Lev Ponomarev on cases of torture at a penal colony in Irkutsk and problems with the investigation

9 July 2021

by Lev Ponomarev, human rights activist, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group (original source: Эхо Москвы)


On the night of 9-10 April 2020, prisoners at Angarsk Penal Colony No. 15 opened their veins in a protest against beatings and called for help. Videos appeared on the Internet. On the 10 April, OMON [Special Police Force] entered the colony, and after that the industrial zone went up in flames. There was a report of one dead prisoner.

After this, a criminal case about the riots and the disorganization of work at the colony was opened, with dozens of potential defendants. Torture, mass sexual assault, and “developers”–prisoners chosen to torture and rape on the administration’s orders.

Very quickly, there was a true torture test site at Angarsk. In the first few hours, appeals to human rights activists began to come in. Lawyers by agreement, quickly hired and sent to Remand Centre No. 6 by human rights activists, are trying to see the prisoners but are not being allowed in. The prisoners are refusing their help. One has already refused four times. People from from outside the prison can’t locate their prisoner relatives.

The official version of what happened in Angarsk, announced on 14 April by Justice Minister Konstantin Chuichenko, goes like this: “The revolt was orchestrated from the outside, the same people paid for the so-called human rights activists.”

The “so-called human rights activists” would not back down, and the “stoking of the situation” continued. Publications in the media, letters to the law enforcement agencies, appeals, declarations, lawyers’ attempts to get through to the prisoners in the remand centre. The evacuation of the freed Evgeny Yurchenko to Moscow. A film with his story shown to the Federation Council. A special report by Federal Ombudsman for Human Rights Moskalkova. The opening of a criminal case against employees of the Federal Penitentiary Service and those prisoners who helped with the torture. Evgeny Yurchenko is a victim. The designation of dozens more people as victims is under consideration.

Evgeny Yurchenko — a frame from Taisia Krugovye’s film Two Months to Freedom

It turns out to be possible after all! Thank you to all those who helped For Human Rights pay for the trip to Irkutsk, the lawyers’ work, and not only that. So was this a victory?

Let us move to an office at Angarsk Penal Colony No. 6 and the evening of 30 June 2021. More than 5,000 kilometers from Moscow. A space that resembles a classroom. The identification of “developer” Lapa (“Lapa” is a nickname — Ed. note) and the face-to-face confrontation between him and his victim, Evgeny Yurchenko. Investigative actions within the framework of the criminal case on the tortures. According to Yurchenko, Lapa taped him to a metal hanger because for 220 volts from stripped wires to pass through his genitalia it requires a good contact, and the hanger worked. Just scrape off any rust for the contact to be good.

Pyotr Kuryanov – an expert from For Prisoners’ Rights and Yurchenko’s representative at the face-to-face confrontation – badly needed a cigarette. The face-to-face confrontation had been going on for many hours. When it finally ended, investigator Semyonov invited him to step out with him. But the office where he took Kuryanov wasn’t a smoking room.

“I take one step past the door and see Kornev, director of the investigative group, sitting there, and next to him a video camera all set to go and papers spread out on the table,” Kuryanov recounts. “I immediately realized this was some kind of provocation. I turn around and try to leave. But the door in front of me – click! And the key is turned from the other side. Through the window I can see the prison officer’s back. I shout to him, ‘Open the door! What on earth is going on here?’ I shout to our lawyers, who are nearby, in the next offices. But investigator Kornev starts in on his mantra, starts mumbling something in a monotone, I didn’t even get it. “I’m explaining mumble-mumble-mumble, and you’re invited mumble-mumble-mumble.” While the other one films me, the one I went out with for a cigarette. Semyonov.

Irkutsk Oblast SU [Investigative Administration] of the SK RF [RF Investigative Committee] Investigator for especially important cases N.O. Semyonov (right); Irkutsk Oblast SU SK RF Investigator for especially important cases A.S. Kornev (left). Photographed earlier at the Irkutsk Oblast SU SK RF by Pyotr Kuryanov.

The victim’s second representative, journalist Viktoria Ivleva, heard a strange noise, like someone banging his head against a wall.

“It wasn’t stopping, so I went into the corridor leading from the room where the confrontation was going on,” she recalls. “Lawyers working with prisoners in other offices started coming out. We realized the noise was coming from one of the little rooms. I went over to it and saw Pyotr through the window. He was drumming his fist on the door and demanding a lawyer, while a prison officer was standing by the door and saying nothing. He couldn’t open the door, he had been ordered not to. Then someone else came up, the duty assistant. He simply pretended not to hear that he was being addressed.

