We write to express our deep concern about the possible repeal of a recent revision to the Russian penal code decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of narcotic drugs. This revision, enacted May 12, 2004, marked a watershed for Russian drug policy away from mass incarceration of suspected drug users and toward more humane policies grounded in public health and human rights.

Human Rights Watch has conducted extensive research on HIV/AIDS and injection drug use throughout the world, including in the Russian Federation. In May 2005, we released a lengthy report documenting the link between Russia’s harsh drug laws and a wide range of human rights abuses against drug users. Our report illustrated the climate of fear created by police surveillance of pharmacies where drug users were known to purchase syringes, detention and incarceration of suspected drug users for possession of trace amounts of narcotics, and the constant threat of extortion or arbitrary arrest by police charged with filling arrest quotas. We found that imprisonment only increased drug users’ risk of contracting HIV due to the extent of syringe sharing in prisons and jails and the paucity of prison-based HIV-prevention services. Drug users living with HIV/AIDS in Russia told us tragic stories of abuse and discrimination in access to jobs and government services (including health services), stemming in part from their government’s failure to educate the public about the basic facts of HIV transmission. As Human Rights Watch has witnessed in numerous countries, such abuses threaten to drive Russia’s AIDS epidemic further underground and create conditions for massively increased HIV transmission.

It was with great hope that we learned in May 2004 that the Russian government had completed President Putin’s and the Duma’s initiative to reform the narcotics laws of your country. This step marked a new era in Russian drug law, one that had the potential to resonate throughout the region. At the time, we wrote to Prime Minister Fradkov to congratulate the Russian Federation on this initiative and express our conviction that more humane drug laws would create an enabling environment for effective drug treatment and HIV prevention programs. We remain optimistic that the humanity and respect for human rights that inspired this reform has not since changed.

Russia is now home to between 1 million and 2 million people living with HIV/AIDS, the vast majority of them infected through injection drug use. Much work remains to be done to bring Russia’s AIDS response to a level commensurate with the severity of this epidemic. The recent proposal to repeal the May 2004 drug law reforms would be a step back. We urge you, at the very least, to extend the period of consideration of this proposal to allow for adequate documentation of the positive effects of the 2004 revision. We further hope that you will use your leadership to support the reforms of 2004 and contribute to an environment where all Russians can enjoy their right to health and their right to life.

Yours sincerely,

Holly Cartner
Executive Director
Europe and Central Asia Division

Jonathan Cohen
HIV/AIDS and Human Rights Program

Mr. Pavel Vladimirovich Krasheninnikov, Chairman, Committee on Civil, Criminal, Arbitral and Procedural Legislation, State Duma
Mr. Vladimir Abdualievich Vasilyev, Chairman of the Committee on Security, State Duma