20 November 2020
By Zoya Svetova, journalist, human rights activist, winner of the Moscow Helsinki Group Human Rights Award, former member of the Moscow Public Monitoring Commission
It so happened that on Monday, November 16, we remembered Sergei Magnitsky, who died in the Moscow detention centre Matrosskaya Tishina eleven years ago; and on Thursday, November 19, the same week, a verdict was passed in the so-called Yaroslavl case – about torture in Penal Colony No. 1 of the city of Yaroslavl. The sentence was outrageous in its leniency: prosecutors requested four to seven years in prison for the thirteen people accused in this unprecedented case. Two of the accused, the former head of the prison and his deputy, were acquitted because of “the absence of criminal actions”, and the rest got off with relatively short sentences, from three to four and a half years in prison. Six of the jailers were released after the verdict, “on time served”. As a result: out of thirteen people accused of torturing prisoners, with concrete evidence, only five will serve time.
For the first time in the history of modern Russia, a video was published, which clearly shows these whip-wielders cruelly, cynically and absolutely without any doubt torturing prisoner Yevgeny Makarov. Makarov, convicted of robbery, was tortured by the colony because he cursed one of them. He dared to swear: during a search of his barracks, one of them had thrown a letter from his mother on the floor.
A criminal case against the employees of the Yaroslavl prison was instituted literally a few days after this terrible video was featured in Novaya gazeta, in connection with “abuse of office”. There is no punishment for torture in the Russian Criminal Code, and so this article is used every time the torture and humiliation of prisoners is proven to have occurred. Gradually, one by one, the employees of Penal Colony No. 1 who participated in the torture were arrested, and the head of the jail and his deputy were put under house arrest.
In the initial testimony, several of the accused spoke about a form of discipline used in the Yaroslavl prison: beatings of prisoners were filmed on a video recorder to create a record, and after the torture a flash drive with a video was provided to the prison management, and the management passed it to the Yaroslavl department of the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service (probably also as a record of the “educational work” done). That’s how the evidence of torture ended up in the hands of human rights activists; obviously one of the prisoners who had access to the video documentation handed it to the lawyer Irina Biryukova, who made the outrageous event public. It’s true that, after a while, the arrested officers refused to testify against the bosses. As a result, the court did not take the initial testimony into account, which fundamentally contradicts the usual judicial practice: as a rule, the courts always take into account the very first testimony given during the investigation, rejecting subsequent ones. It was precisely the refusal of the initial testimony denouncing the prison bosses that allowed the court to outright acquit the head of the prison and his deputy. That is, now they can be reinstated in their roles, and if the acquittal is upheld at appeal, these “ideologists of the torture system” can count on compensation for criminal prosecution.
The acquittal was unexpected for the majority of people who followed the unprecedented trial in Yaroslavl, which has lasted for about six months. How could this happen? After all, even the Federal Penitentiary Service itself condemned the prison officers who perpetrated the stream of “educational torture” in their institution? The story of the torture of the prisoner Makarov turned out to be just one episode, as human rights activists from Public Verdict (lawyer Irina Biryukova of this NGO was the main “engine” of this whole story) presented other evidence of torture in this prison. Why was the sentence so lenient? I wanted to say to those who have been asking: “Acquittal of torturers is long established.” It was established eleven years ago, when after the death of Sergei Magnitsky, auditor at the Firestone Duncan company, at Matrosskaya Tishina, not one prison employee was brought to justice.
After the death of Magnitsky, there were several more stories of the death of prisoners in detention centres. One of the most terrible is the story of entrepreneur Valery Pshenichny, who was found hanged in a cell at a St. Petersburg detention centre in February 2018. The forensic medical examination showed that the 54-year-old businessman was raped before his death. Needless to say, his death was not recognized as violent, it was “written off” as suicide. Numerous cases of beatings of prisoners in the torture jails of Russia, which human rights activists have long since identified around the country, generally go unpublished, and convictions of Federal Penitentiary officers are rare. It is almost impossible to prove the involvement of the jailers in torture even in the event of convicts’ deaths.
This summer, Chechen Malho Bisultanov was released. He told me in detail in an interview how he was tortured in Omsk Penal Colony No. 7. When I asked why they were doing this, Malho explained ‘When they tortured me (in February 2015 in Penal Colony No. 7 in the city of Omsk), they brought a paper folded four times, folded the edge, the corner of the page, and said: “Sign here.” I said, “I will not sign, maybe this is an acknowledgement that I owe you a million.” “You must obey, and that’s it!” they said. When they were torturing me, I asked them “Why are you doing this, aren’t you human after all? You illegally abuse and beat people like fascists did.” They said “If you shit your pants, we’ll stop. If you give us a blow job, we’ll leave you alone.” ’ Malho, of course, is not the only one who went through torture in the Omsk pre-trial detention centre. Many accounts have been published, but these are just written evidence, the courts do not believe them.
After Sergei Magnitsky’s death, the whole world learned what a Russian prison was. The adoption of the “Magnitsky law” in the USA and some other countries, as well as international sanctions imposed against the people on the “Magnitsky list” (which, by the way, included some Russian prison officials), have angered the Kremlin. However, since no one in Russia was punished for Magnitsky’s death, and the only defendant in the criminal investigation opened into the lawyer’s death – a prison doctor – was acquitted, the deaths of prisoners go and will continue to go unpunished.
The authorities are sending a clear signal with an acquittal in the Yaroslavl case: the prison staff are people “socially close” to us. They are “ours”, and we will not hand them over. Anyone can become their victim: a businessman from whom money is extorted, or a simple pauper who gets in trouble with a law enforcement agent keen to demonstrate his power. A year ago, the Moscow Region Court convicted the teenagers serving sentences in the Mozhaisk colony, who had organised a riot in response to the bullying and beatings by the colony staff. All of them were sentenced to different terms as the perpetrators of “mass disorders”, and no prison officer at the Mozhaisk penal colony was held accountable, despite the evidence available to the investigators and the court.
In the Yaroslavl case, the court acquitted the prison officials who effectively ordered the torture of prisoners. In the Magnitsky case, surgeon Aleksandra Gaus, who did not treat him, was only a witness, not even a suspect, despite the obvious connection between his death and the denial of medical assistance in the pre-trial detention centre. Although the chief of the Butyrka pre-trial detention centre, where Magnitsky spent the last months before his death, was dismissed, he was soon reassigned to another prison. Sergei’s mother Natalya Magnitskaya calls the investigators and judges who decided the fate of her son “robots” and she blames the surgeon Aleksandra Gaus for his death because she effectively denied Magnitsky medical assistance when he was brought to her prison hospital by ambulance. Instead, Gaus called for paramedics and a psychiatric ambulance. It was from the pre-trial detention centre staff’s “educational work” with rubber truncheons that Sergei Magnitsky died.
Eleven years ago, this story shocked both Russian and international public opinion. Just as the story of torture in the Yaroslavl colony shocked it in 2018. Sergei Magnitsky became almost a household name. In any case, he became a symbol of resistance against prison and judicial lawlessness. Today, almost no Russian media remembered this date. There are too many new blatant and cynical cases. Very quickly, we forget the victims of previous torture in courts and prisons. There is no time to look back. Meanwhile, the authorities continue using the judicial and prison systems as instruments of oppression. All that remains is to hope for publicity and hope that, although the forces are unequal, civil society will not back down.