“The searches are, of course, not carried out gently.” Marina Litvinovich on the conditions of detention at the Sakharovo special detention centre
Photo: Svetlana Vidanova / Novaya Gazeta

10 February 2021

Novaya gazeta’s Lilit Sarkisian interviews Marina Litvinovich, member of the Moscow Public Oversight Commission

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

The temporary detention centre for foreign citizens (TsVSIG) in the village of Sakharovo in New Moscow has become a place of detention for hundreds of Russian citizens arrested for participating in protests on January 23 and 31 that did not have official permission. Protestors sent there under administrative arrest have reported hours-long queues of dozens of detainees from the police vans at the detention centre, a lack of drinking water and the collapse of the system of delivering parcels [with support packages from relatives and friends- ed.] to detainees. At the peak, there were 812 people at the Sakharovo TsVSIG. Now the number is 502. Marina Litvinovich, a member of the Moscow Public Monitoring Commission, arranged a meeting for us at the detention centre, where she travels almost every day following the suppression of the protests. It was minus 15 outside, and a blizzard was blowing – we were allowed to warm up in the office where they issued passes. The meeting was scheduled for around 17.00, but we waited until six while Marina went around the prisoners. At six the bureau closed. Soon afterwards, Marina Litvinovich left the detention centre. Novaya gazeta talked to her about whether she had managed to resolve the problems that had arisen at the Sakharovo TsVSIG after the unprecedented influx of prisoners. 

When we first arrived, a few people were still here – after the rally of 23 January. We went through and recorded some problems, but there was no sign of a collapse. The collapse started when they began to bring five or six buses and police vans, with twenty or thirty people in each of them, here every night. At first there were about 70 detainees and 80 foreign citizens. There are about the same number of foreigners now, but when we came to sort out the problems there were already about 812 of our citizens here. In total there are about a thousand places at the Sakharovo TsVSIG.

Why was the detention centre so unprepared at first, when it had so many unoccupied places?

Your question has several aspects. Firstly: the bureaucratic and managerial dimension. It was not clear for a long time who was in charge there, or what they were in charge of. There were people from Moscow Special Detention Centre No. 2, because [the special detention centre in Sakharovo) is considered a subsidiary of theirs, and there were people from the temporary detention centre for foreign citizens. It turned out that there were two bosses, eyeballing each other, and nothing was working.

The second point: the staff of the TsVSIG are used to working with foreign citizens, and they have their own system, their own regulations. But there are different systems and regulations for those jailed under administrative law. Because of this, there was confusion. For example, on the first day, when people began to bring parcels, it was hell. These unfortunate people were sitting there [at the checkpoint where the parcels are received]: on one day they waited until six in the morning, on the next, until one in the morning. We put in a request, and the number of officeres there was increased. The reception office increased its operating hours. It seems to have been sorted out. Today there’s really no queue.

Then – food: in the first few days there was not enough. It is ordered the day before. But today, for example, you have 400 people, and overnight they bring you 150 more. How do you feed them? People were given smaller portions, but it was still not enough.

But the biggest problem was water. People were only supposed to be given boiling water, and that only three times a day. This problem has been solved: another delivery of water came today. We brought 10 tons of water.

It was basically like this with all the arrangements. A hopeless mess prevailed all that time. Nothing worked. For example, we come to a cell, and I ask, ‘Has everyone managed to phone home?’. The answer comes: ‘No , not everyone’. I ask: ‘Why?’. The answer: ‘Because my SIM card is in my belongings.’ And people’s belongings have been taken away. They wrote applications to be taken to access their personal belongings, but they were not taken. 

Has it changed now?

Now we see that their procedures are organized. Everyone has adapted. The first days were a serious test for the staff. I am trying to explain to everyone [who’d been arrested] that in general, all of the staff would be happy if you simply left the place at once.

Do they use physical force?

They don’t use physical force. But there are some problematic issues: yesterday and today (8 and 9 February – LS), the cells were searched. Of course, these were not conducted in a friendly way. Everyone was forced out into the hallway with their hands on the wall, feet shoulder-width apart. They stand there until their entire cell has been searched.

