Prison as a death sentence

The death in custody of Sergei Magnitsky in November shocked the world and mobilised President Medvedev into a promise of reform. Yet, as a second death tragically illustrates, the system has remained essentially unchanged: brutal, dependent and secretive.

Zoya Svetova
14 May 2010

The system of Russian justice is well organized and punitive in its nature. It consists of three elements, bound together by conspiracy: the investigation process, court and prison. People who fall into this mill rarely escape unscathed.

Journalists and human rights activists have for many years attempted to make inroads into this closed system. They have talked and written about the lack of an independent judicial system, about the steady stream of “ordered” cases, and about the many innocent people who find themselves behind bars, classified as criminals at the behest of influential politicians or businessmen.


Moscow's infamous Matrosskaya Tishina detention centre: site of the shocking deaths of both Sergei Magnitsky and Vera Trifonova. From vetta.tv

Recently, too, Russian society has also started to wake up to evidence from victims of the system. For the most part, the evidence is line with what activists and journalists have been talking about for many years. But it is often razor-edged and, for many, shocking. The so-called prison “diaries” of Hermitage Capital lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in after being denied crucial medical treatment, are the most obvious documents that fall into this category.

Magnitsky’s complaints, copies of which he sent to his lawyers, chronicled the torture of conditions he faced in prison. A lawyer himself, he was scrupulous in recording every violation of prisoners’ rights; often small violations, but which in totality made life simply intolerable. He died at the Matrosskaya Tishina detention centre on 16 November 2009. The circumstances of his death are still unknown. The official reason is severe heart failure, but we know Sergei suffered from pancreatitis and did not receive the necessary medical aid in prison. A criminal case has been opened to look into the circumstances surrounding his death, and that investigation is ongoing. But there is no hope for identifying the real culprits responsible for the death of this remarkable, bold and courageous person.

Prison inspectors, Russian style

The public investigation of the death of Sergei Magnitsky was the very first item in the inbox of the Moscow Public Oversight Commission for Prisons.

This watchdog is an innovation in Russian civil society. While British prison inspectors have been in place for over 100 years, the Commission was only officially constituted in 2009, and was the product of a ten-year compromise with law-enforcement departments. Russian prisoner inspectors have far fewer rights and capabilities then English inspectors. Russian prisoners meanwhile know little about the inspectors' existence.

Since December 2008, I have served on this watchdog, and can say with some authority that it has a far from easy task in discharging its duties. The most obvious problem we face is the fact our visits are always accompanied by the prison warden or his deputy, which makes the prisoners afraid to talk about their problems with us. They understand that when we leave, they may be punished for complaining. How to solve this problem of trust, and how to ensure that after our visit prisoners do not have problems with the prison warden is the most difficult question of all. So far we have no answer.

When we tried to carry out a public investigation of Sergei Magnitsky’s death, we found that employees of the detention centre – the managers, doctors and medical assistants – tried to conceal the truth. Put simply, they lied. Neither could they explain the rationale for keeping Magnitsky for over an hour in a separate cell of the admission department, rather than being taken to a hospital cell. This lack of information led some members of our commission to make the suggestion that Magnitsky may have been given a lethal injection in the ambulance on the way from the Butyrka detention centre to the Matrosskaya Tishina detention centre (in other words that he was held in the admission department for a whole hour until it was decided what story to make up about his death). This is all conjecture, of course. But conjecture is unavoidable with resepect to a closed and secretive system, whose  employees desperately resist any attempts of public oversight. Trying to discover the truth about what happens there, we sometimes have no choice but to make the most terrible assumptions.

The state investigator as prison chief       

We discovered one other typical trait of Russian prison life: the total subservience of the prison warden to the whims of the state investigator. Say, for example, the investigator wants to play a game with the prisoner, perhaps in attempt to extract a particular testimony. What he does is go to the prison administration and asks them to improve or worsen conditions for that prisoner. Inevitably, the warden will agree. This was the case with Sergei Magnitsky. Here, the investigator demanded Magnitsky give evidence against his client, Hermitage Capital boss William Browder. When Magnitsky did not budge, he was denied medical attention and was herded around from cell to cell, which was ultimately destroying for him. 

At the end of December, our commission issued a report on our study, which we sent to various authorities, from general prosecutor to the head of the Federal Penitentiary Service. We have yet to receive a reply. While several employees of the Moscow department of the Federal Penitentiary Service have been dismissed from their positions, it is safe to say the system has not yet drawn the necessary conclusions.