“I was knocking for about 30 minutes probably,” estimated Kuryanov,  “shouted that I need professional legal assistance. The Federal Penitentiary Service officers came out of their offices. The lawyers came later as they were working. Karina Moskalenko came up. She started arguing with the prison officer who locked me up. I bent down to the peephole and started telling him about this being “illegal”, “lawless” and all. The officer takes out the key, then hides it after a great deal of thought. Then the rest of our lawyers came along, Svetlana Yashina and Yulia Chvanova. The investigator turns off the camera. The officer opens the door and I come out.

“Victoria Markovna, let’s go!” I heard the investigator’s voice after Pyotr left the room. Ivleva enters the same room. They are trying to interrogate her about the torture case. Victoria is demanding to see her lawyer, refuses to sign anything and replies to every question by citing Article 51 of the Constitution [the right to remain silent – ed.]. The investigators are looking for attesting witnesses but can’t find anyone. Then they handed over the summons, which Victoria refused to take. After about 20 minutes, Ivleva left the room. All lawyers and representatives then leave the remand centre.”

The very next day, two absolutely identical decisions of the investigator Kornev “on the removal of the victim’s representative from participation in the criminal case” came out. It meant that Kuryanov and Ivleva were questioned as witnesses but they failed to remove themselves from acting in the case, although they were obliged to do so. 

All the events of 30th June at Remand Centre No. 6, all the bizarre maneuvers with the peephole, the locked door, prison officers with the keys and the interrogators with cameras, turned out to be nothing more than the “interrogations” of Pyotr Kuryanov and Victoria Ivleva with the status of witnesses in the torture case, with the inevitable “need to give further testimony in court.”

But Kuryanov and Ivleva at the moment of the “interrogation” were already representing the victim, Evgeny Yurchenko, and were allowed to participate in the case. They participated in the investigation and therefore could not be interrogated as witnesses in principle. Not to mention the fact that none of them could have been witnesses in the torture and mistreatment case, since they were not eyewitnesses of any torture-related events.

Do you want to get rid of the victim’s representative? Lock him up in a room after the lineup and film on a camera. That’s the “lifehack” proposed by the two investigators from Irkutsk.

“I am constantly sending petitions, actively participate in investigations, and appeal illegal actions by the investigator with the general prosecutor’s office and in court. According to my petitions, dozens of other torture victims were interrogated,” Kuryanov says, throwing up his hands. “Does the investigator need this kind of person complaining? The resolution on my recusal says that my actions directly contradict the victim’s interests. The important thing to emphasise is that this is not some clever legal manoeuvre. We are talking about dozens of people who were tortured and raped! And what did Investigator Kornev – who is the head of the investigation team, by the way – do? He suspended people representing the interests of the affected party. Switched sides, apparently. Yes, I was put under lock and key by an officer in the remand centre, where all these tortures and rapes took place! Who knows, maybe he was involved in all that himself?”

The events at Penal Colony No. 15 in Angarsk and the subsequent mass torture and sexual violence shocked the whole country. This is not surprising. Torture has always been a serious problem in Russian prisons, one which has even been recognised at an official level, but society has never faced violence against and humiliation of prisoners on an industrial scale, concerning not just torture, but mass sexual violence!

The Federation Council was forced to react to the situation. The opening of a criminal case regarding torture and abuse of authority by prison officers is unprecedented and a chance to achieve real positive changes in the lives of thousands of prisoners throughout Russia. But it is a long and hard struggle. It’s not over yet.

Evgeny Yurchenko and his representatives (left to right): Victoria Ivleva, Karinna Moskalenko (Moscow Helsinki Group member), Yulia Chvanova, Svetlana Yashina, Peter Kuryanov. Next to Kuryanov is a representative for another victim, Ekaterina Kramynina. Photo credit: Peter Kuryanov

Today, a whole team of lawyers, journalists and experts from the project For Human Rights is working in Irkutsk. We are trying to speak regularly about what is going on there. Apart from us, other human rights defenders are also working on this story, in particular the Committee against Torture. But we need many more visits, more lawyers and constant monitoring of the situation. 

A successful outcome is possible only with a consolidated position in society and the active support of human rights organisations, which are on the verge of collapse due to the adoption of an increasing number of laws that make it difficult for them to do their work and find sources of funding. 

If you want to be a part of this struggle, spread information and make regular donations to the civil human rights project For Human Rights.

Translated by Marian Schwartz, Ecaterina Hughes and Elizabeth Rushton

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