Irina Biriukova on torture in the Russian prison system: “So is it America that told them: Torture, rape, record everything on video”?

26 October 2021

Irina Biriukova, laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group award for human rights, talks to Olga Bobrova of Novaya gazeta about the real beneficiaries of torture in Russian prisons.

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Новая газета]

The subject of torture in prison has been at centre stage of Russian society for a couple of years now. Recently, scandals have been occurring more and more often. Terrible videos containing rapes leaked from the Saratov prison hospital, then the Angara prisoners publicly speaking out about brooms wrapped with duct tape and their use. Last Sunday the Kaluga region became infamous. The media published a story about the 60 inmates in the isolation cell of the high-security prison who cut their wrists as a protest against inhumane conditions of detention. Although the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) promptly denied this message and the local authorities stated that it wasn’t a mass suicide attempt but rather ‘two persons scarifying themselves in their spare time’, there are still questions left. For example why in a rather small prison, 60 people will be in isolation cells at the same time.

Irina Biriukova, a lawyer with the Public Verdict Foundation (listed by the Ministry of Justice as a ‘foreign agent’) is a ‘trendsetter’ in the genre of video revelations of prison torture. It was she who managed to get hold of the tape with the torture of Evgeny Makarov in the Yaroslavl prison No. 1 in 2018. Nowadays Irina conducts many similar cases in prisons in different regions. Novaya Gazeta reporter Olga Bobrova talked with Irina Biriukova about where these recordings with tortures come from, why the inmates are sometimes sympathetic to the practise of torture, how much they are prepared to endure and why torture in Russian prisons won’t stop for the foreseeable future. 

Ira, you made public many videos from prisons with some cases making it to court, and every time it seems like there won’t be any more torture in prisons. They should finally take some measures in FSIN, somehow reshape the FSIN structure. Regardless, new torture cases happen, new videos appear. Why aren’t they afraid? Why does each prison guard think that no criminal case will affect him specifically?

Well, perhaps because he has every reason to count on that. The release of videos of bullying, beatings and rape does not tell the authorities anything new. The practice of torture is the norm in the penitentiary system, as it is in law enforcement. So by posting these videos, we are not revealing any special secrets. Another thing happens instead, and that is we expose the ‘vulnerability’ of the system, indicate where the fine-tuned program doesn’t work. Well, and thereafter follows a logical response to eliminate these very vulnerabilities, these system bugs, and not a response in the form of urgent reform measures, a real rectification of the situation, and the prohibition of torture. Just one example: at a meeting in the Ministry of Justice, which occurred shortly after the release of the Saratov videos, they discussed how to ensure security, the protection of files and the oversight of the video archive. This is their antidote to torture. There isn’t even an attempt to cover up the real objectives that the authorities have established in connection with the leaked video recordings. The hunt for the person who leaked this Saratov archive has been launched, criminal cases have been brought against him, and he has been put on the wanted list. But at the same time, there has not yet been a single detention in seven cases initiated against employees of the Federal Penitentiary Service. It is only known that these seven criminal cases have been opened, some of them under official articles. However – there is complete silence about how the investigation is going, who was detained and what measures are being taken.

All this means is that the state views the prison system in its current form as effective.

Taking into consideration the expended resources, risks, failures (in the form of these very same scandals) and the result that has been achieved, the state finds the ‘effectiveness’ to be high. This means that it is a prudent investment of resources. This means that torture as a management tool works quite well.

This system is closed, hermetically sealed – the state guarantees this for them. Any evidence, such as the videos from the employee recording devices, is in its exclusive possession. And without it, it is impossible to hold officials accountable. And against the backdrop of public ritual statements about the inadmissibility of torture, against the backdrop of dismissals and other bureaucratic upheavals, no actual changes are being planned and the penal system continues to roll steadily along a predefined trajectory. And protect employees from potential prosecution. Furthermore, in order to reduce the risks, torture is increasingly delegated to other prisoners, who, if something happens, will be responsible for this torture and will be held accountable.

You mentioned the criminal case brought against Sergei Savelyev, a former prisoner who managed to bring out a video showing torture in Saratov. Did the people who worked with you feel that they are also being sought?

The fact that they are looking for them was felt not only by those who helped us. This was felt by everyone there, since the colony’s administration did not even conceal it. We knew for sure that they were looking for where the video came from. This was one of the main questions that the FSIN and the FSB officials had for us, starting from the moment that the video was released. They still ask about it all the time. By the way, based on personal experience, I am not completely sure that it was a good idea to reveal the identity of the person who obtained the Saratov archive. But he made such a decision, I hope, thoroughly understanding the potential consequences and risks involved, as well as the responsibility.

Why do you think he decided to do this?

An individual can have many motives. But one of the motives is always that it is not possible to take any more. A detainee’s pain threshold, the degree of tolerance for the violence committed against them, isn’t the same as people in the outside world. Working on ‘torture’ cases in the penal colonies of various regions, I was initially surprised, but then I stopped being surprised at how one can endure what the staff there do to people. They might give a detainee a kick or two in the backside to get him to run faster – well, that’s considered trivial, to complain about it is considered somehow unmanly. Even a bit of a beating, the detainees told me: it’s part of the sentence, so we won’t complain about it. Although the sentence, according to the law, requires that punishments are disciplinary, without the use of violence. Detainees, in fact, endure a lot. Because they are worried about themselves, their relatives, their loved ones, their friends, and about what others will say. The majority understands that they are not all exemplary guys, not the heroes out of novels. They also understand the attitude of society towards convicts. But when prison staff cross boundaries which, in the detainees’ opinions, cannot be crossed, then arises in the penal colonies mass unrest and self-mutilation, and video recordings of torture emerge.

But these are not all those boundaries of dignity and personal integrity that people think they have in the outside world.

Why do you think that recently information about torture has begun to leak out of the penal colonies so often? After all, they were using torture before, and the system has become no less closed off.

I think that more and more detainees are beginning to trust human rights defenders, to believe that, even from prison, it’s possible to do something and get somewhere. That you can still break through the system, albeit bit by bit. I think that similar cases and statements will continue to appear.

Whenever we have these ‘days of torture’, and the entire country is discussing yet another terrible video, there arises another narrative in public discussion: this is all a war between Kremlin groups, between government departments, it’s America against Russia. How do you answer people who ask questions like that?

When people ask this, I find it funny. And I’ll say this: even if this is a war of departments, Kremlin insiders, America against Russia, then I have missed something somewhere – so what does it mean, is torture allowed here? So is it America that said to specific people: use torture, rape prisoners, record them on tape, blackmail them and extort money, report these videos to management? Well then, let them fight. If, as a result of these wars, the instrument of which is the leaking of these videos about the use of violence against detainees (not the violence itself, of course), and torture in Russia stops then this is a rare war that will actually make things better for ordinary people.

Translated by Ecaterina Hughes, Tyler Langendorfer and Mercedes Malcomson

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