerned breaches of rules of medical ethics and deontology by health care providers.

It took to the Ombudsman more than 1,5 years to redress the rights of sightless and visually impaired pensioners to social rehabilitation. The Saint Petersburg Center for medico-social rehabilitation for sight-disabled persons provided free services of social rehabilitation to disabled persons only of working age, in breach of federal law. At the end of 2016, after joint efforts of the Ombudsman and the Prosecution’s Office of Saint Petersburg the rights of sight-disabled pensioners were redressed – the government of Saint Petersburg amended relevant regulation.

Environmental rights

In 2016 the Saint Petersburg authorities improved regulations concerning environment. Notably, rules on the use of the city land and on construction, and legislation on green areas were amended. Instructions on the disposal of solid domestic waste were updated in line with amendments to federal legislation.

For the first time the Saint Petersburg legislatives applied a holistic approach to protection of environment: in 2016 they adopted the Environmental Code of Saint Petersburg.

The situation concerning the Saint Petersburg storage for toxic wastes “Krasniy Bor” remains extremely preoccupying. The storage is filled to capacity. The license of this enterprise is withdrawn now, and that calls into question securing of a safe storage of toxic wastes and their disposal.

In this regard a possible solution would be transfer of “Krasniy Bor” under the authority of federal bodies and its inclusion in the state register of objects of cumulated hazard to environment.

Protection against discrimination

In Saint Petersburg, as in many other regions of Russia and abroad, one can observe a raise of aggression and intolerance, stoked by extremists and often degenerating to violence. 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.

In 2018 Saint Petersburg will welcome guests from different countries who will come for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. This makes the question of creation of an environment free from discrimination even more important.

Domestic violence

Discrimination has multiple faces. One of the forms of gender discrimination against women is domestic violence.

In 2016 beatings inflicted to close relatives were decriminalized, which generated strong public debates. The impact of this decriminalization on issues related to domestic violence can be assessed only in the years to come.

Accession of the Russian Federation to the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention) could play an important role in changing public opinion towards domestic violence.

Violence against LGBT people

As in previous years, in 2016 LGBT people became a frequent target of violence. LGBT NGO “Coming out” reported 14 cases of violence (in 2015 – 19). Aggression and intolerance towards LGBT community fed by self-proclaimed “defenders of traditional values” became the cause of the murder in March 2016 of a famous Saint Petersburg journalist Dmitriy Tsilikin. The perpetrator was arrested but the crime was not characterized as a homophobic hate crime.

Rights of vulnerable groups of people

The Ombudsman pays particular attention to protection of the rights of vulnerable groups of people.

Rights of persons with disabilities

Over the last years efforts are been made in Saint Petersburg in order to create conditions facilitating social integration of persons with disabilities, their access to education, culture and sport, as well as to infrastructure.

For instance, in 2016 the Ombudsman together with the Public inspection of disabled persons of Saint Petersburg contributed to improvement of the situation concerning parking places for cars of disabled persons near objects of social infrastructure.

However, despite some obvious improvements, the rights of persons with disabilities are not fully secured.

It should be noted with regret that on the international level violations of the rights of persons with disabilities took place in 2016. Following decisions of the International Paralympic Committee disqualifying Russian athletes regardless of whether their consumption of prohibited substances had been proved, the Russian national team (including Saint Petersburg citizens) could not participate in Paralympics. The European Ombudsman Institute considered that such ban violated human rights and, notably, the presumption of innocence.

As a consequence of the International Paralympic Committee’s decision, the medalists of the 2016 Para Dance Sport World Cup which took place in Saint Petersburg could not obtain their merited medals.

Rights of persons living in social institutions

The most vulnerable and unprotected are elderly people and people with mental disability living in State run social institutions. Under international human rights law, these persons enjoy civil, economic, social and cultural rights on an equal footing with others. The rights of people with mental disabilities are also provided by a number of UN specialized instruments.

Annually the Ombudsman receives complaints from individuals and NGOs concerning unsatisfactory social services in State run social institutions. For this reason, the Ombudsman’s Office carries out inspections of these institutions in accordance with the annual agenda.

