Inside Russia’s new Gulag

Russia (OpenDemocracy) – My husband was humiliated, beaten and tortured in Russia’s penitentiary system. Here are the stories that I’ve collected from his prison.

One year ago, Ildar Dadin, a well-known Moscow activist (and my husband), was sent to prison: the court sentenced him to three years for carrying out solitary pickets. After a lengthy imprisonment in a Moscow investigation prison, Ildar was transferred to a prison colony — and disappeared. His family wasn’t told where he’d been sent. A month and a half later, Ildar was found in Karelia, in Prison Colony No.7 in the town of Segezha, where he told his lawyer how prison officers were torturing and beating prisoners. This story caused a scandal both in Russia and abroad.

When you talk about torture in Russia, the hardest thing is explaining why it’s so hard to deal with. For instance, someone asked me today: “Nastya, if the prisoners in Karelia Colony No.7 have been tortured for several years now, why haven’t they complained?” My response that letters from prison rarely make it to their intended recipients, and that the state prosecutor is a good friend of the colony director (the head sadist), meets with an iron logic: “But they should…”

Yes, they should. They should observe human rights. They shouldn’t beat prisoners. But that’s all in theory. In practice, they tell prisoners that if someone complains, they’ll kill them. And prisoners know that prison officers can do that. They can, because there will never be any punishment: investigations won’t find any violations in the actions of the killers, and the courts will let them off.

To be blunt, many people know about the situation in Russia’s prisons. In one way or another, prisoners’ testimony finds its way into the newspapers together with terrifying photographs where you can clearly see signs of force and torture. But this changes nothing. When the story of Vitaly Buntov (a prisoner in the Tula region whose fingernails were pulled out) hit the media a couple of years ago, the authorities’ reply was simple: “He bit them off himself.” Despite the demands of the European Court on Human Rights to defend Buntov, the prison officers told him: “We’ll continue until you die.”

“I wrote several letters about the torture, but after official representatives and representatives of the prosecutor’s office left, they began to beat and torture me with double the cruelty,” Zelimkhan Geliskhanov, a prisoner at Karelia’s Colony No.7, tells me. He’s still there. When Zelimkhan’s mother wrote a letter to the General Prosecutor’s office, he was beaten even harder. They shouted at him: “The prosecutor’s office doesn’t mean anything here! Your mother doesn’t mean anything here! You mean nothing here! Understand?”

Why has the story of my partner — one among many — managed to provoke such a response? It’s possibly because journalists and politicians know Ildar personally, from his activism. Even if you saw Ildar only once, you could be sure: a person like Ildar doesn’t lie. The public outrage was particularly strong because Ildar was imprisoned on a political charge, for opposition protest. It’s not enough that they sent an innocent man to prison, now they’re torturing him.

Over the last month, Ildar has gone from a normal guy to a symbol of Russia’s struggle against torture. Not only for rights defenders, but for the prisoners in Colony No.7 in Karelia too. Prisoners who used to be afraid to reveal the torture and humiliation are now giving evidence. The issue may have reached the higher levels, but this is still a brave step — prisoners who complain are in the full power of the prisoner administration. And nothing, not even the attention of the Russian and European public, can protect them from the administration’s revenge.

https://vk.com/alastael?z=photo4610598_456239021%2Fphotos4610598, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53087613

Activist Idar Dadin, By Анастасия Зотова (супруга Дадина) – Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Former prisoners have also responded, taking part in a press conference in later November where they confirmed that torture is taking place. People who live in regions across Russia and knew nothing about one another are saying the same thing about what’s happening inside this Karelian prison.

Listening to these stories is unbearable.

The process of humiliation begins as soon as prisoners arrive in the colony. “Get out of the van, animals,” they’re told. And indeed, they are not treated like people.

After prisoners arrive in Colony No.7, prison officers remove all their belongings, and, of course, beat them. Absolutely everyone is subjected to this, and then the prisoners are forced to confirm it. For instance, prisoners are forced to say: “I am worthless”. Those who get scared quickly and lose their pride are beaten rarely, just to keep them in line. In the opinion of the administration, this is what prisoners should look like — scared and broken.

