Zoya Svetova: If the GULAG is not evacuated, there will soon be riots

1 April 2020

Zoya Svetova is a journalist, human rights defender, winner of a Moscow Helsinki Group award for human rights and former member of Moscow’s Public Monitoring Commission, promoting human rights in places of detention

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Ekho Moscow]

When you think about what you can take from history to compare with what we are all experiencing right now, the first association is war. President Macron also said this in his address to the people on March 16: “We are at war.” War has been declared on the whole world. But the enemy is almost invisible – this is a most malicious virus. And there will be as many victims from it as there are from military operations. During wars and cataclysms the most vulnerable, as well as children and the elderly, are prisoners. 

In some countries, authorities are beginning to release convicts who have not committed violent crimes, who are elderly and who suffer from serious illnesses. But in Russia and in peacetime, prisoners are the last thing on the minds of the authorities. So you shouldn’t hope for any kind of amnesty, or for any releases from prisons just because of the pandemic.

The other day, the wife of a very elderly prisoner called me in tears. This summer the prisoner will turn 80. In mid-March, his parole hearing was due to take place. The prison colony recommended him for release, and there was a hope that, after serving half his term, he would get out and be able to spend some of his remaining years with his wife and children. But the court introduced quarantine measures, and the meeting was cancelled indefinitely.

This 80 year-old convict is the oldest inmate in that prison colony. His peers are no longer there. Such elderly people are rarely held in jail, usually only for murders. But this man did not kill anyone. He is serving time for a non-violent crime. And, I repeat, the prison colony has recommended that he be released, believing he has reformed. Obviously, in a barracks with 20 people, he will easily catch the virus. And if not the virus, he is sufficiently old and in poor health that it will be very hard for him to withstand the new ordeal that he is facing now.

On the 18th of March, Russia’s Supreme Court suspended all criminal trials during the pandemic, making exceptions only for urgent cases, such as choosing a preventive measure with regard to crimes against minors, for which court hearings can be held via video link. In some regions, they already take place via Skype or Whatsapp. But is granting parole for such an elderly and sick person not an urgent case? And it’s not only him. According to official figures, there are just over 12,000 prisoners in Russia of retirement age. No one keeps records of the numbers of convicts over 70 years old, they are probably in single figures.

The Federal Penitentiary Service is able to calculate how many convicts there are who have not committed violent crimes, who legally could get parole and could be released. And this isn’t just about humanism or mercy or anything like that, which it’s customary to think about at the last minute in our nation, or only on the grounds of it being advantageous in some way.

It’s urgent that prisons and prison colonies be emptied, because the virus is already inside. It’s there, behind the bars, and it doesn’t care where it infects people: in communal cells, where there are 20-30 or more people, or in small cells, where you have three or four people living in close quarters. There are not enough tests on the outside. It goes without saying that they will be sent to prisons last, and it will be disastrous when it comes to light that a prison has been infected, a prison colony barracks has been infected. They won’t be able to hide it from the prisoners. There will be terrible riots. Will the system be able to handle such riots?

What’s happening now in Russian remand prisons? In Moscow, for example, transfers have been banned, as well as visitations with relatives and lawyers. No investigative measures are taking place with the accused. Even according to official data, Moscow prisons are overcrowded by 300 prisoners. Realistically, of course, this number is far higher.

It was decided that those arrested would only be sent to one remand prison in Moscow. Why? Apparently they decided to test them for coronavirus there. But will they, and how? Will they check temperatures? When will they start the testing? If they are only doing tests in ‘civilian life’ in extreme cases, when the patient is already showing symptoms of the disease, is there any hope that they will test all newly arrived prisoners in the conditions of ordinary prison quarantine?

Millions of people around the world are now “self-isolating.” But prison is isolation in a block. Especially if it’s now becoming extremely closed, and no one knows for sure how long: a month, two or three months, half a year?

I don’t even want to think about how relations between prisoners and prison officers will deteriorate. I don’t want to think about how many suicides, how many violations of human rights, how many crimes may take place in prisons during this time. 

One thing I know for certain: however much prison corruption increases, it will benefit the wealthier prisoners and hurt the poorer. Inmates and staff will  begin to go crazy. The chronically ill will die from lack of medical aid.

All of this will happen without the possibility of any kind of oversight by human rights defenders and lawyers.

What do far-sighted public authorities that are concerned about their reputation do in such a situation? They empty the pre-trial detention centres: lists of those accused of non-violent crimes, who can be transferred to house arrest, are compiled, because it is clear that in the context of tight police control related to the pandemic, these people are hardly going to hide anywhere.

Far-sighted authorities release elderly and severely ill prisoners to reduce the prison population.

Several days ago, the Moscow Helsinki Group published a petition: “We call for the widest possible amnesty because of coronavirus”. This petition collected fewer than 6,000 signatures on the Change.org site.

Who are the authorities listening to? Only “people of their own kind”. And there aren’t any “people of their own kind” among prisoners. But I’ll say again, this is not just about mercifulness and humanity. It’s about staying ahead of the worst consequences of the pandemic in a closed system.

There is no prospect of the authorities taking note of it.

President Vladimir Putin, it seems, said exactly this in his address to the nation: 

“… working professionally, in an organised and proactive manner. And the main priority here is the life and health of our citizens.”

I don’t think that the accused and convicted are a priority for the president. The convicted don’t vote, which means they’re not relevant. Only those in pre-trial detention centres.

But if we consider that in Russia there are around 600,000 people held on remand and each one has a family, the size of the potential electorate grows many times over. And it’s also worth thinking about that.

Besides which, along with those held in prisons and prison colonies the entire army of staff within the prison system are in a position of risk.

And these are people nevertheless who are “socially close” to the president.

In recent news the Russian Parliament is preparing to go into quarantine until at least 11 May.

Clearly, we can forget about any amnesty before Victory Day.

Along with the parliamentary deputies, the courts are going into quarantine. Suddenly also the civil servants? Ministers?

The only people left working in Russia are the doctors, police, prison staff, the FSB, shop workers, pharmacists and those working over the internet.

And, hopefully, food couriers.

And, perhaps, journalists…

Translated by Alice Lee, Nina dePalma and Mercedes Malcomson

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