13 April 2021
by Vera Vasilieva, an independent journalist, host of Radio Svoboda’s “Freedom and Memorial,” and laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group Prize for Human Rights
The dramatic story of Aleksei Navalny, who is serving his sentence at Vladimir Region’s No. 2 penal colony in Pokrov and who has been given the status of a “flight risk,” has brought one very important issue to light. Not long ago we learned through the politician’s lawyers that due to his status, Navalny cannot sleep normally. Even though everyone convicted by law is guaranteed uninterrupted sleep from 22:00 to 6:00, Navalny is checked in his barracks once an hour throughout the night to determine whether he is there. I for one consider this torture, as do Navalny’s defenders and many independent commentators. To my unprofessional (not a doctor’s) eye, if a person is awakened every hour throughout the night, then sleep disturbance is guaranteed for him with a high degree of probability.
However, I am convinced that this is a much wider, systemic, and chronic problem than just the persecution of the Russia’s chief oppositionist. This practice is in general use and affects by no means only Navalny, who is unjustly incarcerated in a torture chamber. One has only to look at the themed forums devoted to “places not so far distant,” where participants in the interchange share their personal experiences and interact with lawyers and human rights activists who help prisoners, to be convinced that specific oversight has indeed been put in place over those entered on the prophylactic list as “flight risks.” Frequently that oversight is not just strict but in fact cruel, and such prisoners are checked hourly around the clock. Sometimes this status is applied intentionally in order to put pressure on someone and compel him to submit unconditionally and blindly. To force him to forget that a convicted person has not only obligations imposed by the regime but also rights.
For example, when Aleksandr Markin’s lawyer visited him regarding a case I’ve already talked about, the penal colony in Mordova suddenly discovered that the convicted man was a “flight risk.” No proof of this “risk”—in the form of illegal attempts or anything of the kind—was on record. To speak of Navalny as a potential “fugitive” is, in my opinion, even more absurd. He flew voluntarily from Germany to Russia in full view of the entire world, aware that in his homeland he faced at minimum criminal prosecution and, with a high degree of likelihood, prison.
This kind of antihumane practice must be abolished with respect not only to the convicted Navalny but to everyone else as well. The legal provision that allows people to be tortured in this way must be reconsidered; it simply should not exist. It makes absolutely no difference whether the person is or isn’t guilty because neither the innocently convicted nor criminals should be treated this way. After all, the court’s decision did not sentence anyone to torture, and that includes sleep deprivation. In the Stalin era, this practice was widely used in interrogation (it is described, for example, in Yuri Dombrovsky’s Faculty of Useless Knowledge).
What is most remarkable, though, in my opinion, is the fact that, as Sergei Parkhomenko has pointed out, the Russian Penal Code (the main document regulating the prisoner’s completion of punishment) makes no mention of “flight risks,” to say nothing of depriving people of normal sleep or other harassments. There are “Instructions on the prevention of violations of the law among individuals being held in institutions of the penal system.” This is a regulatory act, which, unlike a law, is signed by the president, not passed by a vote in parliament. It is a departmental document of the MVD [Interior Ministry]. Here, too, though, there is nothing about torture by sleep deprivation, as is easy to verify.
This means that what we see happening now with Navalny and many other prisoners with less high-profile names than he has is systemic impunity. Employees of the penal service are accustomed to acting in this way. Incarceration is just that, incarceration, not psychic and physical pressure. And a prisoner is a human being, albeit temporary restricted in his rights by law, not some amorphous “prison population.”
Recently a photograph of a prison cell in Sweden flew around Facebook. The accompanying text drew attention to the fact that the windows aren’t barred. Bars are no longer considered necessary because the prisons are equipped with sensors and video cameras and are, naturally, guarded. Bars on windows are a vestige of the past that can cause depression in prisoners. In my opinion, compared with our conditions, this is virtually another planet, sad to say. One inmate I corresponded with for a long time is trying to write but has to do so in bad lighting, often on the floor, because his cellmates need the table, and, according to the rules, he can’t sit on his bed during the day. And evidently, rather than complaining we should be saying thank you to the administration for the fact that he’s allowed to write at all. As I understand it, in this kind of situation the question of the depressing effect of bars on windows doesn’t even come up.
Unquestionably, we need to save individual prisoners being targeted by this antihumane system. But it is no less important to get rid of repressive provisions in legislation altogether, to change law enforcement practice and the prison system’s very ideology, its philosophy. Then this will help not only Navalny but many thousands.
Translated by Marian Schwartz