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The red zone

Russia's prison system is dehumanising people. The recent death of an inmate in a southern Russian penal colony is only further proof. Graphic warningRU

Footage of the body of Dmitry Batyrev, who was beaten to death in an Elista prison on 20 November.

In late November, video footage was released from a morgue in Kalmykia. It has shocked Russia. The video, recorded in Elista, the republic’s capital, shows the battered body of Dmitry Batyrev, a 28-year old inmate of the republic’s prison system. On the morning of 20 November, Dmitry Batyrev arrived at Kalmykia’s Penal Colony No.1 (PC-1) a healthy young man. By mid afternoon on the same day, Batyrev was dead.

Batyrev, it appears, was beaten to death by prison staff on the day he started his three-year sentence for grievous bodily harm at PC-1. Three suspects are now themselves behind bars, awaiting trial, but Batyrev’s relatives fear that two of them will remain free, and have good reason to think so.

Prisoners at PC-1 have now gone on hunger strike, with several of them even sewing up their own mouths. The Presidential Council on Human Rights has taken the case under its wing. But whatever the outcome of the upcoming trial, the story of Batyrev’s murder goes beyond the mere corruption of Russia’s judicial system or the ‘corporate’ solidarity of the law enforcement agencies.

The beating of a man in handcuffs to death can’t just be put down to a feeling of impunity—those who know the system say that it’s hard to stay human inside.

A camera is also a weapon

‘You’re a journalist, don’t you know the rules? Photography is forbidden in secure facilities. How do we know you’re not trying to help prisoners escape?’ – I’m told as a prison officer from PC-1 writes my details on a crumpled piece of paper. His colleague phones someone, requesting police assistance: ‘We’ve caught an intruder!’ he bellows to the amazed (or bewildered) person on the other end of the line.

Just five minutes earlier, there was little hint of such overkill. The little sentry box beside the entry barrier, where a guard ought to have been on watch duty, was empty and there was no one to ask whether I could approach the gate.

The perimeter fence at PC-1.But my protests—that I hadn’t passed the barrier and hadn’t taken photos in a secure zone—went unheard. The officers insisted that there was a warning sign 50 metres back, ‘although it’s not very visible’.

The police didn’t show up, and in the end I managed to have a normal conversation with the guards. The incident wouldn’t even be worth mentioning were it not for the death of Batyrev 10 days earlier in this very prison.

Batyrev was beaten for a prolonged time: forensics experts counted over 100 rubber truncheon blows on his body. No one on the prison staff stopped their colleagues. The ‘intruder’ with the camera, on the other hand, warranted the intervention of five officers—three uniformed and two in plain clothes.

My arrival, camera in hand, to the ‘secure facility’ of PC-1 was tantamount to an invasion of sovereign territory. Not that the law has anything to do with either incident: the prison staff’s actions are dictated by concerns for their own personal safety. To be sure, a fatal prison tragedy and a trivial incident with a nosy journalist aren’t comparable, but, in their own way, they reflect the priorities of Russia’s law enforcement system.

Batyrev arrived in the morning as a healthy young man. By mid afternoon, he was dead.

Earlier this year, Batyrev was sentenced to three years for causing ‘intentional grievous bodily harm’ to the former deputy head of Kalmykia’s Federal Prison Service. This individual is, for all intents and purposes, a man of the system—the interlocking web of influence and power that draws prosecutors, judges, police and prison officials together.

Still from video taken from inside Elista morgue by Nadezhda Sandzhieva, Dmitry Batyrev's sister.As far as the system was concerned, this attack on a public official was a threat to the safety of members of the ‘corporation’. A former staff member at the prison told me that people convicted of such crimes face serious reprisals inside. Different laws apply on the other side of the barbed wire: you can expect no mercy or help from anyone.

The guards clearly overstepped the mark with Batyrev, and the whole country ended up knowing about it. But will the public reaction to the killing affect the attitudes of the law enforcers in particular, and the state in general to ‘ordinary’ citizens?

‘It wasn’t self defence, it was murder’

Nadezhda Sandzhieva is Dmitry Batyrev’s sister, Anzhela Kalsynova – his cousin. They are both amiable young women. Neither Nadezhda, nor Anzhela could hardly have imagined the nightmare that followed the sentencing of Dmitry to three years in jail and his transfer from pre-trial detention to the penal colony.

We meet after the preliminary hearing of the case against the three prison officers: Aleksandr Shuvayev, a junior living zone supervisor, Tseren Nasunov, a senior officer and the colony’s deputy director Colonel Kazbek Israilov. These men face charges on two counts: ‘abuse of power with the use of violence involving instruments of punishment and leading to grievous consequences’ and ‘intentional grievous bodily harm incidentally leading to the death of the victim’. The court ordered them to be held at a pre-trial detention centre for two months while the case is investigated.

