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Death by jail: what occupied Crimea does to political prisoners

This detention centre in Crimea ruins lives - and conditions inside have been compared to torture.

Alona Savchuk
15 August 2019
Simferopol Detention Centre, Crimea
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Image: Alina Smutko

Right now, in Simferopol’s Detention Centre No.1, a man is slowly dying.

Edem Bekirov, a Crimean Tatar, has a registered Category 1 disability: he has had one leg amputated, he is a diabetic and has four shunts in his heart.

Bekirov lived with his family in a small Ukrainian town close to the border with Russian-controlled Crimea, Novooleksiivka. Bekirov himself is a local civil activist, while his wife Gulnara is a member of the regional Crimean Tatar Mejlis council.

But since Bekirov’s arrest in Crimea last year, his health condition has rapidly deteriorated while in investigative detention. Sadly, he’s not the only one to suffer this fate. Dozens of Crimean Tatars facing extremism and terrorism charges have passed through Simferopol Detention Centre No.1.

His state of health is satisfactory”

Russian law enforcement arrested Edem Bekirov, 57, on the morning of 12 December 2018 at the Djanka border checkpoint. They then drove him deep into the Crimean peninsula. His family was unable to locate him until late evening. Just before midnight, Bekirov phoned his wife Gulnara from the Crimean FSB headquarters in Simferopol, Crimea’s administrative capital. He asked her to find him a lawyer.

The next day, it transpired that Bekirov had been accused of illegally possessing weapons and explosives. A district court sentenced him to two months in the city’s detention centre, ignoring his health and medical condition (which explicitly exclude detention). The court rejected a request that Bekirov be held under house arrest at his parents’ property in Crimea.

Edem Bekirov in court | Source: Crimean Solidarity

In court, Ivan Romamets, a Crimean FSB investigator, stated his version of the incident: Edem Bekirov allegedly gave an accomplice – a witness for the prosecution who has been anonymised – a travel bag containing 192 cartridges and 47 TNT blocks, weighing up to 14 kilogrammes in total. Later, it was revealed in court that Bekirov cannot lift an object weighing “more than a 1.5 litre bottle” without risk to his health. The court ignored this fact.

Over the next eight months, Bekirov’s lawyers waged a permanent battle for the life of this seriously ill man. Alexey Ladin and Islyam Velilyayev sent requests, statements and complaints to the Russian Federal Penal Enforcement Service (FSIN), the FSB and General Prosecutor ’s Office, as well as the Crimean and Russian Human Rights Ombudspersons. Bekirov was taken to hospitals in Simferopol several times for medical examination, but the doctors did not see a reason to stop him returning to Detention Centre No.1. “His state of health is satisfactory,” they wrote.

“Even without questioning the justification for these accusations against my client, we presented the court with 87 pages of medical documents relating to his state of health, including some indicating that Bekirov should not be held in detention,” said lawyer Alexey Ladin at a Crimean Supreme Court session a month after Bekirov’s arrest.

“My client takes 16 tablets a day, and his amputated leg also requires bandaging. When his blood sugar level was measured on his arrival at Simferopol’s Semashko Medical Centre, the doctor was appalled. He said that Bekirov could fall into a hypoglycaemic coma at any moment. It’s no longer a question of whether he committed a crime or not: it’s a question of whether or not he will survive.”

"We all know that conditions in Simferopol Detention Centre are akin to torture”

“There’s a feeling that this situation could end very badly, possibly even with the death of my client. We all know that conditions in Simferopol Detention Centre are akin to torture,” Ladin added after the session.

Soon after his arrest, Bekirov was moved into a two-person cell in the detention centre’s special block, which has 24 hour CCTV. His cellmate was another Ukrainian political prisoner, Ruslan Trubach, a defendant in the case of Crimean Tatar activist Vedjiye Kashka. Trubach initially acted as a nurse for Bekirov (who received no attention from the medics in jail), monitoring his cellmate’s condition and raising the alarm when necessary.

