The Russian penitentiary (penal) system is one of the most off-limits for society. What happens under control of the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN of Russia) to prisoners in penal colonies, which are broadly referred to in Russia as “zones”, becomes known only in the extreme cases that get into spotlight.
That is why the Investigative Committee data on the number of criminal cases against the FSIN personnel, published recently by RBC Group became a sensation. In reaction to RBC's inquiry, the Committee said that between 2015 and 2018, 148 criminal cases were brought on in Russia against the FSIN officers under Part Three of Article 286 of the Criminal Code (official misconduct with use of force, weapons, or special equipment, or infliction of grave consequences). This stands for subjecting prisoners to torture.
Prosecutor General's Office Preferring Not To Register Complaints of Torture
Alexei Fedyarov, a lawyer and human rights activist, believes that these figures do not reflect the real number of tortures in Russian penitentiaries. After all, according to RBC's own estimates, 148 initiated criminal cases are almost 44 times less than the number of registered abuse complaints. During this period almost 6,500 complaints were filed (according to the platform To Be Exact run by Takie Dela charity portal.) However, even these figures do not show what is happening in detention facilities because most torture complaints are not registered, and criminal cases on them are not instituted.
Alexei Fedyarov (incidentally, a former prosecutor himself) told wek.ru in an interview that this may sound strange but when receiving complaints from prisoners and their relatives, the prosecutor's office regards the settlement of the complaints as a negative indicator of its work. That is why it prefers not to register them. In fact, tortures in the FSIN system is a daily life factor and a very common way of treating prisoners. As Fedyarov notes, although there is no sense in torturing people in prisons because the inmates are already under the total control and in the power of the prisons’ personnel.
The FSIN itself strongly disagrees with this point of view. In response to the RBC article reprinted by numerous media, the FSIN press service stated that the illegal use of brute force in prisons and pre-trial detention centers is not systematic but it concerns “some isolated events that do not go unnoticed.” “The use of brute force and special equipment has been taken under special control,” insists the FSIN press service. “There are special committees in each territorial body of the FSIN of Russia. They check every act of force and the use of special means. Case files are carefully scrutinized and sent to the supervisory and investigating agencies.”
“It should be mentioned that I know firsthand how the FSIN protects its reputation. In the already distant years 2008 and 2009, journalist Elena Maglevannaya, who was based in Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad,) wrote a series of articles about tortures in the treatment and correction center № 15, a federal institution located in the Volgograd region. These articles were published in the online edition of Vestnik CIVITAS, and I am its editor-in-chief. All information on tortures, mentioned in Elena Maglevannaya’s articles, was documented by physicians of that penitentiary institution. However, the authorities of the center brought a lawsuit against her “to protect its business reputation” and accused her of slander and forged evidence.
Expectedly, the court satisfied the FSIN's claim. Elena Maglevannaya was found guilty of “spreading false information that besmirched the honor and dignity of the centre,” and fined 200,000 rubles. Later, she was invited to the 2009 Finnish-Russian civil forum with other Russian human rights activists where she made a report on mistreatment in Russian prisons and showed horrifying pictures with signs of tortures of Zubair Zubairaev, a Chechen inmate of the Volgograd prison. After the forum, Elena addressed the local authorities with a request for political asylum. Since then she has been living in Finland. Her elderly parents still live in Volgograd.
Olga Romanova, the founder and head of the charity fund for assistance to convicts and their families and a director of the human rights organization Rus Sidyashchaya, has also come to grips with courtroom proceedings initiated by the FSIN, furiously protecting its “honor and dignity” against any attempts to make its activities more transparent. In 2017, as a reprisal for Ms. Romanova’s human-rights, educational and investigative activities, Anatoliy Rudy, a deputy director of the FSIN, filed a complaint with the prosecutor's office accusing her of stealing public money on a gross scale. He said that she had allegedly embezzled the funds transferred to the human rights organization Rus Sidyashchaya to give lectures, which hadn’t given in reality.
Then, there came searches and several audits in the office and accounting department of Rus Sidyashchaya, respectively. But the most evident proof that Rudiy had made a knowingly fraudulent accusation was a lawsuit filed by the Rus Sidyashchaya lawyers against the World Bank representatives in Russia. During legal proceedings the lawyers proved with documents on hand that Rus Sidyashchaya has not just executed but over-fulfilled the plan of a contract with the World Bank on producing leaflets about how to pay alimony in prison, receive pensions, to pay a rent, to deal with credits, and to do other such things if you are behinds bars.
In addition, almost a hundred lectures have been given to relatives of prisoners, the prisoners themselves and the penal system personnel. Nevertheless, the sword of Damocles hung over Romanova until November this year. According to her, only after replacements in the FSIN management, she was finally left alone.
There Is No Article on Tortures in the Criminal Code...
