Thousands Seek to Sue Moldova for Human Rights Violations at Failing Prisons
31 October, 2019
Chișinău’s Penitentiary no. 13, October 29, 2019. Ziarul de Gardă

Editor's Note: This is an adapted version of an article by Hromadske’s partner, Ziarul de Gardă.

Chronic under-funding of repairs and maintenance combined with Soviet-era constructions going out of commission has led to a severe degradation of conditions in Moldova’s prison system. Now, the Government is paying the price for violating the human rights of detainees and compensating its convicts with either money or freedom. 

According to a recent investigation from Hromadske’s partner, Ziarul de Gardă: 

  • 72 convicts have been released from prisons in Moldova since the beginning of 2019,  on the grounds that they were being held in conditions that violated the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). 

  • In that same period, more than 2,500 people in Moldova’s detention institutions filed complaints about being held in similar conditions and requested compensation in the form of a reduced prison term or monetary damages. 

  • The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has ruled against Moldova in 30 cases involving violations under Article 3 since the first case in 2005. 

  • Between 2012 and 2014, Moldova was involved in 49 cases at the ECtHR for similar abuses, leaving the country facing 27 convictions and paying around €253,000 in damages.

  • Twenty-two of the 49 cases ended with Moldova acknowledging the existence of an infringement and reaching an amicable settlement to the tune of €344,000 in compensation in total. 

  • The nearly €600,000 Moldova ended up paying in damages for cases at the European Court are in addition to compensations ordered by judges at the national level. 

The first eight months of 2019 saw thousands of Moldova’s prisoners filing claims under Article 3 of the ECHR – the section prohibiting torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, in the document that serves as the foundation of Europe’s human rights regime. 

The ECtHR first found Moldova guilty of violating this article due to the deteriorating conditions in the country’s prisons in 2005. And since then things have only gotten worse for the 7,000 plus people incarcerated in Moldova.

Plans to construct a new, modernized Chișinău penitentiary – a project initially worth €44.5 million – have been put off year after year since Moldova’s independence in 1991, despite the Council of Europe Development Bank providing  €39 million in funding for the project back in 2013. The project is allegedly starting this year (following a six-year delay) – and the Development Bank even approved an additional €10 million in funds “to part-finance an increase in the project’s total costs” in July 2019. 

Chișinău’s Penitentiary no. 13, October 29, 2019. Photo: Ziarul de Gardă

In the meantime, Moldova budgeted just €5 million for prison maintenance from 2012 to 2018 – leaving the Soviet-era infrastructure that makes up the penitentiary system physically falling apart. 

The ECtHR Issues an “Ultimatum”

In 2015, the ECtHR issued an ultimatum to Moldova about finding a solution to its prison problem, as case after cases demanding the European Court’s intervention exposed inhuman conditions such as overcrowding, lack of proper hygiene and facilities, insufficient and poor quality food, as well as lack of adequate medical care. 

Facing over 70 applications from Moldova with complaints about prison conditions, the European Court insisted that Chișinău come up with proper laws offering a remedy for victims of the prison crisis. The ECtHR gave Moldova six months to solve the problem, or face paying moral damages to all 70 people concurrently – a sum amounting to over €518,000 (over 10 million Moldovan lei).

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Six months later, Moldova had developed a compensation mechanism for damages due to poor detention conditions – but only on paper. The law came into effect nearly four years after the ECtHR issued its ultimatum: on January 1, 2019. 

With the law officially in place, the complaints began to snowball. Just eight months later, the National Penitentiary Administration (ANP) reported 2,362 cases seeking the application of the new compensatory mechanism. In addition, 147 requests were filed under Article 385 paragraph 5 of the Code of Criminal Procedure for the reduction of sentences, in response to alleged violations of rights guaranteed under Article 3 of the ECHR. 

In the first eight months of 2019, 72 people were released from detention and the state was obliged to pay damages exceeding €50,000 to the persons formerly in custody – a sum amounting to more than half of the approximately €88,000 allocated for prison maintenance in 2018.

The new mechanism has also resulted in some high-profile cases, including one involving former Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat. Implicated in the “theft of the century” that robbed Moldova of a billion dollars in 2014, Filat is still serving time for passive corruption and influence trafficking. 

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On July 30, 2019 the Chișinău Court reduced his nine-year prison sentence by 682 days on the grounds that he was being held in inhumane conditions at Chișinău’s Penitentiary no. 13. According to Oleg Pangea, spokesman for the ANP, all the complaints submitted so far concern the conditions at this same prison.

“The Budget Will Be Affected

Despite the jarring number of complaints and the astonishing amounts paid in compensation given the size of the prison system, the Moldovan authorities from the Ministry of Justice say they are happy with the new mechanism.

But not everyone agrees that it’s working as it should. Although all of the nearly 7,000 convicts in Moldovan prisons and about 10,000 people who are placed in preventive detention annually have the right to request the application of this compensatory mechanism, not everyone knows about it and many have no opportunities to access it – says Alexandru Zubco, the Head of the Prevention of Torture Department at the People’s Advocate Office.

Zubco also believes that the law has several shortcomings that leave room for interpretation.

Chișinău’s Penitentiary no. 13, October 29, 2019. Photo: Ziarul de Gardă

According to him, unlike the Romanian model, for example – where it is expressly established that “bad treatment” means inhuman and degrading conditions and specifies in which situations a person can request the application of the compensatory mechanism – Moldova’s legislation only contains general notions and is limited only to: “Conditions affecting the rights of the convict or person in preventative custody, guaranteed by Article 3 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.”

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“We have double situations, when convicts from the same cell address the court, and two judges issue different judgments. There are already such cases [where] one convict’s request is granted while the other’s request is rejected,” explained the Head of the Prevention of Torture Department.

Zubco argues that the concept sounds legal but the problem has not been solved, and the prison system, instead of exercising its mission, is busy justifying itself against accusations regarding poor detention conditions in court.

“When the state budget feels the effects – and the budget will be affected – state policy will be radically changed. Detained persons are being paid. It is a colossal sum, considering that no money is invested in the system, but only taken out of it. Around €50,000 would solve problems in a prison,” Zubco said. “The prison system is [meant] to justify itself in front of the detainees. It’s not good. A smart convict can skillfully blackmail the system and the state.”

Oleg Pantea, National Penitentiary Administration spokesman, claims that the institution has prepared the ground for the application of the mechanism, but there are more problems.

“We knew that the normative act would come into effect and we made an internal counter-assessment, to evaluate what the real detention conditions are. When detainee X or Y complains, we have already evaluated the number of cells or the detention unit. In court, in most cases, we are against the application of the compensatory mechanism,” he explained, specifying that as of May 2018 each prison has its own lawyers, who go to court in these cases.

Meanwhile, according to Anatolie Munteanu, the construction of a new prison with a capacity of 1,536, could solve the problem. He said that this project is in its initial stage of designating through tender the company that will build the prison, and could only be completed in 2024.

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/ Materials by Ziarul de Gardă. Adaptation courtesy of the Russian Language News Exchange. ​