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Promoting a human rights compliant criminal justice system in the Republic of Moldova: Where do we stand?

Promoting a human rights compliant criminal justice system in the Republic of Moldova: Where do we stand?

The Council of Europe Programme “Promoting a human rights compliant criminal justice system in the Republic of Moldova” is in the last meters of the implementation. The Programme is being implemented as part of the Council of Europe Action Plan for the Republic of Moldova and funded by the Government of Norway.

In its implementation, beneficiaries, partners, and the project team are guided by European human rights standards, based on the principles of humanisation, resocialisation and restorative justice. Thereby, the Programme pursues the overall objective to ensure higher respect for human rights and rule of law in the Republic of Moldova by assisting the national authorities in building up a system of execution of criminal sanctions functioning effectively.

In order to achieve this goal, the Programme team put into practice a coordinated approach in the criminal justice area and provided numerous inter-agency platforms and opportunities for both expert and public discussion.

The Programme was technically divided into two components to boost efficiency: one component covering the enhancement of the administration of criminal justice and the second one aiming to improve the management of prison, rehabilitation and health care services for inmates, as well as the offenders’ social reintegration. We invite you to follow the discussion with two members of the programme team, namely the Programme Manager, Anastasiia Saliuk and Senior Project Officer, Violeta Frunze for the Component 2.

Throughout all its duration, the Programme contributed to creating a more coordinated approach working with key stakeholders to support the course criminal justice in the Republic of Moldova. Understanding that this is a long-term process of shifting an old system and perceptions, what were, in your opinion, the key results you are proud of and what innovative solutions did you introduce to work with the beneficiaries and project partners?

Anastasia Saliuk: In my view, re-shifting criminal justice is mostly about changing one’s mindset and developing new professional qualities, learning new skills, gaining new knowledge. I am proud to say that within the framework of our Programme capacities of more than 1600 judges, prosecutors and lawyers were strengthened to facilitate the effective national application of the European Convention on Human Rights standards. Not less important, the Programme developed two strategies and their action plans in some of the most problematic areas of the prison system: on mental health care in prisons and on combating inter-prisoner violence in prisons. Both documents were submitted to the authorities, and we look forward to seeing them approved and implemented.

If asked about innovation in our work, I automatically think of working in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Adjusting to a fully online format was challenging, as our Programme foresaw many international missions, visits to prisons, in-person meetings and crowded training events. Probably one of the brightest examples of creativity and flexibility shown within our Programme is linked to procurement and delivery of a set of medical equipment to all 16 prison medical units and the Prison Hospital. To minimise health risks for the persons involved in installing the equipment, we came up with a hybrid format: the verification of the equipment happened online through video streaming, photo shooting and interviews.

Last year, your project published a Report on the Research on the Application of pre-trial detention in the Republic of Moldova. In the long run what is the element of sustainability of this analysis for criminal justice reform in general and for the Moldovan institutions in particular?

Anastasia Saliuk: Indeed, to ensure that national policies, legal framework and practice comply with international standards, the Programme together with national partners assessed the overall compatibility of the application of pre-trial detention with the right to liberty and security in Moldova. The main conclusion of the research calls for more action to safeguard fundamental human rights: the report says that pre-trial detention was excessively used in the Republic of Moldova due to the systemic shortcomings and deficiencies of the legal system as well as the policies deliberately pursued by the authorities. To follow up on the recommendations, the Programme organized a Summer School on Right to Liberty and Security, as well as cascade seminars for judges, lawyers and prosecutors. The School was organized in a Training of Trainers (ToT) format that means the national justice system is now provided with trainers who can continue training their peers on international standards of application of pre-trial detention.

The Ombudsperson's Office and the National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) play a crucial role in effective prevention of human rights violations within the criminal justice system. The Council of Europe programmes and bodies always emphasize the importance of these bodies. From your experience of working closely with the Ombudsperson's Office, what should be the most successful approach to enhancing external monitoring and civil society involvement when it comes to human rights?

Anastasia Saliuk: Our Programme has a long-lasting history of cooperation with the Ombudsperson's Office and the NPM of the Republic of Moldova, which includes capacity building, technical support and enhancing the institutions’ visibility. It has always been important for us to create platforms for dialogue between different institutions in order to build synergies and promote cooperation between criminal justice actors. In my view, only by reinforcing these internal links we may make a difference for the system as a whole. To that end, in December 2020 an international human rights conference was organised jointly with the Ombudsperson Institution. The event gathered more than 50 participants from relevant national authorities and international actors to discuss the impact of the Council of Europe and its instruments on the respect of human rights in the Republic of Moldova.