Only few people in Russia know the FSIN backstage so well as Olga Romanova devoting her whole life to protect the rights of prisoners and their families. Therefore, in order to tell the readers of wek.ru about such difficult topic as torturing of prisoners by custodial staff, I decided to address her.
- Alexei Fedyarov, who is in charge of the legal department of Rus Sidyashchaya, has given me quite a surprising idea: "There are much more tortures in jails than in pre-trial detention facilities. During an investigation process torturing is rather an isolated event, while at the ‘zones’ it is kind of a standard. I do not understand the logic behind it. If, during the investigation, tortures might be explained by the desire to “beat out” testimonies, in prisons there are people who have already been sentenced.
Olga Romanova: It is true. Even if a person is isolated throughout the investigation, he communicates with his lawyer and his relatives, and the public has access to him -- at least when he is taken to court to extend the restrictive measures. He has an opportunity to speak about it. People who are in jails are completely deprived of the opportunity to say anything.
Right now we have a statement from one of the Vologda region prisons (I can't even tell you which one exactly because you and I will be accused of false denunciation and tried) that people are being beaten up there at this very moment. The prison special forces entered the colony and then beat everyone. Two victims are ready to show marks of beatings and continue to fight in court. And we can't do anything because we don't have trustworthy lawyers in the Vologda, as well as in many other regions. Therefore, we need a lawyer from Moscow. Before the lawyer comes there, time will pass. Work will be done with the victims and they will be forced to write refusals of meeting with the lawyer. Even if they do not do it, the written refusals will be presented to us anyway. We do not know their handwritings so the refusal on their behalf can be written by anyone. As a result, a lawyer will not be allowed to visit the prison. So what should we do? Just wait until they get out and then ask them? The period of limitations will pass. Of course, there are doctors in penitentiaries who are obliged to record the beatings, but they don't do it, and we can't do anything about it either.
There is a way to find out, though. The medical unit keeps a register of bandaging materials consumption: bandages and antiseptic green dyes are on account. A doctor, who does the dressing, writes there, for example, that two bandages were spent for prisoner Ivanov. However, this register is not accessible for anyone. That is, first of all, a lawyer has to get to a prison -- and he is unlikely to get there because the denial of access is turning into a common fact. And even if a lawyer gets there, it is almost impossible to gain access to the register.
All prisons are closed for public control. As a consequence of what has happened to public oversight commissions (regional organizations controlling respect of human rights in penitentiaries), there are only a few experts left in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg. Of course, there is a shortage of them here now, and it is impossible to protect the whole country with the help of a few people.
- Why is the treatment of inmates in prisons so cruel? What is the point?
Olga Romanova: Our system has not been reformed since the times of Gulag (the Stalin-era main administration of camps). In fact, it has remained the same. In any civilized country, the penal system is a civil authority. People playing the key role there are not guards but psychologists, psychiatrists, teachers and job training coaches who give some classes. The main target is to correct the defects in the functions of society, because apart from maniacs, crimes are an error in the functioning of society and the state. If society and the state do not react on time to the asocial behavior of an individual, he might become a criminal some day or other.
A vivid example of it is Associate Professor Oleg Sokolov from St Petersburg. If our society reacted to the statement about domestic violence made ten years ago, now there would be no murders committed by Sokolov. The defect of this kind is to be corrected, so the system has to be correctional. However, this is not a job for law enforcers, this is a job for psychologists, teachers – experts in working with crippled human souls. In the meantime, law enforcers are acting in the only way they perfectly know -- by force.
Today, surveillance cameras are installed in prisons. So sometimes human rights activists have a chance to watch the records. We can't always publish them but we watch them by ourselves.
In one of the footages I saw a man looking like a descendent from the Caucasus in his forties. He looked like a man from the criminal world. He was called to the disciplinary commission for some misconduct. The disciplinary commission decided to send him to punitive confinement. Then he was made change his clothing, ordered to undress, forced to take off his underpants, bend and draw his buttocks aside. Of course, he refused. Anyone would refuse to do it on camera and in front of people watching. They start beating him up -- it's like disobeying a legitimate demand from the authorities. Yes, a full inspection before being sent to punitive confinement is necessary, but why do the security guards tackle this issue? Isn’t it better to call for a doctor? He'll come and do everything needed behind a privacy screen. But it never comes to the prison personnel’s minds. They don't care for other people’s souls.
Another example is the instruction that doesn’t allow prisoners to get pets for themselves. But still they do so. A prisoner often takes a kitten, raises and feeds it. And then before the commission arrives, the prisoners are forced to collect cats from the whole area and burn them alive. Can you imagine burning a kitten that you have raised yourself? How does that correct you? Isn't that a torture?
- Where are there more tortures: in female or male prisons?
Olga Romanova: Female and male penitentiaries are entirely different worlds. Speaking about prisons, we mean primarily male ones. Female convicts make up 8% of the total number of prison population. The rules of life are different there. Until recently, women inmates had childbirths in handcuffs. Today, it's abolished, but the conditions are far from ideal there.
