(Moscow) – The Russian Parliament should reject a bill expanding grounds for the use of force, including lethal force, against prisoners and detainees, Human Rights Watch said today. The change would be contrary to Russia’s human rights obligations. The State Duma, the lower house of the parliament, adopted the bill in first reading on October 21, 2015. The second and third (final) readings are pending.

Bill #802242-6 would amend the Federal Act on Institutions of Forced Confinement to allow prison staff to use force against inmates not only to put a stop to attempted escapes, crimes, and other offenses, as detailed in the current law, but also in response to violations of a “confinement regime.” Such violations would include sitting on a bed during the day, failing to greet a guard, and other insignificant deviations from prison routine.

“By significantly broadening the grounds for using force against inmates and ensuring impunity for prison guards, Russian lawmakers are setting the stage for abuse,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This bill would undermine basic protections for inmates under international law, which require the use force to be proportionate to the offense and absolutely necessary.”

The measure would provide significantly broader grounds for the use of physical force and special means – such as handcuffs, water cannons, teargas, truncheons, and electric shock equipment – against detainees and prisoners. The bill also stipulates that penitentiary staff cannot be held liable for harm inflicted on prisoners and detainees as long as their actions comply with the Federal Act. Rule 54 of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (known as the Mandela Rules) provides that, “prison staff shall not, in their relations with the prisoners, use force except in self-defence or in cases of attempted escape, or active or passive physical resistance to an order based on law or regulations.” It also emphasizes that, “Prison staff who have recourse to force must use no more than is strictly necessary.”

The Human Rights Council under the President of the Russian Federation has voiced strong criticism, saying that the bill gives broad and disproportionate powers to penitentiary staff to use force against prisoners with impunity. Russia’s ombudsperson, Ella Pamfilova, also expressed concern about the bill, stressing that it was “dangerous” and calling on the State Duma speaker to withdraw it from consideration. Leading Russian human rights defenders have opened a campaign against the bill, dubbing it “sadists’ law.”

Earlier in October, Russia’s Security Council proposed another disturbing legislative initiative relating to prisoners’ rights, Human Rights Watch said. The measure would ban representatives of nongovernmental organizations designated by the government as “foreign agents” from participating in public prison monitoring boards.

The government has used an infamous 2012 law that demonizes advocacy groups that accept foreign funding to list as “foreign agents” more than 90 nongovernmental organizations, including the country’s leading human rights groups. Many of those groups are actively involved with the prison boards, carrying out highly qualified motoring and securing the rights of inmates. If endorsed by the parliament and the president, this measure will negatively reflect on transparency of the penitentiary system and deliver a serious blow to prisoners’ rights in Russia.

“Allowing the use of force against inmates as punishment for minor violations of confinement regime is clearly unacceptable and contrary to Russia’s international human rights obligations,” Williamson said.