If you try typing “torture in Russian prison colonies” into any Russian search engine, you immediately get a vast number of hits. They won’t just be video clips and articles describing violence, but a catalogue of “types” of torture published by glossy magazines. Just about anyone who lives in provincial Russia will tell you that prisoners are beaten up, and that this is “normal” — it’s always happened and always will. Physical abuse of inmates has been part of our reality for a long time, and it doesn’t bother anyone except human rights campaigners and, of course, the prisoners themselves.
The Torture Territory project, which helps prisoners combat illegal violence against them, has been going in Russia since December 2016. Together with the “For Human Rights” movement and the “Defence of Prisoners’ Rights Foundation” (which have had a much longer involvement in this field), we organise visits to prisons by lawyers. These are specialists with considerable experience who are able not only to assert their rights when dealing with prison administrators, but can tell whether there has indeed been mass violence against inmates in this or that jail, or it’s just an excuse for prisoners to get free legal advice.
If a lawyer believes that inmates’ complaints have a basis in reality, we write to the Investigative Committee, Russia’s main federal investigating authority, and the Prosecutor General’s Office, asking them to check the torture claims and penalise sadistic prison officers. We also continue to work with the lawyer, attempting to bring charges to courts at various levels.
However, despite all our efforts, not a Russian single prison officer whom we suspect of torture has been disciplined in any way — charged with an offence, undergone a criminal trial or been put behind bars. I should note that if the Territory of Torture project has been operating less than a year, then the Defence of Prisoners’ Rights Foundation has been working on these issues for more than a decade. And if it was possible to get results before (a criminal investigation, convictions), then over the past year the situation has changed quite sharply, and Russia’s Federal Penitentiary System has turned out to be completely unaccountable to civil society. Legal counsels are now the last form of defence for prisoners under pressure.
You can accuse the Investigative Committee and the Procurator General’s Office for this inaction: these bodies are, in theory, responsible for investigating breaches of the law, but in fact do nothing but pass the buck around. The prisoners themselves are often part of the problem, dropping their claims because of either threats or promises of “favours”.
One recent example of this took place in the Bryansk region. In July 2017, we received a collective letter from several dozen inmates of Colony IK-1, stating that they had been subjected to physical abuse by prison staff. Some of them, we were told, were forced to do the splits, and had paper bags put on their heads and their mouths taped up. All this is, not surprisingly, illegal. Here’s an excerpt from one of the prisoners’ letters:
“They made us stand with our faces to the wall and started hitting us on our bodies and legs. They formed two lines and ordered us to run between them to the toilet block, with our arms behind our backs and our heads bent. Then they beat us as we ran. When we got to the toilets, they shaved us — our heads, our beards. I’m bald, so they shaved off my eyebrows. After the shaving, we had to run back. Then they brought a bucket of water in and made us wash the floor with our clothes, and after that the stood us against the wall and started beating us on the legs again.”
We immediately attempted to send lawyers into this prison, but none of them were allowed near the prisoners for more than two weeks. (This is absolutely against Russian law.) And when they were eventually let in, many of the complainants refused to testify about the torture. Only six men (out of more than 50 initial complainants) made statements about the illegal physical abuse they had suffered.
The Investigative Committee and the Procurator General’s Office immediately refused to bring any criminal charges: neither the prison staff nor the inmates would confirm that any violence had been used. So, nothing illegal had taken place.
We have no hard evidence of how the prisoners were “persuaded” to withdraw their complaints. It could have been threats, or blackmail, or perhaps the promise of “favours”. This last seems the most likely, since this autumn we have been asked by the families of the prisoners in Bryansk Colony IK-1to stop making a fuss — everything’s “fine there now”.
The pressure put on prisoners who complain can be clearly seen from a case in the Kirov Region, where several clients of Torture Territory are serving their sentences. Alexey Galkin, a prisoner in Colony IK-20, claimed that a member of staff beat him up. Galkin had been beaten in prison before and even lost two ribs, but this time his patience had evidently run out and in March 2016, during a short stay in hospital, he wrote a complaint to the Investigative Committee against his assailant, a Major Kovrov.
The major’s illegal use of violence was not hard to prove: Galkin had bruises on his face for several days after the beating, and they were even on record, since by chance he had to have his photograph taken that week for a new passport. Galkin’s cellmate could also confirm that he had been beaten. In the end, though, it was Galkin who faced a charge — of a false denunciation. The prisoner was released in January 2017, but in April he was remanded in custody again while the “denunciation” was investigated. And his cellmate was hastily transferred to a colony in Tver, so that he couldn’t be questioned.
On 17 June, Judge Pantyukhin, a former Kirov police detective, sentenced Galkin to a further two years in jail — the maximum sentence for a “false denunciation”. An appeal hearing on 13 September confirmed the sentence. Experts from the For Human Rights foundation will obviously challenge the court’s decision, but other convicts wanting to assert their rights are being intimidated by this precedent: “you’ll just spend another two years behind bars”.
