4 February 2021
by Lev Ponomarev, head of the national NGO For Human Rights and member of the Moscow Helsinki Group
“THIS MESSAGE (MATERIAL) WAS CREATED AND DISTRIBUTED BY A FOREIGN MEDIA OUTLET ACTING AS A FOREIGN AGENT AND/OR A RUSSIAN LEGAL ENTITY ACTING AS A FOREIGN AGENT.” Now that I’ve added these apparently obligatory words for Roskomnadzor, I’ll tell you a little about what foreign agents do in Russia.
Lately, all we’ve been doing is getting used to hearing bad news.
But what I would like to share with you now is more than just very important news — it’s also good news, promising news.
We have written a great deal about the investigations of the riots in the Angarsk Penal Colony No. 15 that took place on April 9-10 2020, and how these riots were the largest event of their kind in many years. Government TV channels sources said that this was clearly a case of “thieves in law” and “paid activists” stirring things up.
Then we started receiving information stating that prisoners were being tortured and raped, that the so-called “developers” were running rampant. For those who don’t know what kind of “developers” these are, they’re not programmers or app designers. They’re people who, on behalf of police investigators, “develop” people’s testimonies until they hear they want to hear. People who are “in development” already have roles assigned to them: organizer, participant, witness. The main method of interrogation involves sexual assault, violence, etc.
We were extremely lucky. We found a person who served time, was released, and by some miracle wasn’t dragged in for “investigation.” But he saw everything – he saw what they did to people, and he wasn’t afraid to talk about it. We were able to get him to Moscow, settle him here, and secure a meeting for him with Tatiana Moskalkova, the Human Rights Ombudsman. Her stepping in ended up being crucial.
In a separate development, thanks to the Human Rights Ombudsman of Irkutsk Oblast personally meeting with the torture victim and gaining his trust, we were able to gain considerable verification of what Evgeny Yurchenko said.
It was a long and difficult story, in which For Human Rights played a substantial role alongside the activists who were the first to direct attention to these events. We had no confidence that we would be successful; the situation seemed quite difficult and hopeless. We had to contend with being denied lawyers, with terrible intimidation of prisoners and their refusal to speak, their refusal to be defended, their refusal to be helped by the lawyers working with us. We received dozens of reports of violence and worked closely with the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office. We lived in anticipation of investigators coming from Irkutsk and feared that Yurchenko would be dragged back to Irkutsk or even killed. We wrote about this in our publications, and the wonderful Taisiya Krugovykh made a poignant film for us called Two Months until Freedom, which depicts Yurchenko’s recounting of what happened.
We have been seeing results.
A few hours ago, Svetlana Yashina, a For Human Rights lawyer, received a call from the Investigative Committee in Irkutsk Oblast. She was informed that, based on an inspection of the Federal Institution Remand Prison No. 6 in Angarsk, a criminal case had been initiated under Article 286, Part 3, of the Criminal Code, on abuse of office, as it pertains to employees of the Federal Penitentiary Service, as well as under Article 117, Part 2, Point ‘e’, on torture, as it pertains to the “developers” who tortured and raped prisoners after the protest in Penal Colony No. 15 in Angarsk. There is currently no information about the suspects’ arrest. Our defendant Evgeny Yurchenko will be recognized as a victim in the case. At this point he is the only recognized victim. Certain employees of Remand Prison No. 6 have been removed from their posts.
I cannot recall a single case in Russia under Article 117 of the Criminal Code. But this is the very article that speaks directly about the use of torture in order to obtain a desired testimony. It seems a case has been opened under this article.
In Russia, a country transforming into one giant prison camp before our eyes, this is very important news. And it goes without saying that this is good news. The work of the Human Rights Ombudsmen of Russia and Irkutsk Oblast is undoubtedly a positive example of successful cooperation with the activist community, of a swift and professional response to an egregious case of massive human rights violations in Russia.
And of course it would be difficult for us to manage all this without your support. Support us and help us accomplish even more.
Translated by Nina dePalma