How is Sakharovo special detention centre organised on the inside?

There are large cells for ten people, and small ones for four and two people, respectively. In the cell there are bunk beds, and in the middle there is a table and benches.

Does everyone have a separate bed? Do they have bed linen? Everyone was horrified when they saw the photos from there – especially the beds without linen.

You see, during the first days, when police vans came to the special detention centre and people sat there for several hours, a scandal arose. And the centre’s management – they’re great guys – made a decision: let’s get the people out of the buses and police vans and put them in large cells while they’re getting registered. At least there they’ll have a toilet and water.

If in a normal detention facility there is a section called an assembly room, where the people brought in by police vans are put, then in a special detention centre there is no such thing. Usually, one or two arrested individuals are brought to special detention centres at a time, for administrative detention.

For the first time in the history of New Russia, 30-50-60 people were brought to a special detention centre at the same time.

If one hurries, it takes 20 minutes to register one person.

But there in those photos, where there were no mattresses – these were temporary cells. When we arrived and did an inspection, everyone had a place to sleep, they all had a mattress, a pillow and a blanket.

In those photos the toilets have no doors, instead there are partitions up to around the waist. 

There are three buildings for housing in Sakharovo: one is four-storey, another is three-storey and another is small – just one-storey. The latter is referred to as new – it was recently renovated. In this one all the toilets have doors. As for the other buildings – and these are where most people are put – all the toilets really do not have doors. Only a fence below the waist.

The young women complained to us they are embarrassed about the fact that the video cameras are looking directly at the toilets. It’s true. It’s an actual issue.

And are there many young women?

Yes, lots. There weren’t any to begin with. We were really pleased that they were only sending young men to Sakharovo, but, the next day, a group of young women arrived. The head of the detention centre has a particular soft spot for the women, though – he sent them to take a shower on their very first day. The guys were desperate for a shower – some had been waiting a week, some five days. They got to take a shower on Saturday and Sunday. Now, there are no complaints. Everyone has had a wash. And thank goodness.

Do the young women have hygiene products?

They were given everything on the first day: to begin with, some things were delivered as humanitarian aid, but it was also great to see that the detention centre itself gave young women all the hygiene products they would need.

Was anyone beaten before arriving at the detention centre?

We identified four guys who had been beaten, and we specifically instructed that they should be medically examined. They are the ones who approached us as we were walking around. But we also saw someone in there with a concussion following the rally on 31 January. We asked for an ambulance to be called, because he was being sick every day. It is not a good sign. We told the head of the detention centre, so hopefully it will get sorted.

Are there any diabetics?

I think we visited all the diabetics and a few people with epilepsy. There are two or three diabetics, and I think also two epileptics. We are monitoring them; we know that they’re the most vulnerable group.

The Human Rights Council has announced that it will be launching an investigation into the lines of police vans.

Lessons need to be learned from the whole situation. I mean, God forbid something like this should happen again, and our courts once again start jailing 900 people at a time. These kinds of problems never arise in normal detention centres. It’s just that the Sakharovo detention centre is like an adventure game for everyone – for the Public Oversight Commission, for the detention centre staff, for the police.


After this conversation with Marina Litvinovich, OVD-Info reported that officials from the Investigative Committee had visited the Sakharovo detention centre (according to those arrested) because of the video that was posted of them walking and shouting insults against the president. According to the prisoners, the investigators threatened them with criminal prosecution. Today, Litvinovich wrote the following on her Facebook page: “Today, I would like to appeal to the detainees, to the detention centre management, and to the Ministry of Internal Affairs. To the detainees: please, behave yourselves; defend your rights within the law; don’t destroy property. To the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the detention centre management: please, act within the law; don’t let your emotions get the better of you; don’t make arbitrary decisions; don’t make life difficult for those arrested.”

Translated by Anna Bowles, Tyler Langendorfer and Nicky Brown

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