‘Nasunov and Shuvayev are pinning everything on Israilov,’ says Nadezhda. ‘And he didn’t make any comment about his guilt, just asked the court to give him house arrest.’

Family photograph of Dmitry Batyrev.‘Shuvayev’s defence lawyer insisted that his client was too small and weedy to inflict such injuries. But the nastiest version of the story came from Nasunov’ – the young woman’s voice is tinged with contempt – ‘he claimed he was completely innocent, and is actively cooperating with the investigation and setting his co-defendants up for a murder charge, although it was he and Israilov who behaved most brutally.’

Batyrev’s relatives believe that the lawyers for the defence have colluded on their strategy. According to Russian criminal law, a group crime is considered more serious than one committed by a single person. So accomplices in these cases usually agree among themselves on who will take responsibility for the crime in order to lessen the sentences.

‘The very thought of the torture Dima went through in the last hours of his life makes me furious,’ says Anzhela. She pauses for a second: there are no tears, from the start of the conversation I knew that the cousins were resolute. ‘This wasn’t an instant death, but a lengthy beating until he died. He was shackled. You can see the marks on his wrist and ankles, totally defenceless…’

The women dismiss the Prison Service’s claim that their staff had to use physical force and weapons because Batyrev ‘categorically refused to be subjected to a search, impeded the officers carrying it out, pulled a disposable razor blade out of his mouth and attacked the officers with it.’ 

You can’t hit someone more than 100 times with rubber truncheons and your fists and feet and call it self-defence. That’s never self defence, that’s murder

As Anzhela says, ‘He couldn’t have taken a razor blade out of his mouth because he was handcuffed and had been searched more than once when he was in pre-trial detention. Besides, you can’t hit someone more than 100 times with rubber truncheons and your fists and feet and call it self-defence. That’s never self defence, that’s murder.’

‘The prison staff waited for two hours after killing Batyrev before they called the police,’ says Nadezhda. ‘That gave them time to remove all traces of their crime. CCTV cameras were put out of commission and recordings wiped. The official claim that it was Dima who attacked them, that they just defended themselves, is just more nastiness.’

‘The Prison Service top brass can’t admit their mistake,’ says Nadezhda. ‘There have been no sackings. Everyone still have their jobs. I even visited their headquarters and spoke to their director-in-chief Mikhail Sizukhin. But I didn’t get any sympathy from him, not even a few clichéd phrases of commiseration. Sizukhin called his security head in, for support, and they started showing off their legal knowledge to me.’

Early days

The cousins are not jumping to any conclusions, but don’t exclude the possibility that the murder could have instigated by a member of the family of the prison service official as revenge for Batyrev’s attack: ‘That would at least have some logic to it,’ they say.

According to human rights campaigners, this official’s two sons currently work for law enforcement agencies: one in Moscow for a body that monitors the Prison Service and the other for the criminal investigation service in northern Russia. The human rights portal also reports that Burkhanali Safaraliev, the official in question, has been tried in the past for abuse of power and serious fraud. has also published an audio recording of a medical expert telling a detective that two people arrived at the morgue, wanting to take swabs and blood samples from the body. The site’s coordinator Anton Drozdov has asked the head of Russia’s Investigative Committee to check this out and change the charge against the prison officers from ‘causing intentional grievous bodily harm’ to ‘murder’.

The shop where the conflict between Burkhanali Safaraliev and Dmitry Batryev took place.‘Dima left a five-month old baby,’ says Nadezhda quietly. ‘It was his first ever conviction, and he assumed he would be given an early release for good behaviour and get back to his family. He was a farmer, and not long before his clash with Safaraliev he had bought some land and was planning to build a house, take our parents and me and my daughter there and he would work the farm while we looked after the housekeeping.’

‘Dima was immediately sorry for what he had done and accepted his punishment,’ adds Anzhela. ‘He was especially sorry that he hit someone older than himself. It happened in Elista [the capital of Kalmykia]. Dima went into a shop to buy some beer and got talking to the woman behind the counter, offering to supply her with milk. He was always looking for ways to earn a bit more money. The shop assistant, by the way, described him in court as a pleasant, friendly young man.

‘She suggested he talk to the shop owner, Safaraliev, who she was expecting in a couple of hours. When Dima came back, the conversation went badly, they started arguing and Safaraliev tried to threaten him—“You know who I am!” and so on. Dima saw red and hit him. And the guy, it turns out, is diabetic, his bones are brittle. Dima broke one of his ribs. Then he went to the police himself and admitted everything in court.’

The red zone

In Kalmykia, Penal Colony No.1 is better known by the name of the village where it is located, and ‘Salyn’ has a history.