Those prisoners who try and defend their rights are tortured cruelly. They’re thrown into a cold cell where the temperature is far below zero. There’s no clothing, they’ve got nothing to warm themselves with. As a rule, when a prisoner spends a long time in the cold, they begin to have spasms, and they call the prison doctor. But that’s useless, of course. The doctor just laughs and says: “Just grin and bear it, that’s what you should do.”

Prisoners are beaten during inspection every morning and every evening. They’re lead along a certain corridor (where there’s no CCTV), are forced to spread their legs and, with prison officers pressing on their backs, are made to do the splits until their genitals touch the floor. This can cause ligaments to rupture. If a prisoner can’t hold out and falls on the floor, then he’s given a kicking: officers stand on him and stamp on him with their boots.

“During the medical inspection, my hands were cuffed behind my back, I was placed on the floor and they began to beat me. The doctor tried to stuff my slipper into my mouth instead of a gag to muffle my screams. That’s the doctor who should examine me for signs of bodily harm…” Ali Islamov tells me. He’s still a prisoner at Colony No. 7.

What happens to a prisoner next? That one’s easy: broken bones, compressed fracture of the spine. People become invalids at the will of prison sadists.

“In Cell 35, the one next to mine, they beat Koba Shurgaya a minimum of three or four times a week,” Murat Nagoev remembers. Murat, an accountant by training, is sober and meticulous, and remembers all the details. “When they came in to beat Koba up, they demanded that he shout the regiment loudly — name, date of birth, conviction — that’s why I remembered his name so well. When they beat him, they forced him to do something, to sign something. He would shout: ‘No, no, I won’t do it!’ and they beat him even harder. They beat him like that the whole of December, in the end they damaged some organs.”

When Murat told me this, he didn’t know that Koba Shurgaya, the fellow prisoner he’d never seen, was lying in the cell next door with broken ribs.

This is what Shurgaya himself told me: “Around ten officers used force against me. They kicked and punched me. They made me bend me legs to the point where they could push my head against the floor. Then they took me into the office to see the head of the colony. He would threaten me that they’d lock me up outside naked, where I’d die from the cold ‘like a dog’. After the beating, I experienced a strong pain in my chest. When you feel this place I can still feel my broken rib sticking out. There was damage to my legs. My left leg healed after a while, but my right is still all swollen up. After the beating, a local lawyer came to see me — I’d asked him for advice on what to do. But this lawyer recommended me not to write a complaint about the prison officers at the colony. This would only make things worse for me.” I don’t think I have to explain that this prisoner with broken ribs did not receive medical help.

 WikiPhotoSpace) - Own work, FAL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49699747

Lefortovo Prison in Moscow, By A.Savin, Wikimedia Commons

Nationality is a frequent punch line in prison. Here’s the testimony of one witness: “A Tajik was in Cell 7. I don’t remember his details. He spoke Russian very badly, and they laughed at him for this, mocked him, forced him to write a confession. One of his hands was broken, and the prison officers beat this hand in particular, he shouted from pain. They forced him to sit in the corner, put his hands in the air and imitate a monkey.”

Sometimes the prison officers threaten you with rape, and that’s not just a threat. They’ll rip your trousers and underwear off, wave their genitals in front of your face and you think it’s going to happen… Men will open their veins to stop this humiliation. But even that doesn’t save them from the bullying: it’s a rare occasion when the administration thinks to take an injured man to the hospital.

“To avoid the humiliation, and frightened of being raped, I opened up my veins in my cell. They stopped the blood, bandaged my hands and then, under the pretense of taking me to the medical block, they took me to the corridor without CCTV and continued to beat me. They left me behind the entry door on the concrete floor and opened the door. They cuffed me to the door. I lay in that position for days, periodically receiving a blow from the door being opened. When my hands began to turn blue, the prison officers came over and loosened the cuffs.”

A few years ago, one of the prisoners in Colony No. 7 was brutally raped. Sixty prisoners opened their veins in protest, and then another 40. But the ensuing inspection, of course, did not find any violations.