The results of inspections show the following problems: insufficient staff in State run institutions, poor awareness of the staff about human rights of their clients; non-respect of privacy in living areas, isolation of persons in special units of “enhanced supervision”, inappropriate execution of programs of rehabilitation, non-cooperation of State run social institutions with charity NGOs, etc.

In order to resolve the above problems, the Committee of social policy of Saint Petersburg should exercise more efficient supervision of State run institutions, and recommendations of the Ombudsman, NGOs and consultative bodies should be duly considered and applied.

Respect of the right of persons living in social institutions to human dignity and to meaningful life on an equal footing with others should be the guiding principle of the work in this field.

Rights of prisoners

The lack of medical assistance to prisoners is one of the most urgent problems directly affecting the right to life.

In 2016 cases of death of female prisoners from oncological diseases in prison and remand facilities in Saint Petersburg generated a large public discussion.

In April 2016 staff members of the Ombudsman’s Office inspected the F.P. Gaaza prison hospital which provides specialized inpatient treatment to persons held on remand and to those serving prison sentences. It was found that the hospital had no license for oncological treatment, and had no oncologist in its staff. Patients were placed on bunk beds in overcrowded cells.

The right of prisoners to obtain medical assistance in civil hospitals in case of need (including inpatient treatment) guaranteed by federal law is not secured. In particular, the F.P. Gaaza hospital presented information on outpatient oncological treatment allegedly provided to prisoners by civil hospitals. However, these data were in flagrant contradiction with corresponding information provided by the Committee for Healthcare of Saint Petersburg. This contradiction questions reliability of information submitted by the penitentiary services.

Upon the Ombudsman’s request the Prosecution’s Office reported that it had identified instances of inadequate medical assistance provided to three female prisoners who subsequently passed away; those responsible were disciplined. Currently a criminal investigation into the facts of the lack of medical assistance is initiated.

The above cases show systemic problems in penitentiary institutions. These problems are partly due to the lack of funds and possibilities for convoy of prisoners to civil hospitals. However, one of the main reasons of violations is that medical units are placed under the authority of the penitentiary services and are dependent on their officials.

Given the lack of adequate medical assistance in the penitentiary system, refusals of courts to release prisoners suffering from serious diseases are extremely preoccupying.

In 2016 the Ombudsman also identified numerous cases of the lack of medical assistance and of access to justice for foreign nationals placed in the Centre for aliens awaiting deportation from the Russian territory.

Rights of aliens (non-citizens)

From 1 July 2016 the Federal Migration Service was abolished, and its functions were transferred to the Head Directorate on Migration of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Russia. In the second half of the year 2016 there was a transition period during which around 30 % of staff was dismissed.

Analysis of received complaints and information from the authorities and NGOs shows that, as in previous years, in 2016 in Saint Petersburg there were instances of discrimination of foreign nationals. Problems related to asylum seekers were not resolved.

There are serious problems concerning the legal status of children of foreign nationals, and separation of children from their families. In his Report for 2015 the Ombudsman outlined the case of Umarali Nazarov, a 5-month old baby of migrants, who died after his forced separation from his mother (separation was carried out by migration officers and police in relation with the mother’s administrative offence for breach of migration law).

Investigation into the baby’s death was finished in October 2016 by a closure of the criminal case. The investigation found that the direct cause of the baby’s death in a medical institution for abandoned children was a serious disease.

The investigation carried out a separate inquiry into the lawfulness of actions of officers of the migration service and police, but refused to open a criminal case. This lack of effective investigation did not allow to establish the truth in this case and to resolve such systemic problems as bringing of foreign nationals to police without an interpreter, separation of children from their parents in the absence of a court decision, etc. In the end, this does not allow to prevent similar violations in the future.

The lack of access of asylum seekers to the status determination procedure remains another systemic problem. In 2016 foreign nationals arrived from different countries (including Syria, Yemen and Ukraine) could not submit their applications for temporary asylum. According to information from the Saint Petersburg Office of the Russian Red Cross, as from August 2016 asylum seekers have been redirected to the immigration authorities and held responsible for breach of Russian immigration law. Such practice puts asylum seekers under the risk of deportation to their countries of origin.

