President Putin has ordered amendments to the country's law to fix liability on prison officials.
On January 6, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the Ministry of Justice and the General Prosecutor's Office of the Russian Federation to take measures against torture and bullying in pre-trial detention centres and other prison facilities.
According to the Kremlin, a new protocol must be adopted by June 1, to ensure practices such as "the use of illegal methods of influence against persons in custody and sentenced to imprisonment" are eradicated.
Minister of Justice Konstantin Chuichenko and Prosecutor General Igor Krasnov were appointed to execute the order. As this reform was expected for a long time, it did not bring much enthusiasm or optimism. Most people believe that torture in prisons is a centuries-old practice, which has become deeply entrenched in the Russian justice system, and it cannot be ended in a few months.
Journalists and human rights activists have been writing about systemic torture in prisons in Russia for a long time. Even whole programmes have been filmed on this issue, where, without hiding their faces, the victims have revealed chilling details of beatings.
But in November 2021, when Gulagu.net published several videos of torture in Russian detention facilities, it sent shivers across the country. This prompted President Putin to dismiss the head of the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) Alexander Kalashnikov, who has always been considered a by-product of the Federal Security Service (FSB) leadership, as well as a close aide of the deputy head of the FSB, Lieutenant General Anatoly Yakunin.
Gulagu.net gained access to these incriminating videos through a former prisoner who managed to hack the computer system of the Federal Penal Service in Saratov Oblast. An archive of torture footage was kept in one of the computers, showing that the prison authorities had themselves filmed these events and were aware of these crimes for a long time.
Commenting on one of the torture videos, a journalist from an independent Russian TV network Dozhd said: "It is unbearable to look at this, nothing more terrible, perhaps, has been published in the Russian sector of the internet."
Colonel-General Arkady Gostev, formerly deputy minister of internal affairs, a policeman close to Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev, has now replaced Kalashnikov as the head of the FSIN.
Gostev is also known to have a friendly relationship with the former first deputy head of the internal affairs directorate for the Ryazan Region, Alexei Savin.
As per the Russian media, the appointment of a high-ranking Interior Ministry officer to the post of head of the FSIN could mean the transfer of de facto control over the prison system in Russia from the FSB to the Interior Ministry.
On December 20, senators Andrei Klishas and Vladimir Poletaev, along with State Duma deputy Pavel Krasheninnikov, submitted a bill to the lower house of parliament seeking amendments to the Criminal Code in order to fix responsibility among government officials and make them liable if reports of torture emerged from prisons. The bill proposes to highlight torture in a separate part three of Art. 302 of the Criminal Code and established a punishment from four to 12 years in prison.
On December 23, Putin responded to a question on the subject of prisons and torture during his annual press conference, saying 17 criminal cases have been opened against prison officials, and more than 10 people have already been dismissed. The move came after Gulagu.net made its investigation public, highlighting human rights abuse in prison facilities. Although Putin promised to look into this issue, he said this is “a problem not only for Russia” but for the whole world.
Sadism on the rise
Torture in Russian prisons is largely seen as one of the "instruments" of the punishment system. According to news channel Dozhd, "mass torture of prisoners" is taking place everywhere in the country.
"This monstrous cruelty has been put on stream, there is reporting, a work plan, KPI, and targets."
The channel also noted that "streaming, systematic, methodical sadism is the most terrible sadism of all possible sadisms". And as it turned out, it is also being documented for reporting to management and for "sharing experiences".
The huge 40-gigabyte archive of the FSIN and FSB, regarding torture and inhuman abuse of prisoners, which was received by the human rights project Ganagu.net, appeared because the torturers of the Saratov FSIN system systematically recorded the torture, in order to work with the material later. The administrator of this video surveillance system, Sergei, himself a prisoner, managed to travel abroad. He monitored the video surveillance system, prepared the video recorders for work, and handed them over to a team of activists, also convicts involved in torture.
The founder of Gulagu.net, Vladimir Osechkin, who received the archive from Sergei's hands, says: “At the command of the OTB-1 leadership, he transferred all this to one of the computers located at the headquarters, but which was not officially registered and did not go through the FSIN records.
“[He] copied the video files to a flash drive, which… was then transferred either to the leadership of the FPS in the region, or to operatives of the main directorate of the FPS, or to the FSS in the region as a report on the work performed."
A separate horror is that, as Osechkin said from Sergey's words, if the files turned out to be broken or had bad sound, or a bad picture, then the administrator received an order to give the sadists new recorders to then continue torturing the victims.
“We have known for a long time about what was happening in prisons, but we lacked evidence,” the founder of Gulagu.net notes now. According to him, this is not only about torture and rape, but also about the elimination of individual prisoners.
“Now we understand what happened to Pshenichny (businessman Valery Pshenichny, tortured and killed in a pre-trial detention centre), Vladimir Evdokimov (top manager of the Roscosmos state corporation Vladimir Evdokimov was found in a pre-trial detention center with knife wounds and a slit throat),” concluded Ovechkin.
"Joker" and "pulling nails"
The Insider, together with Denis Timokhin, an expert from the legal department of the Rus Sitting charitable foundation, figured out the types of torture in modern Russia. Also, the website Snob has collected a whole catalogue of executions, which are most often used by employees of the Russian penitentiary system.
