Irina Biriukova on torture in Russian prison colonies: ‘Any complaint provokes extraordinary resistance’

28 November 2022

Irina Biriukova, a lawyer with the Public Verdict Foundation and laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group’s human rights award, in conversation with Katya Orlova of Novaya gazeta

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Novaya Gazeta. Europe

On 24 November, politician Aleksei Navalny spoke about how in strict-regime penal colony No. 6, where he has been for several months, one of the prisoners told him about being tortured and asked for his assistance. Navalny’s associates are now gathering information about the alleged use of force against prisoners imprisoned with Aleksei. The politician himself spent several weeks in a punishment cell (ShIZO), and recently the penal colony administration transferred him altogether to a PKT (ward-type cell)—essentially, a real prison.

According to the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, “torture” is understood to mean “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person.” Torturing people is prohibited under the Russian Constitution as well. Nonetheless, violence is used against prisoners in virtually all places of incarceration. Proving this is difficult, and the penal colonies’ administrations frequently get off with a reprimand. On why this happens and how you can defend yourself and others from torture if you are in a penal colony, Novaya Gazeta. Europe spoke with lawyer Irina Biriukova from the Public Verdict Foundation. It is she who defended the victim in a torture case in the Yaroslavl penal colony, a video of which was published a few years ago by Novaya Gazeta.

The Melekhovo strict-regime penal colony No. 6 has been called a “torture [penal] colony.” Have prisoners from there ever come to you with a complaint of torture?

Not to me personally yet.

How widespread in general is torture in Russian remand centres [SIZO] and penal colonies?

Fairly widespread. Lately, there may have been fewer instances than before, but this feeling is based only on personal assumptions since there have simply been fewer appeals. The torture varies somewhat depending on the region and facility where the sentence is served. They torture people in the SIZO in order to obtain confessions or testimony against people the investigation is interested in, but in the penal colonies they torture for other reasons. There’s no need there to torture anyone in order to obtain confessions.

In the penal colonies do they use psychological or physical pressure more often as torture? 

Right now it’s fairly difficult to separate out or determine precisely which kind of torture is used more often, psychological or physical. [Public Verdict] has appeals of both kinds. The psychological ones are probably more numerous, since at a certain point [I] got the feeling that employees simply became afraid of physically torturing. But they have quite a few ways of torturing even without using physical force. In the penal colonies, if we’re talking about physical torture, usually they just beat them, moreover the employees themselves don’t always even do it themselves, it can be convicts collaborating with the administration, on instruction from that very administration. Beatings can vary, too. They can be very brutal, using handcuffs, rubber batons, and water bottles, using a wet towel…

And which Russian penal colonies are most known for torture there?

The Irkutsk, Vladimir, Kirov, and Mordovia penal colonies. Usually it’s from those that we hear most often. That doesn’t mean they torture there the most, it may be it’s more frequent and brutal somewhere else. I’m just speaking based on the information available to me.

For several months, the politician Aleksei Navalny was kept continuously in a punishment cell [ShIZO], but now they’ve moved him to an ordinary prison cell [PKT] altogether. Can illegal placement in a ShIZO or PKT be considered torture?

In and of itself, illegal placement in a punishment cell [ShIZO], being placed under strict condictions of detention [SUS], a ‘normal prison cell [PKT], or a single-space facility [EPKT] is a violation of the law. And holding someone in those facilities can be equated with torture. I don’t know a single Russian penal colony where the holding conditions in a ShIZO, SUS, PKT, or EPKT would meet international standards, including the Minimum Standards of Treatment for Prisoners, therefore in and of itself a prisoner’s placement in those conditions is a form of torture, regardless of whether it’s legal or not. In practice, Public Verdict Foundation has quite a few cases seeking compensation for inhumane conditions of incarceration. And sometimes, even if you can’t dispute the legality of a disciplinary punishment, you can file suits for compensation for inhumane conditions of incarceration in these facilities.

If prisoners try to defend themselves or others, how do prison authorities react? Does it happen that even harsher sanctions are applied to them?

Yes, because the penal colony authorities are part of the system, of course, any appeal, any complaint is met with enormous resistance. And this applies to the system as a whole, because here the well-known principle ‘the system does not surrender its own’ comes into play. At least for the time being. [If detainees report torture] any methods are used – from persuasion and threats to the prisoner or their relatives to the use of torture. But in this case the prison management also decides whether someone is behind the person making the complaint or whether they are acting alone.

How does the use of torture usually end up for the prison authorities? Are there any consequences for them at all, are criminal cases brought against them?

– Usually there are no consequences. At most, there may be an inspection by supervisory bodies, such as the prosecutor’s office or the Federal Penitentiary Service. But in the vast majority of cases, nothing happens. As a rule, the management of the colony knows too much. Including about the work of the bodies that are supposed to exercise oversight. And no one benefits from putting such bosses in jail who could drag others down with them. As a matter of fact, I think this was also very obvious in the Yaroslavl torture case, when the court acquitted the head of the colony and his deputy on the grounds that their guilt was considered unproven, even though the prosecutor’s office had asked for long prison terms for them. There are occasional examples of the criminal prosecution of the heads of correctional institutions, but it is easier, of course, to find a formal reason, not related to the specific case of torture, and dismiss or transfer such an official to another institution, send him to retirement – giving the appearance that they have been punished, though apparently not for torture, as though there is no torture in correctional institutions.

What can prisoners do if they find out that their fellow prisoners have been tortured?

The best thing to do is to contact their lawyer, civil society activists, relatives or other people they trust so that those can approach human rights defenders. It is almost impossible to fight on your own. And it is important that there is not just an appeal, but that the prisoner who witnessed ill-treatment or torture, formally becomes a witness and agrees to give evidence, testify and confirm everything reported in the appeal.

What legal mechanisms can you use to protect yourself from torture or help others?

One can apply to supervisory bodies, to the regional human rights ombudsman or to investigative bodies with an application to initiate criminal proceedings. This is a very long, complex process that does not always bring a positive result. But it has to be done. You have to know what you are facing be ready to go through with this path, because the pressure may prove very strong, you have to ask for help from lawyers who work with human rights organizations, because such help is free, and you have to involve journalists in the coverage of the case and the problem of torture in general. Any system, especially the prison system as it is the most closed system, always fears publicity. And in many cases this does actually work. In addition, the relatives themselves should be active, because no one will solve these problems if the victims themselves are not ready to fight for their rights.

Translated by Marian Schwartz and Simon Cosgrove

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