“If you don’t get him out of there, he’ll die,” Trubach told a court back in January. There was already a risk of sepsis. Bekirov’s amputation wasn’t healing and “everything was blue and swollen”.

“He’s in a cell six metres by two, with constant artificial light and CCTV, a double bunk and no proper toilet facilities,” lawyer Sergey Legostov told a court in late January. Legostov is acting for Server Mustafayev, a coordinator of the Crimean Solidarity organisation who was arrested on terrorism charges. Mustafayev voluntarily took Bekirov’s care over from Trubach. Legostov also said that Bekirov couldn’t wash or shower properly, as the detention centre had no facilities for people with a disability.

Since March 2019, Bekirov has been held in the detention centre’s medical wing, although he’s still not receiving proper medical attention. Bekirov’s state of health, according to lawyer Islyam Veliyayev, is “stably poor”. He has constant headaches, severe pain in his chest with intermittent heartburn, breathlessness at the slightest movement, high blood pressure, very high blood sugar and serious swelling of his face and body. He also has an ischaemic ulcer on his leg. Since late May, Bekirov has had spells of breathlessness and coughing blood.

“I have no idea how I have managed to survive in detention with such a stream of medical problems, but I can tell you that my condition is deteriorating day by day,” Bekirov told a court in late May. “Islyam [Velilyayev], do something – I have to get out of here or I’ll simply die.”

In June, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Bekirov be immediately moved to a hospital. His defence team immediately sent the ruling to the relevant parties.

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Edem Bekirov | Source: Crimean Solidarity

The FSB investigating officer, Ivan Romanets, ignored the ECHR ruling for a week. Speaking to Ladin, Romanets described it as “dubious”, since the document “wasn’t properly authenticated”. Romanets later refused to comply with the ruling in writing. He also cited the fact that Bekirov had already had several external examinations, and after each one the doctors had decided it was safe for him to return to detention. The Crimean Prosecutor’s Office supported this decision.

Prison medicine is the main threat

Edem Bekirov’s situation may be a prime example of the FSB and Russian prison service ignoring people’s medical rights with impunity, but it is certainly not unusual for Simferopol Detention Centre. Lawyers and families have had to fight for the lives of other Ukrainian political prisoners as well.

After Arsen Dzhepparov was arrested in April 2016, he developed painful septic boils on his body as a result of detention. But the condition of Dzhepparov, a defendant in a terrorism case in Yalta, was ignored by medical staff at Simferopol Detention Centre. In November that year, Dzhepparov was rushed directly to hospital from a punishment cell - he had been incarcerated for refusing to shave - to hospital for an operation. One of his boils had burst.

“No one came to see him or helped in any way,” Dzhepparov’s wife Zarina tells me. “And there he was, sitting in his detention centre clothes, which were all wet and dirty. He had an untreated wound. There were rats as big as cats running around.” After the operation, Dzhepparov was returned to his cell still under anaesthetic.

Zarina, wife to Arsen Dzhepparov, talks with his mother Arzy | Image: Alina Smutko

In spring 2017, a boil appeared on Dzhepparov’s ear, and in April the situation worsened dramatically. He had a fever, constant headaches that lead to blackouts, a swollen face, pus coming out of his ears and a partial loss of hearing.

Djemil Temishev, his lawyer, said that Dzhepparov’s life was genuinely at risk: “This is no longer just a question of harassment of my client, but real torture.” In early May, after a media campaign, detention centre medical staff started treating Dzhepparov with antibiotics and he recovered.

In spring 2018, Uzeir Abdulayev experienced something similar. A defendant in a terrorism case over alleged membership of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Simferopol, Abdulayev was rushed to a city hospital in March. He underwent an operation for a septic wound on his arm, and over the next month one of Abdulayev’s legs became very swollen. At a court hearing at the end of April, Abdulayev swore under oath that he had had a fever for three days but was given no medical aid.