For example, opposition civic activist Ildar Dadin talked about torture in a Karelian colony in 2017: “In two minutes of torture, I broke down and was ready to sign everything.” He was "hung up, beaten, put his head in the toilet". The tortures call this last act, "diver". This is when a prisoner is lowered with his head into a bucket of water or a toilet bowl and held there.
Even in prisons, the "diet" torture is widespread, which does not require a lot of imagination from law enforcement officers. The Perm POC, in particular, stated that prisoners were deprived of food and drink, as well as basic hygienic conditions. "Joker" was used in the Karelian IK-1. This is tearing by force or cutting the corners of the mouth with a knife or razor.
Electric torture by means of a field telephone "TA" (aka "Tapik") is called "Call a friend”. Bare wires are attached to the detainee's fingers or genitals, after which a foldable handle on the side of the device is scrolled to generate ringing voltage. "Breastplate", "Knock out the dust" - multiple strikes with the front surface of an army body armour (for example, "Cuirass-5" weighing more than 11 kg) on the back of the detainee.
Not the most popular of the Russian tortures in the Federal Penitentiary Service, as it leaves obvious traces - "pulling out nails". The fact is that in 2010, relatives of the convicted Vitaly Buntov, who is in Tula IK-1, brought nail plates to human rights defenders as evidence of torture. The administration of the colony stated that the prisoner was left without nails due to a fungus, but could not prove this, and the European Court forced him to pay compensation to Buntov.
Music torture also occurs in prisons. Convicted chess player Yuri Shorchev said that he was forced to listen to the songs of the Rammstein group: “From time to time they took me out of the cell into the corridor, put me naked on a stretch, and turned Rammstein to the fullest through a speaker above my head. Sometimes you don't just go deaf from such a strong sound - it physically hurts terribly, bleeding from your ears.
“The torture lasted all night. By the way, I listened to the same Rammstein every day in the cell - through a small speaker above the door. This kind of music could drive you crazy, too. I wanted to scream! "
Another torment is the "stranglehold" or "package". Any rope, belt or elastic band, which are most often used not on their own, but with a bag put on the prisoner's head, can become a choke. Sometimes pepper spray is sprinkled into the bag to enhance the effect. If a prisoner dies from suffocation, his death is not difficult to pass off as suicide.
These are not horror movies or fictional stories by science fiction writers. This is "the reality of Russia in the 21st Century, as well as deaths of prisoners from beatings or as a result of suicide caused by inhuman treatment," wrote the "Project" back in 2020. At the same time, with the help of statistics and unique evidence, he proved that the problem of torture in the Russian penitentiary system is not being solved.
“They called it 'upbringing',” said Mukhtar Aliyev, a former prisoner in Omsk IK-7. “Do you see the fingers on my hand? They are broken. My left ear cannot hear, my right leg does not work well. They do not correct them there, but cruelly torture them. Up to the point that a bottle of mineral water is thrust into people's holes. I was tortured with electric current so that now I am not capable of anything for any woman. Every day and night you only hear there: ‘Mom, help!’.”
“Why is this being done? A person who ends up in the zone is forced to understand that he is alone, that his life may end in one moment,” the former prosecutor and now human rights activist Aleksey Fedyarov explained about the Project.
Only one employee was convicted of torture in Omsk colony No. 7 - Vasily Trofimov, inspector of the IK-7 security department. In September 2018, the court sentenced him to two years in a general regime colony for abuse of power. In August 2018, the head of the Omsk Federal Penitentiary Service, Sergei Koryuchin, lost his post - he was simply fired by a presidential decree.
If society falls asleep...
Indeed, the Federal Penitentiary Service employees are attracted to criminal liability primarily for bribes or "sweeps". But they are rarely tried for beating prisoners. Firstly, beating is an emergency, not a single head of the zone wants to record such an incident. Secondly, many employees, according to former employees of the Federal Penitentiary Service, pay off and continue to work. According to the estimates of the "Project", from one-third of the FSIN institutions, employees, who were all convicted of beatings, continued to receive reports of unjustified use of physical force against prisoners.
If the prisoner decides to declare a violation of his rights and his complaint reaches the prosecutor's office, the UK or human rights activists, then the check is carried out formally.
“An investigator, for example, arrives, and prepared witnesses are taken out to him, they say: ‘There were no beatings’,”says Alexei Fedyarov, a lawyer for Rus Sitting.
“After such explanations, it is difficult to initiate a case. In addition, employees of departments communicate with each other, this is the usual bunch that went out to fry kebabs, to swell."
“We are at a historical moment when all of humanity will learn the terrible truth about what has happened in the Russian Federation for the last five years,” Osechkin says, referring to the archive of torture received. Now he is in Strasbourg, stating: "The materials have already been transferred to the International Committee for the Prevention of Torture." This, perhaps, is the main reason for the actions on the part of the authorities: it will no longer be possible to silence the topic.
“No matter how my fate develops in the future, the truth can no longer be hidden,” says Vladimir. He “is ready to personally lay down his life so that no one is beaten or tortured in Russia”. But he says: “If now society falls asleep and decides that it’s better not to change anything, then, it seems to me, the special services will legalise these press huts, and reforms on democratisation will be postponed for decades."
By the end of 2020, there were 493,310 people in correctional facilities and pre-trial detention centres in Russia. For their maintenance, there are 923 institutions of the Federal Penitentiary Service in Russia. From 2015 to 2019, at least 334 cases of beatings or torture were reported from them.