Lev Ponomarev: On the possibility (impossibility) of investigating torture in Russia

21 January 2022

By Lev Ponomarev, human rights defender, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group [Lev Ponomarev has been included by the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation in the register of individuals working in the media as foreign agents]

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Эхо Москвы]


Whether or not you read this entire article through to the end, please just support our work on torture. Without your support, it is most likely that our work could simply not continue.

But if you are concerned about the survival of the human rights movement in Russia, if you are interested in how the investigation of torture is taking place, what outcomes have been achieved, and what problems we have faced at the beginning of 2022, read to the end.

As you may recall, the website gulag.net has in its possession a large video archive from the Federal Penitentiary Service, containing video recordings of actual rapes and torture of prisoners in the Saratov region. Thanks to these revelations, torture in Russian prisons became one of the most complex and ‘marginalised’ topics became one of the most discussed, and reached right up to the President.

At Putin’s press conference, Ksenia Sobchak asked the president a series of questions, including about torture in Saratov and, most importantly, as far as I am concerned, about Angarsk in Irkutsk region, where we are carrying out investigations. She cited the resignation of the head of the Federal Penitentiary Service Kalashnikov, and the fact that Putin, by presidential decree, promoted Sagalakov, the head of the Federal Prison Service of Irkutsk Region, despite evidence regarding torture. She reminded Putin that torture remains a systemic problem in Russia and asked how he feels about that situation.

Putin did not answer Ksenia’s question. The information about torture did not bring out any acute emotional reaction. He noted in a calm tone that the problem of torture does exist in other countries, and it is necessary to ‘take a softly-softly approach on this.’

Soon after, Putin ordered that ‘information about torture should be verified’ by the Minister of Justice, in whose hands lies the entire system of execution of punishments (and it turns out that the torture system is also in his hands), as well as by the prosecutor’s office. In fact, the investigation of torture is entrusted to those who cannot but be aware of what is happening in Russian prisons.

My colleagues and I in several human rights organisations have been working on torture in penal settings for more than twenty years. We know for a fact that in Russia there are a number of specialised torture zones where prisoners are bullied, tortured and even raped. All of this is deliberately concealed together with, and apparently in systematic collusion with, both the Federal Prison Service, the Prosecutor’s Office and the Investigative Committee. There is no possibility of a situation where the investigator and the prosecutor might be unaware of the existence of torture. 

At best, their complicity is demonstrated by their refusal to respond to prisoners’ complaints, to document their condition and to conduct real investigations. At worst, it is in their own concealment and even their direct organization of a torture system in order to obtain the necessary testimony in specific criminal cases. In fact, the President’s directive itself appears to support the concealment of torture, preventing the accidental leakage of information about it to the outside world. Whether or not Putin wanted this, that’s what it looks like. 

Despite all of this, my colleagues and I are continuing to investigate torture, just as rights defenders across the world are doing. There’s hardly any other way to stop them. So far, the only person who looks naïve is the President, who prefers to engage neither with rights defenders, nor even with the Human Rights Ombudsman. In a democratic state, the President would rely on them to help deal with an entrenched system of torture.

I have already spoken several times about our investigation of torture in Irkutsk oblast, concerning the so-called ‘Angarsk riots.’ The essence of this case is that following mass protests by prisoners in Angarsk Corrective Colony No. 15 (based on the events of 10-12th April 2020), criminal investigations were opened into riots and disruption of the colony’s work, and within the framework of these investigations, prisoners were tortured en masse and even raped. This story was carefully hidden, but thanks to the efforts of human rights defenders, it became known to the public. Our Foundation In Defence of Prisoners’ Rights ** managed to bring the case to the federal level, thanks to the release of the video Two Months to Freedom, in which former prisoner Yevgeny Yurchenko spoke about the torture to which he had been subjected and which he saw with his own eyes in Angarsk pre-trial detention centre No. 6. We secured a personal meeting for him with the Russian ombudsman T.N. Moskalkova, and she demanded that a criminal case be opened.

We have now established a full picture of how the investigation into the riots in Angarsk is being conducted: the investigator comes to the office to conduct the questioning, calls an operations officer and asks whether the witness is ready. The officer calls the so-called ‘developer’ (a prisoner sentenced to a long term, who should not be in pre-trial detention). For days, weeks and even months, the ‘developer’ dictates what needs to be said during the investigator’s interrogation, committing violent acts and exerting psychological pressure in order to ensure the necessary testimony is provided to the investigators. In fact, employees of the Federal Penitentiary Service, the Investigative Committee and the Prosecutor’s Office work to ensure the functioning of this system.

For more than a year now, we’ve been fighting to investigate this story. It’s a very difficult job. Not one, not two, but dozens of people were tortured and raped. The more victims there are, the more resources our organization needs. Moreover, when we try to hire local lawyers, we find many people don’t want to interact with ‘foreign agents.’ And on the other hand, the basic resources we receive are limited, and they are already in short supply.

This situation is paradoxical and humiliating, above all for our country: human rights defenders, who have the status of foreign agents and receive funds mostly from abroad, are investigating torture. This is a vicious circle. I have repeatedly stated that we are ready to refuse foreign funding if the state and society find ways to support our work. We are trying to develop a system of fundraising in Russia, but at the moment we only get about a quarter of the money we need. At the same time my staff get half the average salary in Moscow. We are supported by small donations, on average 500 roubles each. We don’t get any support from the big Russian entrepreneurs. Almost all funds are spent on work trips from Moscow to Angarsk for experts and lawyers, payment of lawyer’s fees and other expenses directly related to this work.

Now, after a year of investigation, we have managed to get 30 people recognized as victims of sexual violence. This is a huge, unprecedented number, considering the difficulty of investigating such cases in Russia. Some of these victims are both defendants and witnesses in the Angarsk prison 15 riot case. The two investigations collided – people confessed under torture and rape!

After Putin’s ‘feeble’ reaction, after the promotion of Sagalakov, head of the Irkutsk Prison Service, the investigation into the case was slowed down. Now there is colossal resistance. A provocation was committed against Evgeny Yurchenko, who had returned to Irkutsk, and he is now in a remand prison. There is a threat to other victims as well.

What can and should be done? Strengthen our legal work: more trips to Angarsk and more lawyers and attorneys representing the interests of torture and rape victims. Increase public pressure so that the investigation will be completed. The modest resources available to our organizations are fully stretched and will certainly not be enough to increase our current workload.

The security services, through their Telegram bot channels, call me a beggar and as their trump card claim they know all about my attempts to appeal to domestic business for support in the fight against torture. Though what is there to expose when I am acting completely openly?

Let every businessperson and every citizen think carefully about whether they need human rights defenders in Russia to continue their work. We have come to the point where support cannot be expressed only through restrained words of sympathy. There are more obvious and effective ways to help fight torture in Russia.

You can support the fight against torture in Russia here.

Thank you.

** The Foundation in Defence of Prisoners Rights is a nonprofit designated as a foreign agent.

Translated by Graham Jones, Elizabeth Rushton and Simon Cosgrove

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