“Nobody wants people to die in detention. But the fact that they only start to react after widespread negative publicity like this is appalling”

“When Uzeir had the operation on his arm, the doctor warned that his illness was very serious. The infection had almost reached the bone, and the doctor insisted on sending him to hospital – but no one paid any attention. Now these symptoms are returning,” Abdulayev’s wife Fera said at the time.

Abdulayev only began to get medical treatment after numerous letters and complaints to the Crimean prison service headquarters, Simferopol Detention Centre, the Prosecutor’s Office and the FSB, as well as pressure from the public, human rights NGOs and international institutions. The results of this medical examination, however, have not yet been revealed to neither Uzeir nor his lawyer and family.

“Nobody wants people to die in detention,” says lawyer Djemil Temishev, “but the fact that they only start to react after widespread negative publicity like this is appalling.”

Djemil Temishev (right) at a meeting of political prisoners' families in Crimea | Image: Alina Smutko

In some situations, however, not even a massive wave of publicity can save the day. In November 2017, Russian security forces carried out a raid on a cafe in Simferopol. Four activists - Bekir Degermendji, Kazim Ametov, Asan Chapukh and Ruslan Trubach - were there on the request of Vedjiye Kashka, a veteran Crimean Tatar activist, to meet a Turkish citizen who had borrowed seven thousand dollars from her family and was not planning to pay it back. Kashka died in the course of the raid, while the men were arrested on charges of group extortion.

The next day, Vedjiye Kashka was buried in her home village and a Simferopol district court sent the four men to detention. For Bekir Degermendji, two weeks in the detention centre produced a catastrophic deterioration in his health.

Due to his chronic asthma, Degermendji constantly needs to use an inhaler. On 6 December, security guards forced him to climb to the first floor of the Crimean Supreme Court building for an appeal hearing. He felt ill, an ambulance was called and he spent the entire session in a cage, breathing through an oxygen mask and with a doctor at his side. The defence lawyers requested that Degermendji be tried for a lesser offence, but the court didn’t consider chronic illness and a decline in health a weighty enough argument for house arrest. On the night of 14 December, Degermendji was moved from the detention centre to the intensive care unit of the city hospital.

Bekir Degermendji in court | Source: Facebook

As a result of the wrangling over Degermendji’s health, his lawyer Edem Semedlyaev told me that December, he was put into a medically-induced coma.

After further stays in medical wards, Degermendji was returned to the detention centre medical wing on 2 January 2018. “I was in intensive care for six days, three of them in a coma. The doctors said I had ‘come back from the dead’,” Bekir Degermendji wrote.

At the same time, Asan Chepukh, another Crimean Tatar activist, underwent a mini-stroke in Simferopol detention centre. The detention centre medics later diagnosed this as a hypertensive emergency.

On 5 December, during the Crimean Supreme Court session, Chapukh warned of his hunger strike: “I haven’t had a shower since I was arrested. Conditions are very bad: the walls are damp, with mould growing all over them. My blood pressure is constantly shooting up and down. If you don’t release me under house arrest, I’ll begin a hunger strike tomorrow.”

“Over the whole of the ten months that I’ve been in detention, my condition has been steadily worsening. My speech has become indistinct"

When Ayder Azamatov visited Chapukh in detention two days later, he discovered that Chapukh’s left side was paralysed. The 64-year-old man could no longer move around on his own. He told his defence lawyer that he had asked for help from detention centre staff, both orally and in writing. No one had reacted to his request.

After that, Chapukh was held in detention for months without adequate medical aid. In desperation, he renewed his hunger strike and demanded to be moved to hospital.

“Over the whole of the ten months that I’ve been in detention, my condition has been steadily worsening. My speech has become indistinct. They’ve turned me into a vegetable in prison,” Chapukh told a court in September 2018.

In October 2018, Chapukh was transferred to house arrest. His friends and relatives didn’t just notice his obvious physical decline: he was also emotionally drained.

Six months later, in April 2019, Chapukh, Degermendji, Ruslan Trubach, who acted as a nurse for Edem Bekirov, and Kazim Ametov were given three-year suspended sentences. While their appeals are being considered, they are under house arrest.

