22 June 2021
by Lev Ponomarev, human rights activist, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group
“THIS MESSAGE (MATERIAL) IS CREATED AND DISTRIBUTED BY A FOREIGN MASS MEDIA OUTLET, PERFORMING THE FUNCTIONS OF A FOREIGN AGENT, AND (OR) A RUSSIAN LEGAL ENTITY.” – well, others in Russia don’t generally write about torture.
What is really in abundance now is pessimism. The news inclines towards it.
But over the decades of my work, both political and as a human rights activist, I have come to clearly see that people miss real opportunities to achieve something when they are mired in pessimistic prognostications. I will definitely return to this idea. Russia’s recent political history reads like a tale of dramatically missed opportunities.
And now about specific matters. I’ve talked a lot about the story of the mass torture of prisoners in Angarsk. An absolutely unprecedented story. Think about it yourself: society has learned about the existence of a real torture ground that arose after the mass protest action of prisoners in Angarsk Penal Colony No. 15. Thanks to publicity and the hard work of human rights activists, it was possible to achieve the intervention of the Ombudsman and a special report at a meeting of the Federation Council. And today we have a criminal prosecution for torture (a very rare article – 117 of the Criminal Code) and abuse of authority (286 of the Criminal Code) against officers of the Federal Penitentiary Service and those prisoners who carried out torture on behalf of the prison administration (the so-called “implementers”).
What does it take to win? It turns out that continual trips to Irkutsk are needed, and the active work of lawyers in conjunction with human rights activists, and regular publicity. All this requires resources much greater than those that we have at our disposal today. You can contribute to this story by financially supporting the For Human Rights Civil Rights Project. We can win by collective effort.
What’s going on right now? There is tremendous resistance to the investigation into the torture. Of the 28 eight people known to have almost certainly been subjected to violence (including violence of a sexual nature) and torture, only four have been recognised as victims.
Why is this happening? Because every victim is also a defendant in the case of mass riots in the colony. The official version of these riots has already been approved and declared by the Irkutsk security forces and prison authorities, and the recognition of the accused in the riots as victims of torture becomes a real disaster for this version [of events].
It’s clear that the local (Irkutsk) Federal Penitentiary Service and the Investigative Committee, which have every opportunity to resist the investigation, will resist to the last. But the situation no longer seems hopeless. Oddly enough, even the federal leadership of the Federal Penitentiary Service is forced to somehow solve the problem and meet human rights activists halfway.
Now all torture victims need lawyers, and in this case a single lawyer cannot take more than one client, otherwise there will be a conflict of interests. And for each episode this involves interrogations, confrontations, examinations. The Committee against Torture will be taking on some of the victims – this is excellent news, but it is not enough. In addition, it is important that strong lawyers from Moscow, who do not depend on local conditions, work there. On 28 June we are sending a whole delegation of human rights activists, lawyers and journalists to Irkutsk.
Why do I write about this over and over again? Because this is a huge and extremely rare success for our times, but it might turn out to be nothing, if we even slightly loosen our grip over the situation. This is a real opportunity to influence the entire prison system in Russia, to make the lives of thousands of prisoners safer, not to mention specific people – victims of arbitrariness – who can be saved from new prison terms. This opportunity should not be missed.
Torture has become so ingrained in the work of the security forces that only massive efforts by civil society can change anything. But it is important that these efforts be directed to the point at which there are real prospects for bringing the work to a successful conclusion
Our work would be much harder without your support.
Translated by Anna Bowles