It is much easier to work with the men's prisons, because there is something called “notions” or the rules of life there, like the notion of honor, of what can be done and what cannot be done. There are insubordinations and riots. But there are no riots in female prisons, because according to a woman’s physiology it is very easy to put her under unbearable conditions. It is enough not to give her hot water or not to allow the use of feminine pads, -- and she will do whatever you want.
Women's prisons are even more closed. After the criminal case opened against Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (Pussy Riot members), our society got to know what happens in female prisons for the first time. They had their job done, but in the first place, they were sentenced to two years in prison, and in the second, they are public figures. And just imagine a woman who did the time. She has children and an old mother, and something else that keeps her out of prison -- she will give up any of her words.
- When we say "torture", we imagine something horrifying, but quite abstract. What is a torture, anyway? How do people get tortured in prison?
Olga Romanova: There are a lot of things that are considered to be “torture conditions” in Europe: a limited size of a cell, putting smoking prisoners in non-smoking cells, poor lighting, cold and bad food, bad transportation conditions. And, of course, the direct physical contact falls under terms of “torture conditions.”
And in our country nothing is considered to be “torture conditions.” There is no article on tortures in our Criminal Code -- we have no punishment for torturing at all. We have only an article on abuse of power, which might be interpreted in completely different ways.
- When people talk about how they were tortured, what do they tell?
Olga Romanova: Mostly, they tell about beating and humiliation of human dignity: dipping their heads in the toilet bowls, running a toilet brush over their faces, rape threats, and rapes proper -- including in public.
- How do you cope with the fact that you are always bound up in it? How do you live with it?
Olga Romanova: First of all, we have psychological services in Rus Sidyashchaya. Secondly, it is not torturing that leads to burnout. You know, torturing is probably the most common thing that a person can is faced with there. You get burned out from another thing -- from people’s inability and often their unwillingness to fight for their dignity.
- For sure, it sounds horrible that torture is the most common thing. Why do people not want to fight? Maybe it's the same reason why they don't want to fight for their dignity out of prison?
Olga Romanova: Yes, sure. Even when people are at bay, they wish nothing much worse happens. And secondly, there is legal nihilism, that is, complete ignorance of the laws and their rights and lack of faith in their ability to defend them.
- Sergey Mokhnatkin defended his dignity to the end. Now, he is out of prison but he became disabled: his legs are paralyzed because his backbone was broken in the colony, when he refused to obey the illegal demands of the security guards. Maybe these fears are reasonable?
Olga Romanova: No, they are not. Certainly, Sergey Mokhnatkin is a very courageous person but he has never asked for lawyers’ assistance. It is just not in his nature. However, I insist that the combination of knowledge of the laws and professional support of lawyers plus people’s own courage can have the desired effect.
- In order to justify its actions, the FSIN says that there are video cameras installed everywhere and they have regular checks. Therefore, torturing is an isolated event but not systemic.
Olga Romanova: Firstly, they carry out checks for themselves. Secondly, the prosecutor's office is, of course, associated with the FSIN. Thirdly, the FSIN does not regard forceful impact as torturing. If special forces enter prison and start beating everybody, nobody considers it torture. It is their job because there is no definition of torturing. They have permission to do so. According to instructions, it is allowed to beat them up. A few years ago, physical coercion by batons and stun guns was officially allowed.
- Well, what should we do?
Olga Romanova: I develop my own theory of what to do. Of course, we have to reform the penitentiary system urgently and drastically. The funny thing is that it is quite easy to do. It doesn't mean spending any extra money. Moreover, it saves more money for the budget because today, money is chucked away for nothing. Reforming the FSIN is a decision to be made by the authorities. Nothing but the political will to reform FSIN is needed.
Why is it necessary to reform the FSIN? There are plenty of reasons for this: economic ones -- it is profitable, humanitarian -- rehabilitation of people who have fallen under penal supervision, social -- lowering of crime rates. There is a direct correlation between the crime rate and the state of the penitentiary system. In Norway, where prisons are the most humane ones, crime and recidivism are the lowest. We can speak a lot about why the Russian prison system needs to be reformed but it's all about political will, which doesn’t exist here. Why so? Because prisons must be frightening and terrifying. Children going out into the streets with protests should be afraid of tortures, and what place is full of them? It’s prison. To be afraid of tortures is very natural. Everyone is afraid of them. That's why prison has to be scary.
When we come down to political will, I come up against the institution of the presidency. That is it.
- Therefore, the prison and the whole prison system serve to intimidate political opponents of the authorities?
Olga Romanova: Yes, certainly. In addition, it is very important in terms of developing the system of corruption as an institution of merging of crime and power. When the main gangster in prison makes an agreement with the head of the prison about drugs, alcohol, prostitutes, anything -- this model is replicated higher and higher up the chain of command. And then, a connection of crime mastermind Shakro the Young and the Investigation Committee surfaces...