Rights of homeless persons

As in previous years, with the beginning of the cold season the problem of the lack of shelters for a night stay of homeless people regardless of their documents and registration in Saint Petersburg became acute.

According to information provided by the charity “Nochlezhka”, in December 2016 in Saint Petersburg there were only 7 shelters receiving people regardless of their documents, where no more that 180 people per day could receive a night shelter and warm food.

The lack of shelters in winter often results in cold injuries and deaths of homeless people, and in violations of the essential human right – right to life.

Fundamental civil rights

Right to freedom of association

The most important condition of respect for human rights is developed civil society. Non-commercial organisations is an inherent part of civil society and of the rule of law.

Since 2013 the Ombudsman has been raising the issue of violations of the right to freedom of association in relation with amendments to the law on NGOs introducing the label “NGO carrying out functions of a foreign agent”. As of March 2017, nine Saint Petersburg NGOs are included on the list of foreign agents.

The Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation indicated that “all attempts to reveal in the phrase “foreign agent” pejorative connotations basing on stereotypes formed during Soviet period which lost their meaning nowadays, are without any constitutional grounds”. However, the practice shows that the label “NGO carrying out functions of a foreign agent” leads to stigmatization of NGOs included on this list. Moreover, it contributes to stigmatization of the non-commercial sector as a whole.

Right to freedom of assembly

Almost all the Ombudsman’s recommendations about necessary amendments to Saint Petersburg legislation on public events remain relevant. They include a recommendation on creation of a website containing publicly available information about all submitted notifications about public, cultural and sport events (regardless of the State body competent to consider a specific notification).

In 2016 the executives systematically refused to approve public events and suggested to hold them in locations where declared goals of such public events manifestly could not be achieved.

For instance, the authorities suggested to hold the “March against hatred” (traditionally held in Saint Petersburg in memory of a scientist and human rights defender Nikolay Girenko assassinated by neo-Nazis) on the territory of the village of Novoselki.

In 2016 out of five dedicated locations for holding of public events in a simplified form (so-called Hyde parks) only the Field of Mars was actively solicited. However, this dedicated location is also used for holding events of a fundamentally different nature, notably, sport and cultural events. Notification about their holding can be submitted 15 days earlier than notification for public events.

The current procedure of notification about public events leaves room for manipulations during the decision making process, and thus, to unjustified refusals to approve public events.

Unjustified refusals to approve public events create obstacles to the exercise of constitutional rights, and undermine public trust in law. Non-respect by the authorities of their obligation to facilitate the exercise of the right guaranteed by Article 31 of the Constitution de facto induces citizens to hold public events in forms which make it difficult for the police to ensure public security.

A separate issue is holding public events during electoral campaigns. It is symptomatic that in 2016 the proportion of the number of approved and refused propaganda public events significantly varied depending on districts and political parties of candidates.

Selective approach towards political parties during 2016 elections sometimes run to the absurd. Notably, the authorities refused to approve a propaganda public event to one of the candidates running for federal legislative elections in the Central district of Saint Petersburg. Instead, the authorities suggested him to hold this event in the Udelniy Park located in the Primorskiy District of Saint Petersburg.

Right to participate in managing State affairs

One of the Ombudsman’s priorities in 2016 was respect of electoral rights.

Cooperation with organizers of elections, with law enforcement authorities and human rights NGOs, regular exchange of information, consultations and discussions contributed to the solution of the following issues: creation of websites of territorial electoral commissions, extending of the term for keeping videos from cameras located at polling stations from 3 to 12 months, equipment of polling stations with copy machines, stopping of the practice of removal of observers from polling stations and of the practice of creation of “ghost” polling stations in locations for temporal stay of voters.

The Ombudsman personally observed the elections on the voting day which allowed to notice positive changes, and to identify and stop a number of violations.

The measures taken allowed to lower social tension during elections, to prevent conflict situations, and contributed to prevent violations in the future.

However, despite these measures, public trust in 2016 elections could not be restored. This conclusion is based on low voter turnout, and on the feedback from voters, observers, human rights defenders and journalists.

