Inga Abramova v. Belarus

Communication No. 23/2009; CEDAW/C/4 9/D/23/20 09
Download Judgment: English
Country: Belarus
Region: Europe
Year: 2011
Court: Committee for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women
Health Topics: Prisons, Violence
Human Rights: Freedom from discrimination, Freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment
Tags: Abuse, Cruel treatment, Custody, Degrading treatment, Detainee, Detention, Humiliating treatment, Inhuman treatment, Prison conditions, Violence against women

IA was a journalist and activist for the ‘For Freedom’ movement. On 10 October 2007 IA was hanging blue ribbons in Brest, Belarus in order to draw public attention to the ‘European March’ campaign. IA was arrested by a police officer and taken to the Interior Department of Lenin District of Brest City. IA was accused of hanging blue ribbons and calling for participation in the ‘European March’, which constituted ‘minor hooliganism’. At 1:45am on 11 October 2007, IA was placed in the temporary detention facility (‘IVS Facility’) of the Interior Department. On that same day, her case was heard by the district court and IA was found guilty of minor hooliganism and sentenced to an administrative sanction of five days administrative arrest. She was detained in the IVS Facility for this period and released on 15 October 2007.

IA alleged that, prior to her admission to the IVS Facility, she was taken to a railway station for a body search. There were no female staff members present to perform this search, during which male guards allegedly poked IA and threatened to strip her naked. Furthermore, the staff at the IVS Facility during IA’s detention was exclusively male. IA also made several allegations concerning her treatment whilst in detention, which were not specifically refuted by Belarus, including that: the cell where IA was held was below ground with light provided by only one dim light bulb; the temperature in the cell was very cold due to the heaters being turned off, notwithstanding that the temperature outside reached as low as one degree Celsius; there was one toilet in the cell that was visible throughout the cell and also visible to the male guards looking into the cell through the peephole in the door; the male guards frequently behaved in a humiliating and threatening manner to IA, including ‘joking’ on several occasions that she should be ‘taken outside and shot’, throwing a dead rat into her cell and referring to her as ‘the fourth’ rather than by name. In addition, IA alleged that the cold cell caused a pre-existing kidney condition to flare up and that she has suffered further health problems since her detention.

IA alleging that during her detention she was subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment and that the conditions of her detention amounted to torture. The communication alleged that this constituted a violation by Belarus of IA’s rights under Articles 2, 3 and 5 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), read in conjunction with Article 1. The communication also alleged that the temporary detention facilities in Belarus were not adapted for the detention of women and that IA was subjected to worse conditions than male prisoners due to the sexual harassment and degrading treatment she was subjected to, which was not imposed on male detainees. As a result of this treatment, the communication alleged that IA was discriminated against on the basis of her sex in violation of the CEDAW.

Belarus submitted that existing regulations call for men, women and persons with previous convictions to be detained separately and that the cell IA was detained in was intended to house female prisoners. Belarus also submitted that cells in temporary detention facilities were equipped with ventilation systems, windows for natural lighting, light bulbs and heaters. Belarus did not directly respond to the allegations of IA’s specific treatment.

[Adapted from INTERIGHTS summary, with permission]

The Committee held that Belarus violated its obligations under Articles 2(a),(b),(d),(e) & (f),3 and 5 of the CEDAW on account of IA’s treatment whilst in detention. The Committee noted that Belarus did not specifically respond to the author’s complaints, and only provided a general response, possible presuming that the complaint would be inadmissible.

Article 3 requires that female prisoners shall be attended to and supervised by female officers only. Therefore Belarus violated its obligations under Article 3. The disrespectful treatment that IA was subjected to by male prison staff constitutes sexual harassment and discrimination in breach of Articles 2 and 5. Respect for women’s privacy is a high priority for prison staff and was disregarded here.

The Committee provided recommendations for Belarus

  • Belarus should provide appropriate reparations to the author;
  • Belarus shall take measures to ensure the protection, dignity and privacy, as well as the physical and psychological safety, of female detainees in all detention facilities;
  • Belarus shall ensure access to gender-specific healthcare to female detainees;
  • Belarus shall take measures to ensure that allegations by female detainees about discriminatory and degrading treatment are effectively investigated and perpetrators prosecuted and punished;
  • Belarus shall provide safeguards to protect female detainees from all forms of abuse and to ensure that female detainees are searched and supervised by properly trained female staff;
  • Belarus shall ensure that personnel assigned to work with female detainees are adequately trained in gender-specific needs;
  • Belarus shall formulate policies to ensure that the needs of female prisoners are met;

[Adapted from INTERIGHTS summary, with permission]

“7.3 The Committee observes that the State party h as only summarily refuted these claims, considering them unsubstantiated. It has not provided any clarifications on the substance of these allegations, but limited itself to a general description of the detention premises (e.g., the size of the cells, the existing equipment, furniture, etc.), including reference to national administrative acts regulating, for example, the food ration of prisoners. In the view of the Committee, although this description may be of relevance, it does not necessarily address the substance of the author’s claims: for instance, the author did not contest the existence of a light bulb in the cell, but specifically complained that it provided insufficient light; likewise, she did not complain about the lack of a heater in the cell, but claimed it was turned off at all times. Furthermore, the State party did not comment in any way on the author ’s allegations that staff working in the detention facility were exclusively male and that, as a result, she was subjected to gender -based discrimination. In this regard, the Committee recalls its recent concluding observations on the State party’s report (CEDAW/C/BLR/CO/7), in which it expresses grave concern about inhuman and degrading treatment of women activists during detention, and urges the State party to ensure that the complaints submitted by those women are promptly and effectively investigated (paras. 25 and 26).”

“7.5 The Committee recalls that the fact that detention facilities do not address the specific needs of women constitutes discrimination, within the meaning of article 1 of the Convention. Thus, in line with article 4 of the Convention, principle 5 (2) of the Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment (General Assembly resolution 43/173 of 9 December 1988) states that special measures designed to address the specific needs of women prisoners shall not be deemed to be discriminatory. The need for a gender -sensitive approach to problems faced by women prisoners has also been endorsed by the General Assembly by its adoption, in its resolution 65/229, of the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the Bangkok Rules).”