Vera Trifonova

On 30 April, at the same hospital of the Matrosskaya Tishina detention centre, 52-year-old Vera Trifonova died. Trifonova was the head of Kit-Elit-Nedvizhimost, a real estate company located in Rublyovka, a prestigious region to the West of Moscow. Like Magnitsky, she did not agree to give the testimony that was asked of her, and was refused bail as a result. According to her lawyer Vladimir Zherebenkov, the request was made in very plain terms: “make a confessionary statement, and you’ll get out”.

The conversation took place while Trifonova was still in the intensive care unit of hospital № 20, a hospital dealing with seriously ill prisoners. She was transferred here because she could not be given necessary medical attention at Matryoshka Tishina detention centre. According to lawyer Zherebenkov, she had a serious form of diabetes: “one of her kidneys failed, and she needed hemodialysis twice a week”. The doctors at the hospital agreed, writing reports to the court that the patient needed qualified medical assistance. Yet the investigator in charge of Trifonova’s case put pressure on the doctors; and after some brief treatment, she was sent back to Matrosskaya Tishina. Her condition then worsened.

Who is to blame?

On the morning of 30 April, Vera Trifonova’s condition became extremely serious, so much so that it was no longer possible to save her. Zherebenkov is in no doubt as to who is responsible for her death, identifying state investigator Sergei Pysin, and the head of Matrosskaya Tishina detention centre Fikret Tagiev, who sent notes to court suggesting Trifonova was fit to be held in prison. It was on the basis of these notes that Judge Olga Makarova refused on several occasions  to release Vera Trifonova. Tagiev has, of course, refered his critics back to the procured “opinions” of doctors from hospital № 20, who returned Trifonova to jail after pressure from above. This kind of vicious circle is but typical of Russian prisons: everyone is connected, and no one is to blame.

President Dmitry Medvedev was quick to order an investigation into this new tragedy. The next day, investigator Sergei Pysin was dismissed, along with superior Alexander Filippov, who is an important official in the regional procuracy. Many observers satisfied themselves that the Russian president’s reaction had been “adequate”.

This isn’t the case. Politicians clearly had a chance to act sooner. When Sergei Magnitsky was dying some six months ago, the fact of his awful condition was known only to a select few: his lawyers, the investigator, the head of the Butyrka detention centre (where he was detained), and the general prosecutor Yury Chaika (to whom he complained many times). Vera Trifonova’s plight, on the other hand, was very well publicised. Most newspapers covered the story. Trifonova’s lawyer appealed directly both to President Medvedev and Yury Chaika. So it simply cannot be said that the government and society did not know about the seriousness of her situation.

Trifonova, by the way, was accused of attempted fraud. In all probability, however, she did not actually commit any crimes. According to the investigator’s version of events, Trifonova was responsible for introducing banker Pavel Razumov to Magadan politician Georgy Shakiryan, who is then alleged to have asked Razumov for $1.5 million in exchange for being made a senator in the Federation Council. Trifonova’s lawyer Zherebenkov, however, says that his client had nothing to do with the money. He believes Trifonova’s arrest was “ordered”, connected with the fact that one of Razumov’s friends owed her a large sum of money and did not want to give the money back.

We do not know how it would have ended in court: whether Vera Trifonova’s innocence would have been proved or not. But she died because she fell into the mill of Russian justice. And the mill ground her up.

Civil society in Russia is very weak: neither the media nor activists were able to save this seriously ill prisoner from the fate of Magnitsky. We could not get through to government, to get the system to show just a little bit more mercy than usual. When our commission went back the Matrosskaya Tishina to investigate the cause of Vera Trifonova’s death, I said to prison head Fikret Tagiev: “We’re here once again ... and for the same sad reason”. He was surprised: “I’ve got forty people dying each year here in hospital”. Trifonova’s death didn’t seem to touch him at all.

Last year in Russia, over 4,000 people died in custody, and 521 prisoners died in prison. For these people, yet to be convicted, prison simply became a death sentence.


Zoya Svetova is a human rights campaigner and journalist for The New Times. Her work has been recognized by both Amnesty International and the Russian Union of Journalists. She is twice-laureate of the Sakharov Prize "for journalism as an act of conscience, and was in 2009 awarded the Gerd Bucerius "Free Press in Eastern Europe" Prize.

Get oDR emails Occasional updates from our team covering the post-Soviet space Sign up here

Related articles


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData