Cover-up in Russia's Prisons

Artemy Alexandrov
18 June 2008

 The official explanation for the deaths of the prisoners beaten by warders at a prison colony in Chelyabinsk Region was that the prisoners attacked the warders first. Human rights activists think it was the other way round.  

On May 31, four prisoners who had just arrived at Prison Colony No1 in the town of Kopeisk were beaten with truncheons by warders. They died the same day of post-traumatic shock and internal haemorrhaging. The Federal Corrections Service (FSIN) said that the dead men, armed with razors and makeshift knives, attacked the warders. Five of the warders were injured, and they had no choice but to use force to protect themselves and bring the men under control. Moreover, the FSIN said that after they were ‘pacified', a prison doctor examined the prisoners and found their condition ‘satisfactory'.

Yury Kalinin, the head of the FSIN, said the warders' action was justified. The Kopeisk local authorities have even promised to improve housing conditions for the prison warders injured during the attack.

However, human rights activists have carried out their own investigation. This came up with a very different version of events. Lev Ponomaryov, executive director of the national public movement ‘For Human Rights' and deputy chairman of the board of the Foundation for the Protection of Prisoners' Rights' has talked to a man recently released from the prison colony. He was told about a ‘standard procedure' that takes place there: ‘Whenever a new batch of prisoners arrives - 20-30 people - they are led into a corridor, stripped naked, made to stand along the walls and then beaten with varying degrees of ferocity.' Warders who had fought in Chechnya were said to be particularly zealous in beating non-ethnic Russians. ‘The idea was to scare them, to maintain "order." The warders would shout things like: "you can forget about your rights here." It was just like a Hollywood movie.

‘On May 31 warders apparently ran up against resistance from four or more men,' Pomomaryov continued. ‘They were taken to separate cells and beaten individually, then left to die. According to the information we have, more than four people were beaten. I don't really believe that a doctor examined them, and if they were examined, this means a deliberate decision was made not to help people who were dying.'

Ponomaryov said that similar ‘standard procedures' take place in many Russian prison colonies. The colony authorities further justified their actions by saying that there was a danger of the prisoners rebelling. Former prisoners told human rights activists that this would not have been possible. Prisoners, they said, were not allowed to walk around in groups of more than one person. All prisoners arriving at the colony were thoroughly searched and checked with a metal detector. On June 11, the human rights activists presented the results of their investigation to the government and demanded the resignation of the heads of the FSIN.

The Chelyabinsk Prosecutor's Office is continuing to investigate the incident. Three charges of ‘overstepping official powers' and ‘manslaughter' have been brought against prison colony staff, while prisoners have been charged with ‘disrupting the activities of institutions responsible for isolation from society'.

On June 17, Oksana Kalinina, senior assistant to the Chelyabinsk Region prosecutor, confirmed human rights' activists' suspicions by saying that apart  from the four prisoners who died, another eight prisoners from the colony had been injured during the incident. The Prosecutor's Office says that the injured prisoners were transferred to an FSB detention centre in order to prevent them being put under pressure. Lev Ponomaryov contends  that this proves that the FSIN has been lying right the way through. The fact that the prisoners have had to be transferred to a safe place shows just how tense the situation is. He also said that the fact that the incident has aroused such close attention and that the human rights groups are continuing to investigate more fully gives hope that the truth will be made known.  

Though trying to justify his subordinates' actions, head of the FSIN Yury Kalinin was nonetheless forced to give in to the regional prosecutor's demands. On June 6 he fired the head of the colony, his two operational deputies, two section heads and seven other staff members. 

Torture and Potemkin villages

Lyudmila Alexeyeva, president of the Moscow Helsinki Group and chairwoman of the board of the Foundation for the Protection of Prisoners' Rights, answered questions on the situation.

Q: How likely is it that human rights activists will succeed in establishing a full picture of the events?

A: I am afraid we will never know the full truth. While the prosecutors carry out their investigation there is time to intimidate prisoners who could give evidence, force them to keep silent and even transfer them to other colonies. There is little hope that the prosecutors will conduct an objective investigation. Practice shows that such investigations are usually conducted with official interests in mind. Of course, we are carrying out our own investigation, but this is extremely difficult because independent public organisations are not even allowed to get close to the colony. 

Even if the dead prisoners really did attack the warders, it is still a crime to beat them to death. If that had been the case, they should have been detained and had new criminal charges brought against them. This is the procedure in all civilised countries. So even if the FSIN account were true, Yury Kalinin still deserved to be dismissed, and his activities investigated, as also do the colony's management, and the warders who carried out the beatings.

Q: What changes have there been in the human rights situation in Russia's prisons?

Q: These last years have seen an increase in abuses of prisoners' rights. There are mass beatings to punish prisoners for protest actions, people are humiliated, warders try to force them into unquestioning obedience and force them to carry out illegal orders. Characters and lives are broken. The fact that death from beating is officially confirmed (they're not saying that the dead prisoners ‘fell downstairs') shows that illegal practices are taking place on such a scale that they can't even hide it now.

Of around 700 Russian prison colonies, 40-50 are known as places where torture is practiced. The existence of these place is used to intimidate prisoners at ‘calmer' prison colonies, who are told that if they do not obey the prison officials, they will be sent to the ‘torture colonies'. In their desperation the prisoners try to get attention by cutting their wrists, stabbing metal pins into their heads, and organising protests, which are ruthlessly suppressed. We have a mass of materials documenting violations perpetrated by prison staff and administrators. But no one pays any attention to our reports. No one listens to us, and no one gives us any access to anything. In this situation our work produces only paltry results: out of every 10 demands that we put forward we only manage to get anything done about two or three. As for foreigners who come to check on the situation, they get shown ‘Potemkin villages'.   

Russia needs to allow independent public organisations to have an unhindered right to monitor the prison system, as is the procedure all around the world. Otherwise the number of violations and deaths will continue to grow. We also need to remember that violence against prisoners concerns everyone in this country. After all, according to our figures, a third or even half of those in Russia's prisons and colonies are either innocent or have committed only minor offences. We really are a country of prisoners. There is probably not a single family in which someone at some time hasn't been in prison.   

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