Estonia told to improve inhumane jails

  • 2007-07-18
  • By Joel Alas

TALLINN - Estonia has been told to change its citizenship requirements and fix its prisons in a memorandum from the Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights.
Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg urged authorities to do away with its citizenship language test for elderly applicants, and said all newborn children of non-citizens should be granted citizenship automatically.
He criticized the "deplorable" conditions in some police detention houses, where inmates are overcrowded, deprived of sunlight and allowed to take just one shower each week. Tallinn's central prison was singled out for failing to provide its inmates with hot water.

And he called for better regulation of laws that allow prosecutors to search lawyers' offices.
Hammarberg presented his memorandum to the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers on July 11, and based his findings on a delegation visit during 2006. He noted that much had been done to act upon the 2004 recommendations from the previous commissioner, Alvaro Gil-Robles.
Estonia's citizenship requirements 's which strongly aim to protect the national language 's  again came under scrutiny. About 121,000 residents of Estonia remain noncitizens, most of them of Russian descent, the memorandum noted.
Hammarberg praised Estonia for implementing a previous recommendation that the cost of language courses be reimbursed upon passing a test, and for exempting people born before 1930 from the written element of the test. "However, the number of non-citizens is still high and the risk of alienation is present," the commissioner wrote.
"It still happens that parents of newborn children do not seek citizenship for their child, who therefore remains stateless."

He said the government should consider exempting applicants from the language test at the retirement age. The Language Inspectorate also came under fire.
"The delegation was informed of several cases where the language inspector's sanctions seemed disproportionate," he said.
While Hammarberg said he supported the right of the state to expect people to serve in Estonian, he said language laws should be "implemented carefully in order to avoid causing fear among minorities that they may be discriminated in the labor market." He further suggested geographic circumstances 's such as large proportions of minority speakers in certain areas 's be taken into account.

The delegation also visited several prisons and police watch houses, and found conditions to be unacceptable.
While the Justice Ministry has launched a program to upgrade its prisons, new facilities will be unavailable for several years, leaving inmates to suffer in inhumane surroundings, the commissioner said.
Inmates at Tallinn's prison received hot water showers once a week, leading to health problems. They are provided with just one roll of toilet paper per month, and have to pay for their own sanitary products.
Further problems were found in regional police holding cells in Rakvere and Kohtla-Jarve, where conditions had deteriorated since 2004. In Rakvere, 43 inmates share a 40-bed cellblock with no space for indoor or outdoor activities, and only one shower permitted each week.
Hammarberg called the conditions "deplorable, inhumane and degrading," and said it was urgent that the inmates be rehoused.

Hammarberg was surprised to find that prosecutors could still apply for a warrant to search a notary or advocate's law office, and said such a condition should be more closely monitored to protect lawyer-client confidentiality. He also called for the implementation of a free legal aid system.
Further recommendations were made to tackle domestic violence, human trafficking and the spread of HIV.
The Estonian Government has yet to respond to the memorandum. With many ministers and staffers on summer holidays, it seems unlikely the recommendations will be given any serious consideration for several weeks.

The Foreign Ministry told The Baltic Times that the report would be given closer examination in autumn.
"It is possible that some assessments might be out of date," a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said.