When torture becomes “everyday work”: Olga Romanova on what’s going on in the prison colonies of Vladimir region and across Russia

25 March 2021

Current Time interviews Olga Romanova, director of the human rights organisation Russia Behind Bars and recipient of the Moscow-Helsinki Group prize

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Current Time]

The state of politician Aleksei Navalny’s health, who is currently in Vladimir Oblast penal colony (PC) No. 2, has declined. This was reported on 24 March by Navalny’s campaign manager, Leonid Volkov, on his Telegram channel. 

“Since the end of last week he has been experiencing extreme back pain; he has told us that one of his legs is failing, he cannot put weight on it and for this he has only received two Ibuprofen tablets this whole time. In light of all the circumstances known to us, this sharp deterioration in his condition can only cause us acute concern,” the politician’s associate wrote. 

Navalny’s lawyers, Olga Mikhailova and Vadim Kobzev, have been unable to meet with their client, as it was impossible to make a visit to the colony before 3pm, but they were told after this point that there were no free meeting rooms available.

150km away from PC-2, where Navalny is being held, lies PC-6. In 2018, prisoner Gor Hovakimyan was beaten there and died shortly after. The official cause of death was the negligence of a doctor, who had let the prisoner succumb to pneumonia. The accused colony paramedic, 35-year-old Ivan Semotyuk, denies his guilt. Hovakimyan’s relatives also do not believe that he is guilty and are convinced that the prisoner died as the result of torture, and not of pneumonia, according to Mediazona.

Such stories are typical for prisoners in Russia, Olga Romanova, director of the human rights organisation Russia Behind Bars and recipient of the Moscow-Helsinki Group prize, told Current Time:

In the last few days, there have been three news stories which few have paid attention to, Romanova says: There have been reports of repeated torture and beatings of prisoners at PC-6 in Kamchatka. The Investigative Committee is examining the case, although in general, everything there is already clear. There have been renewed beatings in Chita and Irkutsk. And the deputy head of PC-18 in Novosibirsk was also detained after he concealed a prisoner’s death from beatings and torture. So these are very fresh events.

Russia Behind Bars has been working with the For Human Rights movement led by Lev Ponomarev (member of the Moscow-Helsinki Group) on the case of torture in the colony at Segezha in Karelia for 7 years now. Back then, political activist Ivan Dadin, after whom the criminal article under which other political activists have since been jailed was named, had reported torture in the colony. One prisoner is still being held; his sentence has been extended because of supposedly false denunciations, and they refuse to accept our documents demonstrating that his ribs and legs were broken. And there seems to be no end in sight, every day we hear about more and more new reports of torture.

Our apprentice Oksana Yermakova was recently released. She had been held in pre-trial detention in Rostov, and she has told us a lot about medical care in women’s detention centres. A woman had to give birth in front of her whole cell. 

Unfortunately, torture and beatings are everyday work for us and, unfortunately, in many cases this is spelled out in instructions or laws.

So is it allowed to beat and torture prisoners?

Yes – you know, the procedure is this: if a prisoner refuses to comply with the lawful demands of prison guards, physical action will be taken. And if, for example, a guard feels threatened by a prisoner, then they may also take physical action.

On the videocams that Federal Penitentiary Service workers have to wear, we often see that they bring a person to a penal isolation cell, the inmate has to change his clothes, 10 people are standing around him with videocameras, and they say to him, “Take off your underpants, bend over, separate your buttocks and show us your anus.”  Excuse me, but none of us is going to do that, and the prisoner also does not do it, let alone with ten cameras.  Of course, then the beatings start–it’s in their instructions—instead of bringing in a doctor and putting up a screen. 

Olga, perhaps you know what’s happening now to Aleksei Navalny?

You know, from the very beginning, human rights defenders said that Aleksei Navalny’s health was in great danger in the prison camp, because healthy people in general do not get healthier in that system.  That a Federal Penitentiary Service doctor visited him on Friday, March 19—that’s of course, nonsense.  Usually a doctor, of course, never comes when called. It speaks to the special attention being given to Navalny’s case; in general, you couldn’t get two Ibuprofen tablets out of a doctor.

I remind you that in the very same place, Navalny just missed him there by six weeks, the Moscow activist Konstantin Kotov was infected with scabies.  In the first place, being infected with such a disease, for those of us who are at liberty, is a relatively strange thing, but there it is normal.   And that no one there proposed any treatment for Kotov, in general, also says a lot. 

Today they refused to allow Navalny to meet with his lawyers ostensibly because there weren’t any meeting rooms.  What does that say?

You have to understand, in the first place, that it not possible that there could not be any rooms, because these are very short meetings.  There could be no rooms for longer meetings.  But for short meetings—it is simply a large piece of glass with telephone receivers.  On one side sit the lawyers, on the other side the prisoners, and they can be there in any numbers. Of course, lawyer-client confidentiality is violated and so on, but you know, beggars can’t be choosers.

And the fact that they didn’t bring Navalny out today, after we received on Friday and Monday upsetting messages about the state of his health, means it won’t be superfluous if now all of us—journalists, human rights defenders, lawyers, activists, regular people—speak out and write about this, and demand that the laws be observed, including for Navalny. 

Still, in your opinion, are they hiding the state of Navalny’s health, or is it just a routine matter—”Let’s just not give Navalny access to his lawyers.” 

On the one hand, it’s routine.  Indeed, getting permission to enter Russian places of incarceration is especially difficult now, which is being attributed to the pandemic.   But I don’t think it will be any easier after the pandemic.  Normally, if something is stopped here, it is stopped forever.  If it is forbidden, it is forbidden forever. But the fact that it comes simultaneously with the information at the end of last week about Navalny’s health is, of course, a clear cause for worry. 

Translated by Elizabeth Rushton and John Tokolish

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