In 1993, one of Salyn’s prisoners murdered the prison governor. The guards eagerly took their revenge, administering beatings to the inmates over several months. The ‘top dogs’ of the prisoner hierarchy were forced to disband their gangs: only 10 or so inmates in the whole camp were able to remain loyal to their ‘Thieves’ Code’, the rules governing behaviour inside prison, and they were transferred to other camps.

Salyn acquired the reputation of a so-called ‘red zone’ camp. Unlike the ‘black zone’ camps, where the higher echelons of the prisoner hierarchy have more power, the Salyn camp administration no longer respected the unwritten (and accepted) rules of prison life.

PC-1 at a distance.Meanwhile, another tradition took root, whereby newcomers were ‘put through the mill’ to establish how obedient they would be, and the staff would then force them to sign a document promising to cooperate with the administration. Those who sign the document have special badges sewn on their uniforms as a reminder of this humiliating submission.

I spoke to three former Salyn inmates who confirmed this picture between them. Mingyan served time in the 1990s and knows first-hand how they ‘broke’ the zone, overturning the unwritten rules that govern Russian prison life; Basan was there from 1997-2000; and Sanal in 2008-9. A fourth contact, Khongor (not his real name), worked at the camp for a couple of weeks in 2012 before realising that he couldn’t continue working there.

‘It was a bitch of a job,’ says Khongor bluntly when asked why he left. ‘I wasn’t surprised when they killed that prisoner. It was bound to happen. And knowing one of the accused officers, I can say that it was also going to end badly for him’.

‘Nasunov?’ I ask.

‘Yeah, he’s an unpleasant character, a nasty so-and-so. He even tried to recruit us to work with him. I’ve talked to the guys working there, but they look after their own. “Yep, he had a razor blade”, they say.

‘But this is a small republic, sooner or later somebody will squeal. There are already rumours that Safaraliev was behind it all. Nobody intended to kill him, of course. They just wanted to humiliate him. If Batyrev had lived, he’d have had a tough time there. They’re hard on people who are convicted because of problems with the screws.’

Khongor tells me that information about torture rarely seeps through to the outside world: the inmates try to keep on the right side of the administration.

‘Nothing usually comes of complaining about a beating. It’s all put down to self-defence on the part of the screws. And evidence—video footage, for example—can vanish. And they try to beat the soft parts, so as not to leave marks. I spoke to one medical expert, and he said that a litre and a half of blood had collected in Batyrev’s buttocks. All his vessels had burst: he died from a massive cerebral haemorrhage.’

Young guys arrive to work in the camp as normal people, but once in this environment they change completely

According to Khongor, young guys arrive to work in the camp as ‘normal people’. They are attracted by working for the government—a regular salary, fringe benefits—but people change completely in this environment. ‘Everybody drinks here, that’s just the way things are.’ As a result, most people who stay become secretive and ready for brutality.

Salyn made headline news once before, in 2012, when the prisoners succeeded in bringing the administration’s abuse of power to public attention. Ossetian prisoners managed to contact the acting governor of North Ossetia Taimuraz Mamsurov, who asked his counterpart in Kalmykia to investigate the violence against inmates in the camp.

No rules

It is clear that little has changed since 2012. But the worst thing is that Batyrev’s murder was no isolated incident.

In October, openDemocracy reported on the year-long investigation into the shooting of a young man in a police station in northern Dagestan. The killer is still at liberty. And less than a week after this recent tragedy in Kalmykia, a similar incident occurred in the Krasnodar region of southern Russia, where staff at a juvenile correctional facility beat a 16-year old inmate to death.

These are just two recent examples: the full list of similar crimes is too long to catalogue here. And there is more to come: a month ago, the Russian State Duma passed the first reading of a bill that human rights campaigners are calling ‘sadist’ in its intentions. Among other things, the draft law will permit prison officers to use physical force, including weapons, to ‘suppress crimes or infringements of prison rules’. The vagueness of the bill’s formulation is evidently deliberate. Though there have been regular debates on similar subjects recently, the legislators are not to be deflected from their course. The government’s priority, as I have noted, is not the interests of Russian citizens, but concern for their own personal safety.

To a certain extent, the entire population of Russia is locked up in a ‘red zone’—the place where no codes apply. There are no hard and fast rules here, not even a ‘Thieves’ Code’. The only law here is that might is right. A system founded exclusively on proscriptions and punishments not only generates demand for the like, but also supplies amoral people, angry at the world around them, who will implement it.

Even if Batyrev’s murderers receive the punishment they deserve (which is doubtful), there will be other monsters to take their place. And when the fuss dies down over this murder, the big ‘zone’, the prison where everyone in Russia still lives, will continue living as before.

About the author

Badma Biurchiev was born in Kalmykia in 1973, and has worked as a journalist since 2003. He currently works for Kavpolit, where he covers Dagestan and Kalmykia. He has previously worked for Bolshoy Kavkaz and Caucasian Knot.

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