And it is an effective deterrent.
Another of our clients, Eduard Gorbunov, has reported the illegal use of force in Kirov Regional Colony IK-6, claiming that he was subjected to sexual abuse by prison staff, including the colony’s head. He has proof in the form of a medical certificate listing the injuries he received.
In fact, local lawyers have over the years accumulated a whole stack of complaints lodged against IK-6 Colony staff. Some prisoners have even died in the prison: Aleksandr P., for example, was found hanged after he complained about beatings and torture in 2014. But numerous inspections have failed to uncover a single reason to open a criminal case against the sadistic prison staff.
After Gorbunov complained about his ill-treatment he, like Galkin, was chargedwith making a false denunciation, and his case is going through the courts now. At one court session, on 7 September, his cellmate Aleksey Gabin was put on the stand as a witness for the prosecution: he was supposed to testify that no torture ever took place in Colony IK-6. But instead, he told the court that he had witnessed the same type of abuse as that described by Gorbunov. Gabov then asked the judge and public prosecutor to assure his safety: prison staff had threatened him with physical injury if he spoke out. But neither the judge nor the prosecutor took any notice of his request.
At the next court session, on 22 September, Gabov was recalled as a witness, but this time he denied that any anyone was tortured in Colony IK-6, and said he had just made the whole story up. What triggered his volte-face is anyone’s guess, but it’s likely that prison staff had had another “little chat” with him.
A similar case took place in the Karelian Republic. On 30 January 2017 Hazbulat Gabzayev, a prisoner who had made a number of formal complaints against warders, was charged with “assaulting prison staff”. And another inmate of the same colony, Koba Shurgay, was accused of the prison administrations’ favourite crime, making a false denunciation. And this was despite the fact that in both cases there were witnesses who could testify that illegal force had been used against the prisoners. One of Shurgay’s legs, for example, became very swollen after a beating more than six months ago, and the swelling has not yet gone down. Not that this bothers the prison administration, which is claiming that Shurgay has had this swelling from his schooldays, when he studied dance. And no charge has been lodged against their sadistic staff.
Human rights campaigners in Sverdlovsk region have, however, succeeded in initiating a criminal investigation of abuse of prisoners in Colony IK-5 in the town of Nizhny Tagil, where there have been many complaints from inmates about illegal force being used against them. In May 2017 Farukh Berdiyev, a prisoner there, announced that he had cut open his abdomen to make the warders stop torturing him. In June, Russia’s Investigative Committee opened a criminal case against staff at the colony, charging them with “exceeding their official authority in use of force”. By law, Berdiyev was then supposed to be taken to the pre-trial remand centre in Ekaterinburg, to give evidence to detectives.
In September, Berdiyev was, however, transferred to Colony IK-44 in the Kemerovo region, almost 2,000km away. One might think that this was for his own safety, but the local human rights campaigners believe that the prison service was just trying to complicate the investigation, since it would be highly inconvenient for an investigator to travel so far to question the accused officers’ chief victim. Berdiyev then stated that he’d been under pressure (to cooperate with the prison administration, threats of being “made into a homosexual”). Thanks to the interference of rights defenders, Berdiev managed to return to Sverdlovsk region.
And yet another drama is unfolding in Colony IK-37 in the village of Yaya, also in the Kemerovo region, where the Investigative Committee is carrying out an inspection after a suicide attempt by over ten prisoners who complained about their intolerable conditions there.
The prisoners sent to IK-37 have reported that they were forced to sign statements about “cooperation”, and those who refused were threatened with various punishments. At the beginning of September lawyer Ekaterina Selivanova, prisoner Panikorovsky’s defence counsel, said that “Prison staff took his trousers off and stuck a bottle brush into his anus.” After being threatened with rape, Panikorovsky signed every piece of paper he was given, without even looking at them. And prisoner Krasilnikov told his lawyer Tatyana Menshikova that he had been subjected to violent sexual abuse.
Menshikova videoed Krasilnikov’s story during a meeting with him, but at the end of the meeting prison staff grabbed her and took the tape. And Selivanova was refused permission for a private meeting with Krasilnikov — a breach of lawyer-client privilege. Since then all lawyers trying to video meetings on their phones have had the phones confiscated. And prisoners are also complaining that staff at IK-37 try to pressurise them, to make the investigators’ work harder.
People serving custodial sentences are obviously no angels. They weren’t thinking about human rights when they stole handbags or robbed flats. But if the aim of the correctional system is to correct convicts’ behaviour, torture is unlikely to help. Russian prison service staff, while seeing themselves as crime fighters, become criminals themselves, and also instill in their “charges” the idea that no one respects the law, not even those who enforce it.