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Friday, May 02, 2008

Annals of the Neo-Soviet Gulag

Transitions Online reports:

One Sunday afternoon in the early days of spring, Dmitry Smekalov was taking a stroll in northern St. Petersburg. By chance he came across a protest rally by farmers and vendors who were campaigning against the closure of a local marketplace. Although he had nothing to do with the demonstration, Smekalov said he suddenly found himself face to face with a squad of riot police sent to disperse the protesters. The businessman, apparently mistaken for a protester, was grabbed and beaten by the squad and then, he alleges, thrown into the Neva River.

Smekalov said he fell onto the ice, suffering injuries to his ribs, but managed to crawl to the nearest steps and back onto the embankment. Smekalov believes that had the incident occurred a month or two later, after the ice has broken up, he might easily have drowned.

So shocked was Smekalov by the assault that he refused to be taken to the hospital, fearing he might suffer further harm there at the hands of police. Instead he sought treatment from private doctors. He has also been too scared to press charges, he said.

A police spokesman said he had heard about the claims but that the police never received a formal complaint from Smekalov.

But Smekalov's case has been taken up by St. Petersburg politician Sergei Gulyaev, one of the organizers of the market workers' rally who said he witnessed the assault on Smekalov. At one stage, he said, officers kicked Smekalov for nearly 10 minutes in a police van.

Worried about his condition, the politician later sought him out and heard the full story. Gulyaev's hope is that publicity about the case will help to prevent similar attacks in the future, but recent history is not encouraging on that score.

Severe police violence against peaceful street protesters in Moscow and St. Petersburg over the past year has led to international criticism of President Vladimir Putin's government. But not a single police officer is known to have been disciplined or punished over the violence.

Many people have alleged that Russia's law enforcement staff are beyond the law in such matters, and human rights advocates across the country face long odds when they try to conduct their own investigations into such claims. A thick, seemingly impenetrable, cloud of secrecy seems to envelope what happens to a detainee during arrest, detention, and imprisonment.


A series of violent riots erupted in Russian jails during the past year, and the lack of transparency within prisons and the penal system was one of the main reasons for the unrest.

A bill that would have allowed independent organizations to conduct investigations into claims of abuse in the penal system came before the State Duma in 2002 but died after its first reading.

Human rights organizations are pushing for the measure to be re-introduced. They say that had it reached the statute book it could have helped to prevent the prison riots.

Last autumn the Committee For Civil Rights was apparently warned that serious trouble was brewing at a prison camp in the settlement of Metallostroi, on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. Several prisoners and their relatives had told the committee the situation was explosive. But when the activists informed the colony's management and the federal penal service and asked to be allowed to investigate and to help resolve the crisis, their request was rejected. And sure enough, says Boris Panteleyev, a human rights advocate with the committee, a riot broke out at the colony in October within three weeks of the warnings.

"The prison authorities simply told us to hand over whatever evidence we had to the prosecutors, and they promised the situation was under full control," Panteleyev recalls. "As we later saw, they failed to prevent the riot."

Russia's penal system has been criticized for human rights abuses, the use of torture, and repressive conditions, with inmates sometimes having to sleep in shifts in their cells and being allocated less than 0.7 square meters of private space per person.

Repression has been increasing over the past decade, according to Yakov Gilinsky, a leading crime analyst with the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Gilinsky was lead researcher on a survey of torture in Russia published last year.

The government does not collect statistics on abuse in prisons. Gilinsky’s group conducted research among prisoners in the city of Chita and the Komi Republic. Thirty-nine percent of respondents in Komi said they were tortured during investigations.

“We didn’t ask the inmates if they had been tortured in prison because if those questions had been on the list we would have been denied access to the prisons,” Gilinsky said. “And even if we did get access, the inmates would have been too scared of possible retaliation to admit [they had been subject to] torture: if their prison got unfavorable statistics, the officers would have come after the interviewees.

"While torture flourishes, anyone who works for the [penal] system is protected by an unwritten rule of impunity," the researcher said.

What happens behind prison walls remains hidden from the general public. And human rights advocates find it difficult to investigate the complaints they receive from prisoners. Often they are denied permission to visit a prisoner. And if they do get into a prison they say they are strictly monitored, which can cause the complainant to clam up.

Attempts to publicize violence perpetrated by police or prison staff may lead to serious problems for those who go public. Take the case of human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov, leader of the Moscow-based Movement for People's Rights who has been trying to draw attention to the plight of imprisoned ex-Yukos executive Vasily Alexanyan.

Alexanyan, who suffers from cancer and AIDS, had been chained to his hospital bed and denied medical care he urgently required. During his campaign Ponomaryov claimed that Yury Kalinin, head of the Federal Penal Service, was responsible for the widespread and deliberate inhuman treatment of prisoners, including torture.

Now Ponomaryov, is under investigation for "insulting the honor and dignity" of Kalinin. He has been charged with slander and is not allowed to leave Moscow for the duration of the investigation.

Prison officials accuse human rights groups of seeking to create confrontation and being uncooperative. Elena Kuznetsova, a human rights official with the St. Petersburg branch of the Federal Penal Service, says that human rights activists often fail to give her the full names of prisoners who report torture, abuse, corruption, or violations of their rights. She says it's essential to identify prisoners correctly in order to launch an investigation into their claims.

But given the nature of the allegations, the high levels of corruption in the prisons, and the invisibility of the inmates, disclosing the names of complainants at an early stage would surely put their safety and even their lives at risk.


The major problem is the continuing lack in Russia of any law enabling civil society to monitor and investigate the country's prisons, investigative agencies, or police. The authorities continue to paint a rosy picture of prison conditions and the standards of police work while preventing independent experts from mounting any kind of effective investigation.

As one human rights advocate puts it, "If you compare the reassuring reports prepared by officials and the stories that we hear from the inmates, a very contradictory picture emerges.

"When I get a phone call from a prison telling me that the inmates were rushed out of their cells to the courtyard just before sunrise, forced to undress and kneel down for many hours, with the riot police officers beating them and urinating on them, I have no way of knowing whether this is true," St. Petersburg human rights advocate Yuly Rybakov said. "Maybe the riot police presented the prisoners with flowers and were extremely courteous, but the inmates were saying otherwise."

We need a law that will give Rybakov and others like him the right to check prisoners' and detainees' stories and to collect evidence. Until this right is granted – and respected – the risks remain high that police units can, when the mood takes them, become death squads, as in Dmitry Smekalov's case, and that jails can be used as torture chambers despite all the fearless campaigning of Lev Ponomaryov and others.

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