Inhumane conditions

Conditions in detention centres are harsh even for people without serious chronic health conditions. Lawyers and civil rights campaigners, talking about Simferopol Centre No.1, use phrases like “inhuman treatment”, “degrading conditions” and “comparable with torture”. It’s not just a matter of appropriate medical help or food, but overcrowding and a severe lack of sanitation.

The last accurate figures for the number of prisoners in the Simferopol Detention Centre go back to spring-summer 2016. In March, Vadim Bulgakov, the head of the Crimean prison service, stated in an interview that although the theoretical maximum capacity for the Simferopol centre was 817, in fact the centre was holding “around 1500”. In August that year, Crimean Ombudsperson Lyudmila Lubina stated that there were 1,519 prisoners.

“I remember times when there were roughly 3,500 people there, although this situation was dictated by sheer necessity,” Bulgakov recalled.

Photograph showing cockroach bites on the arm of Evgeny Panov, a prisoner convicted in the "Ukrainian saboteur" case | Source: Dmitry Dinze / Facebook

Last April, the Russian government admitted that the Simferopol detention centre was one of the most overcrowded in the Russian prison system and there was an urgent need to rebuild the penitentiary buildings, some of which date from the early 19th century. The Russian Cabinet plans to resolve the issue by building a second detention centre in Crimea, designed for 1,500 inmates, by 2027.

Overcrowding means that there are too few beds and prisoners have to sleep in shifts. There is a toilet in each cell, most of them holes in the floor. Inmates also have to wash and dry their clothes in the cell, and all their personal belongings, including foodstuffs and hygiene products are stored in the same space. In summer, the cell is hot and stuffy; in winter it is cold and damp – there is no ventilation.

These unsanitary conditions lead to the multiplication of fleas and bedbugs, whose bites produce wounds that fester and take ages to heal. The food is also bad – cockroaches and wool have been found in it, and the water has an unnatural colour and smell. The lighting is dim; many inmates’ vision deteriorates as a result. The exercise yard consists of a small half-open space under a roof from where the sky cannot be seen.

“There are growths on the ceiling and mould on the walls. Water drips. Bearing in mind that the room above houses TB patients, it’s all very sad,” this is how lawyer Alexey Ladin describes the cell where Ismail Ramazanov, a former Crimean Tatar political prisoner, was held.

Ismail Ramazanov, his father and lawyer Alexey Ladin (right) | Image: Taras Ibragimov

The Crimean FSB accused Ismail Ramazanov of spreading extremist propaganda and illegal possession of weapons. During a house search in January 2018, security services beat him up and suffocated him with a plastic bag, demanding he confess. Ismail spent six months in Simferopol detention centre, and in July 2018 he was released on condition of not leaving the city. Four months later, the police dropped the weapons charge for want of any evidence of a crime, effectively admitting that police officers had planted the cartridges while searching his home. Another two months later they also dropped the “extremist propaganda” case.

The Russian Human Rights Ombudsperson and members of the public monitoring commission, who have an obligation to report the demeaning conditions in detention and attempt to change them, consider Simferopol Detention Centre No.1 a perfectly liveable environment. Crimean Human Rights Ombudsperson Lyudmila Lubina refers to the stories of the prisoners, their lawyers and families that have been published in the media as “fake news”.

Earlier, in May, Lyudmila Lubina, in the company of Russian Human Rights Ombudsperson Tatyana Moskalkova, visited Simferopol Detention Centre No.1.

“There were no remarks or complaints made about infringement of conditions,” Lubina’s press release said, after talking to detainees. “Detainees remarked on the high quality of medical services: trained staff, availability of all essential medication and the organisation of visits to specialists.”

Members of Crimea’s Public Monitoring Commission periodically inspect Simferopol Detention Centre at the public’s request, but the outcome is always the same: “There have been no complaints or remarks about conditions”, “no infringements of conditions have been discovered” and “the cells comply with sanitary-hygiene regulations”.

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