This and other similar platforms provide for better engagement of civil society into human rights monitoring. Given the leading role of the Ombudsperson’s Office in external monitoring, our Programme focused primarily on increasing the Office’s efficiency and speediness in processing and examining complaints on human right violations. We developed a mechanism for the primary examination and investigation of such complaints, which will also improve the Office’s ability to prioritise urgent cases. The NPM received further support in developing and monitoring the implementation of recommendations for the prevention of torture and ill treatment following the visits to the places of deprivation of liberty. Enhancing this institution’s capacity to perform their mandate is at the core of civil society involvement into protection of human rights.

People in detention have the right to efficient healthcare services, especially in the pandemic situation. How did the programme support the National Administration of Penitentiaries (NAP) during the COVID-19 crisis to meet this primary need?

Violeta Frunze: the Programme paid significant attention to this area, the greater aim being to support the NAP in attaining the same standards of health care as in the community. To this end, we used a three-dimensional approach, tackling the issue from the legal provisions regulating the health care in prisons, towards enhancing the level of professionalism and skills of the medical personnel, and through improving the material conditions in the primary health care units in prisons, and in the prison hospital.

Ethical and efficient treatment of patients, human rights observance, diseases control and quality management in health care provision in closed environments were the guiding principles in interventions deployed in this area. These efforts coincided with the need to undertake urgent measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in prisons. Upon urgent request of the prison administration, we are pleased that we were able to provide the national prison system with medical equipment and devices of vital importance, like portable pulse oximeters, glucometers, autoclave sterilizers, blood collection chairs and other, including the protective equipment, IR thermometers and disinfectants. This process has been done in very short period of time in spring 2020 and under particular circumstances of delivery of such devices all-over the world. On longer run, the project also equipped all 16 medical units and the prison hospital with substantial medical equipment valued at about 150.000 Euros.

The probation system of the Republic of Moldova is undergoing a reorganisation. What were the key contributions of your component to this regard?

Violeta Frunze: As in any area, the programme interventions for the Probation Service (PS) were three-dimensional, aimed at (1) modernising the legal framework and the status of probation employees; (2) optimising the use of available resources for an improved organisational performance; and (3) strengthening the PS capacity as an expert in criminal behaviour, to meet and balance the profile of its beneficiaries. The PS was provided with roadmaps for improving current offender behaviour programmes and reintegration activity; for building up an internal training and professional development system; and two pools of trainers were created and capacitated in two essential areas of interventions: Motivational Interviewing and developing presentence reports. A particular attention was paid to reinforcing the cooperation between prisons and probation, including by joint piloting a risk and needs assessment tool, to prepare inmates for their release into the community. All these efforts were directed towards supporting the National Probation Inspectorate in reaching a stronger presence in the criminal justice system of the Republic of Moldova and strengthening its capacity at all levels.

In your opinion, how can a shift from punitive to rehabilitative approach be triggered? How many years does it take, from the perspective of other countries and international experiences to see the behavioural change?

Violeta Frunze: The shift from a punitive to a rehabilitative approach is a long way, requiring also political and economic stability in a given country. On such grounds, one can build a culture, and in other jurisdictions the rehabilitative culture in prisons and probation is a precondition for the effectiveness of any behaviour change intervention. So to say, the shift does not “happen”, it can only be cultivated on a fertile ground.

In environments with a certain resistance, rigidity and unpredictability, small steps should be favoured, combining both top-down and bottom-up approaches. To this end, approaches used in our interventions for prisons and probation stand out against any other, as these are built upon the achievements of the Norwegian Mission of Rule of Law Advisers to Moldova (NORLAM) that operated between 2007 – 2017, and the unique expertise of the Council of Europe in the promotion of humane treatment of offenders, adequate prison conditions and socially effective and rehabilitative penal sanctions and measures. These efforts were conjugated in the Programme we implemented during the last 3 years, to bring the prison and probation systems in the Republic of Moldova closer to the best practices, international and European standards in the rehabilitation of offenders.