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Inga Abramova was arrested and sentenced to five days administrative detention for “minor hooliganism” for peaceful protest and activism, namely hanging up blue ribbons to draw attention to a political campaign.
The conditions of detention were extremely cold, dirty, full of cigarette smoke from other prisoners, poorly lit with hardly any daylight penetrating into the cell. Artificial lighting was switched on throughout the day and night, inhibiting her ability to sleep. She had one 15-minute walk outside her cell during the entire five day period of detention. The toilet facilities in the cell were arranged so that detainees using the toilet could be watched by the other detainees and male prison staff, a situation which Inga Abramova found to be degrading treatment.
Inga Abramova found that the cold exacerbated her kidney problems, and she has had long-standing health problems following this period of detention, including effects on her reproductive health.
After her arrest, she was searched by male staff, as no female staff were present. On arrival at the detention centre, she was sexually harassed, and throughout the period of detention, she was threatened and mocked by male guards, including being threatened with being stripped naked.
She made a complaint to the CEDAW Committee that she was subjected to cruel and inhuman treatment which was also discriminatory because of her genders.
What was the decision?
The Committee found 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 (paragraph 7.5) and that the UN Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the Bangkok Rules) which detail how detention, imprisonment and alternatives to imprisonment of women and girls should be gender-competent. The Committee noted that in a situation where male staff have unrestricted visual and physical access to women prisoners, this is a breach of Rule 53 of the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.
The Committee ruled that “the disrespectful treatment of the author by State agents, namely male prison staff, including inappropriate touching and unjustified interference with her privacy constitutes sexual harassment and discrimination within the meaning of Article 1 and Article 5(a) of the Convention and General Recommendation 19. The Committee [recognized] that Ms Abramova suffered moral damages and prejudice due to the humiliating and degrading treatment, the sexual harassment and the negative health consequences suffered during detention.” (paragraph 7.7 and 7.8)
The Committee required Belarus to provide adequate compensation commensurate with the gravity of the offences she experienced, and to take structural measures to:
Improve the physical and mental safety, dignity and privacy of women prisoners, including women’s specific hygiene needs;
Ensure access to gender-specific healthcare for women;
Ensure that complaints of discriminatory, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment are effectively investigated and the perpetrators prosecuted and punished;
Improve safeguards for women prisoners, particularly, ensuring that properly trained women staff supervise women prisoners.
Learning from other institutions
The CEDAW Committee cited the Bangkok Rules, and the Standard Minimum Rules on the Treatment of Prisoners (this standard has now been updated in the new Mandela Rules).
For guidance on the Bangkok Rules, see Penal Reform International under “additional resources” at the bottom of the page.
In this case, the CEDAW Committee incorporated the corpus of human rights standards relating to detention, particularly the Bangkok Rules, into the understanding of Article 1 of CEDAW, emphasising its ability to consider acts of torture and ill-treatment of those in detention as a violation of CEDAW.