Among the main reasons of persisting public distrust to elections are: the absence of a real political competition in the media (first of all, on national TV channels during and outside elections), instability of the electoral system, the use of “administrative resources” for a targeted influence on voters’ will, creation of more favorable conditions for candidates who are close to the authorities. Resolving these problems is the most important condition for public trust in elections.

It is obvious that for restoring public trust in elections political will and joint efforts of different State bodies are necessary.

Some actions can be taken at the regional level. Therefore, the Ombudsman together with the Saint Petersburg Electoral Commission initiated creation of an inter-agency working group for elaboration of proposals aimed at improvement of electoral legislation and practices. This working group includes representatives of the Legislative Assembly of Saint Petersburg, executives of Saint Petersburg and the police.

Culture of dialogue and cultural rights

Growing social distrust and intolerance towards a different point of view are alarming. Unwillingness to hear arguments, unpreparedness for a dialogue, including on the part of State representatives, result in aggravation of conflicts, create additional obstacles to the exercise of constitutional rights, which in its turn leads to the lack of respect for law and human rights.

In this context, issues related to the culture of dialogue, and, more broadly, to culture in general, become even more important.

The right to participate in cultural life is particularly cherished by Saint Petersburg citizens. Indeed, Saint Petersburg remains the main keeper of objects of cultural heritage in Russia.

In 2016 the Ombudsman together with volunteers (including students and pensioners) carried out public monitoring of accessibility of objects of cultural heritage.

It was found out that protection documents were not published (contrary to the law) in 80 % of cases. In 74 % of cases it was impossible to learn about modalities for visits of an object of cultural heritage. In 42 % of cases the tenants of buildings representing cultural value refused to allow a visit.

The above violations are often committed by official bodies of Saint Petersburg. For instance, 21 committees of the Saint Petersburg administration have their premises in buildings belonging to objects of cultural heritage. Protection documents are published only for two of them, but modalities for their visits are not defined.

In 2016 the authorities took 12 decisions on assignment of 16 objects of cultural heritage to religious organizations. However, only two applications from religious organizations were published on the website of the Committee for property relations of Saint Petersburg, as well as 11 applications on which no decision was taken in 2016. Seven decisions of the above Committee on assignment of objects of cultural heritage to religious organizations were not confirmed by applications from religious organizations.

The authorities’ obligation to publish applications from religious organizations is provided by federal law in order to ensure transparency of the procedure of assignment of State property. As practice showed, non respect of this requirement can result in public distrust towards all decisions on assignment.

Moreover, in violation of the law on cultural heritage, decisions of the Committee for property relations of Saint Petersburg do not always specify that a building is an object of cultural heritage. For example, decisions on assignment to religious organizations of the Church of St. Catherine and of the St. Johnes’ Church do not mention that these buildings are objects of cultural heritage of regional and federal importance.

Similar violations of the law led in the beginning of 2017 to an acute conflict concerning assignment of the St. Isaac’s Cathedral to the Russian Orthodox Church for free use.

Public protests against the assignment of the St. Isaac’s Cathedral show once again that questions touching upon the rights and interests of a big number of people should be resolved in accordance with the procedure provided by law and in full transparency.

Development of the institution of Human Rights Ombudsman

Over the last five years the institution of the Human Rights Ombudsman has significantly strengthened – now there are ombudsmen in all regions of Russia;** legal framework for their functioning has been improved.

At the same time, five-year experience of the Ombudsman shows that for more efficient work on human rights protection it is necessary to further improve federal and regional legislation on Human Rights Ombudsmen. In particular:

  • provide for a mechanism of taking into account of ombudsmen’s opinions on draft laws affecting human rights;

  • grant ombudsmen the right of legislative initiative and the right to initiate proceedings before regional constitutional (statute) courts;

  • grant ombudsmen the right to contest in court regional regulations affecting human rights, and the right to contest regional legislation before the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation;

  • grant ombudsmen the right to consider individual complaints about actions (inaction) of regional directorates of all federal state bodies;

  • define modalities for cooperation of ombudsmen with entities entitled to exercise public control as far as it concerns public inspections and public expert reports.

*   The full version of the Report in Russian.

** In 2012 there were ombudsmen only in 67 regions of the Russian Federation.