The administration also resorts to other forms of torture: they force a prisoner’s arms behind his back, cuff him and then hang him up on a hook. Ildar told us that this torture was the worst. It puts such pressure on your hands that you want to scream from pain: your back goes wooden, the tears come without your control, snot, spit… At this point, a prisoner is ready to do everything just to make sure they let him go. And this is the torture described by George Orwell in 1984, when a prisoner is ready to shout: “Take my wife, my mother – torture them, just not me, not me!”

https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6419432

By Grigoriy Myasoyedov – Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

To force some naked into the cold, to cover them in urine, to make them clean the latrines — you can bully and humiliate a prisoner however you want. Send them to tuberculosis hospital? Easy. Throw them in a dark cell without food and water? Easier still. Prisoners have no rights, and there’s no one to intervene. Relatives aren’t allowed to meet prisoners who are beaten, and their correspondence is blocked.

The more cunning officers use prisoners as a free work force. There’s a phrase doing the rounds at Colony No.7. It was said by Sergei Kossiev, the head of the colony, who owns a small pig farm: “Why should I order equipment to clear up manure when I’ve got 500 slaves?”

Now the situation at Colony No.7 in Segezha has changed somewhat. If the prison administration used to be completely sure of its impunity, then now that confidence has been rocked. The guards walk around scared, they’ve stopped beating the prisoners, and even stopped swearing. Often, they’re not even let into work — inspections! But the idyll can’t last. When the door slams behind the last rights activist, the times of the inquisition return.

Those who have made complaints are facing the officers’ revenge. The administration wanted to open a criminal case against Ildar, whether it was for a “fight” with a cellmate, or the “libelous” story of torture.

If only it was a problem of one prison colony! My number, which is openly available on the Internet, gets calls from various colonies across Russia. Most often, from the colonies in Karelia — there, it seems, there is a huge amount of problems.

According to the rumours, Ildar has been transferred to Kirov region. Someone managed to call me from there — they say it’s no better than Karelia.

I don’t want to take them at their word, but it’s hard not to believe them. I’ve seen my husband, who’s aged by more than a decade in the space of a month. I’ve seen the men who begin to shake at the very mention of Karelia. I’ve seen the wide eyes of lawyers after they come back from meeting prisoners in these colonies.

“It’s just a concentration camp!” I shouted after a conversation with one of the former prisoners. “Yes, that’s what we called it,” my interlocutor confirmed.

It’s hard to say that Russia’s investigative authorities are burning with the desire to conduct an inspection, and this is why we, Russia’s rights defenders, have to do them ourselves — send experienced lawyers to meet prisoners, collect testimony on what’s happened.

No one else is going to do this. The prisoners who ring me from their cells say it bluntly: “There’s no hope for anyone but you.” Their words provoke laughter through tears: “When I heard that they’d beat up Dadin, I thought – thank God! That is, of course, I’m sorry that your husband had to go through that, but at least now people hear us!”

You can’t help but agree. And then run to the Investigative Committee, the General Prosecutor’s Office, the Ombudsman, to ring rights defenders endlessly and hire lawyers. The result? The Presidential Council on Human Rights has taken the situation under its control. Even Vladimir Putin has declared publicly that prisoners cannot be tortured. Under the conditions of the power vertical, this kind of statement means a lot, and could have a serious effect on the fate of prisoners, and the sadists – the prison officers.

It’s impossible to live in a country where the concentration camp, the Gulag, the Inquisition is back. But you have to fight it, otherwise it’s impossible: listening to prisoners’ complaints, you become ready for anything, just to break this inhumane system.

I answer the endless telephone calls from prison, making my way down the street past passers-by, ruddy-faced, laughing. Along the street, there’s the windows of shops and restaurants. New Year is approaching, and people in Russia are cheerful, they buy presents, go to have fun — and they prefer not to think of those who, at this very moment, the heavy hand of a prison guard is about to fall.

 

This report prepared by Anastasiya Zotova for OpenDemocracy