22 October 2020
By Natalia Taubina, director of the Public Verdict Foundation, laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group Prize
The closing arguments have been heard in the trial for torture in Yaroslavl penal colony No.1. If you don’t know, here are some brief details about this case: at the end of June 2017, 18 staff at the colony beat up Evgeny Makarov as he lay atop a desk in a classroom.
We, at Public Verdict Foundation, found out about it the day it happened or the day after. Our lawyer, Irina Biriukova, immediately went to the colony. For several days she was not allowed to see Makarov. When she was allowed, she viewed the multiple injuries on his hands, legs and body, recorded everything with a lawyer’s scrutiny, and filed a report about the crime.
After this report, a check was carried out but no criminal investigation was launched. For a long time we couldn’t get a copy of the ruling refusing to open an investigation, which we needed to appeal against it. In early summer 2018, Irina received a video of the beating. On 20 July 2018, this clip, together with a description and a list of the 18 employees who were present in the room, was published in Novaya gazeta
And this day was a turning point – this information was republished by almost all Russian and many foreign media. A criminal case was rapidly instigated. In the next few days many of those who were present in the classroom on 29 June 2017 were detained and remanded in custody.
The trial began in January 2020. There were 14 prison officers in the dock, including the chief and his deputy. The trial of one of the 14 was suspended due to serious illness. Another former employee Efremov reached a plea bargain agreement and cooperated with the investigation, and in January 2020 was sentenced to four years in prison.
Throughout the trial, most of the defendants pleaded not guilty. They justified their actions by Makarov’s provocative behaviour, his constant violations of discipline and also by the existing authorisation for use of force.
During the three days of the hearings we heard a lot (you can read in more detail on the Yaroslavl News on Telegram – starting with this clip which includes firstly the speech of the state prosecutor and the brief of the victim, and then the defendants).
The defendants’ lawyers were most indignant at the number of blows that their clients inflicted on Makarov in a short period of time. One of the lawyers, Yablokov’s lawyer Gushchina said: “The number of blows imputed to my client is absurd, as he is not a professional boxer and is not included in the Guinness Book of Records for the number of blows per second.”
Some of the lawyers, commenting on the video, even justified the violence as a punishment. The defendant Mikitiuk’s lawyer said, “Yes, it is unpleasant. I feel nothing but disgust. As long as there is human society, there will be violence as a means of punishment.”
The defendants justified their actions by overwork, insufficient time for sleep and rest and, as a mitigating circumstance for their actions, asked that the immoral behaviour of the victim, Makarov, be taken into account. We heard an excerpt of Krylov’s fable about the Swan, the Pike, and the Crab and a comparison of Makarov’s torture with an episode from the film ” Operation Y and other adventures of Shurik. ” And much more.
But what struck me most of all during these three days was the speech of the former head of the penal colony, Nikolaev. He doesn’t admit his guilt, he believes that his subordinates acted spontaneously, reacting to the provocative behaviour of Makarov. He himself was not at the colony at the time, and had only taken up the post shortly before, all of 27 working days before the events. He had not aspired to this position and no one had offered it to him, with his deputy he had an exclusively professional relationship, there was nothing friendly or personal about it, and this means that he could not have taken part in the planning of the crime. He cited the law on the grounds for conducting a full search of a prisoner, and stated that in their actions, there was nothing that incriminates the defendants and nothing illegal (at this point, we’re talking about a situation where the prisoner was lying immobilized on a desk, and more than a dozen employees of the colony systematically, and business-like, beat him with truncheons for ten minutes, poured water on him, and thrust a towel in his face).
He reminded the court, that he didn’t give any order for the use of physical force or special equipment: “Read the law on the use of physical force and special equipment. An order to use physical force is legal. Go, use it, if the order is legal. Illegal orders aren’t obeyed. A boss’s order to his subordinates must be obeyed. Go on, listen if it is obviously legal!”
What’s surprising is that, if according to the logic of the prosecution, the leadership gave the order to beat Makarov on the heels, as Efremov claims in his testimony, why then did the officers beat him in the face? Remember, that during his short term as head of the prison he received seven complaints appeals from Biriukova as a lawyer and one complaint from Makarov’s mother about the treatment of her son, and even initiated one official check based on these complaints.
But never does Nikolaev, either with words or hints, recognise his own professional unsuitability. Indeed, under his command, in a closed institution, where there is a very strict and hierarchical management and any individual action is nipped in the bud, a dozen and a half healthy young men, with authority and special equipment, beat a prisoner for ten minutes. In his speech, Nikolaev, arguing that he did not give an order to his subordinates on this day, gave as an example the factory director who doesn’t go up to the machinist to give them orders.
When I hear this, there’s only one association in my mind: a properly responsible director would consider everything that goes on at the factory premises as part of their responsibilities. In any case, that’s what my father taught me. I am completely in agreement with Nikolaev, from the point of view of management a penal colony is not much different from a factory. In other words, in a colony, it’s not just the organised concerts that are considered the responsibility of the director, but also unlawful violence. It makes no difference whether it is with tacit consent or on orders, whether the director was on the colony’s premises or outside them, whether they took up their position recently or long ago. If you take on the job – you take the responsibility.