03.06.2006 | Yevhen Kravets, Odessa

Penal settlements and the elections


During the elections in March 2006 the Ukrainian section of the International Society for Human Rights, with financial support from the Canadian-Ukrainian Foundation “Democratic Institutions and Practice” carried out monitoring of the elections at special polling stations in places where people are held in custody. A seminar was held recently in Kyiv where the question was discussed whether convicted prisoners have the right to vote. On the one hand how can one talk of a free vote inconditions of deprivation of liberty? On the other hand do people who have committed a crime against the state and society have the right to take part in governing the state, albeit indirectly, through their representatives?

The discussion was not concluded, but then only the only legislators can put an end to it. Yet, let us dwell on some aspects of this problem.

Basic international standards on elections involve, first of all, the interrelated rights to elect and to stand for office – Article 38 of the Constitution of Ukraine, Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 25 of the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Yet those in penal institutions do not have the right to stand for office, although this is not mentioned in court verdicts: such kind of punishment is not directly articulated either in the Criminal Code or the Constitution of Ukraine. Those in penal institutions or remanded in custody took part in the elections of State Deputies, but not in the local elections, although nobody deprived them of this right (the law states only reads lists are not compiled and special polling stations are not created).

Since a person is deprived of liberty the question of direct participation in state affairs is seemingly clear. But what about via freely elected representatives? A criminal who has murdered somebody or committed another crime against society and the state effectively participates in the governing of the state and influences the society through his or her representatives. This contradicts both moral and legal principles!

Given the conditions of life in penal institutions prisoners have no opportunity to take part in political activities at all.  How could you have, say, party organizations in a colony?

UN standards stipulate that electoral rights must be exercised in conditions of freedom of speech, freedom of information, assembly, association and movement, these being rights which prisoners are deprived of to a large extent or completely. One can speak of free elections only when the absence of any forms of intimidation or pressure on voters can be guaranteed.

The impossibility of free elections in penal establishments was confirmed by the results of recent and previous elections: regardless of regional political sympathies, penal institutions voted for specific candidates (or parties/blocs) throughout the entire country. Elections in penal institutions are strictly controlled. Yet, participation of people in the political life must be free!

In many countries convicted criminals are deprived of the right to take part in elections which is quite logical. We have no such legal norm but the very conditions in our penal establishments contradict the principle of free elections. Really free elections, not controlled by the penal administration, are not possible there. Prisoners themselves generally don’t think they need this right since all elections are a form of flagrant pressure on them to achieve this or that outcome of their “expression of will” at the special polling stations. For prisoners it is much more important that their conditions at least remotely meet international standards.

Elections as a form of participation in the political life of the country given the present penal system in Ukraine are a complete mockery and an example of  how easily and cynically human dignity and rights can be trampled.

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