Vera Vasilieva: On systemic torture and the situation in Russia’s penal colonies

19 October 2021

By Vera Vasilieva, freelance journalist, presenter of the Radio Svoboda project “Freedom and Memorial”, and recipient of Moscow Helsinki Group prize

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Радио Свобода]

Torture of prisoners has become a topic of discussion in Russia again after the civil rights project published a video on mass sexual violence in Tuberculosis Hospital No. 1 (OTB-1) run by the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) in Saratov region. It is a huge video archive, which is impossible to watch, but which it would also be wrong not to watch or not to publish. This sadism, unfortunately, is not an exception to the rule, but is a systemic phenomenon, and has long been replicated on an industrial scale.

According to founder Vladimir Osechkin, rights defenders have a wealth of video material from the FSIN captured by cameras in isolation wards in Saratov, Irkutsk and Vladimir regions. We know about the torture of prisoners in Priangarye, in Irkutsk pre-trial detention centre (SIZO) No. 1, in Angarsk prison colony No. 15, where almost 1,000 people have been victims of abuse, and in remand centre No. 1 in Grozny. In 2018, reports of torture at penal colony No. 1 in Yaroslavl provoked outcry. In 2016, civic activist Ildar Dadin, who had been convicted of multiple violations of the law on holding rallies and was serving his sentence in penal colony No. 7 in Karelia, accused officers at the penitentiary and specifically its director, Sergei Kossiev, of torture. All of these painful cases are well known to prisoners and to human rights defenders, but this sadistic practice continues regardless. 

What is the reason for the torture? I suspect that there are many reasons. One of them is the weak reaction of and insufficient attention being paid to the situation by state bodies. And although the Investigative Committee has now opened several criminal cases regarding the acts of torture at OTB-1 and elsewhere, and several deputies in the State Duma have spoken of the need for a parliamentary investigation, the miserable evidence shows that in general, guilty FSIN officers receive suspended sentences for participating in torture, which takes place on their orders at the hands of convicted “activists”. For example, we know that Kossiev, the very same former director of Karelia’s penal colony No. 7, was released just six months into his two-and-a-half-year sentence. A sign that the system will always protect its own?

What’s more (as any lawyer who has been harassed and humiliated will point out), any witnesses and victims who might complain stay silent. This isn’t surprising. I mean, they remain entirely at the mercy of the officers who inflicted the torture. Whereas a lawyer, after documenting the wrongful acts committed against their client, will then up and leave, the inmate who risked complaining is left alone face to face with a system based on torture. And there are no guarantees that they will be safe. One such former prisoner, who when behind bars suffered not torture but wholesale violations of his human rights, told me that even on his release he lived in fear of his former jailers and as a result moved to a different town. This is what makes it so hard to get witnesses to testify to the brutality of FSIN personnel, while the latter enjoy impunity.

The public oversight commissions (POC), which monitor human rights compliance in detention facilities, might be able to make actual progress here. However, the current process by which POCs are formed is such that they have been flooded by members of civil society organisations who are themselves staffed by former law enforcement officers, including from FSIN. There is a sense that these “community workers” visit their former duty stations not to combat excesses (far from it), but to create the illusion of oversight. But then, those who attempt to take action and do something good in the prison system get pushed out of the POCs on spurious grounds, in my view.

But I think that the root cause of torture actually lies inside people’s heads and in their attitudes towards prisoners, which have developed in the Russian collective consciousness over a period of decades. While in the Western world, there is recognition of the need to observe human rights in all circumstances, in Russia, instead there is increasingly talk of a kind of a quasi-mystical ideological or spiritual unifying basis for Russian society that does not prioritise the individual [1]. A person who has ended up behind bars ceases to be perceived by those around them (by jailers, first and foremost) as a person, even before they have been convicted by a court. So, you can do anything you like to them. This is what gives rise to the perception among FSIN officers that torturing prisoners is condoned. It’s like they aren’t human at all now, according to them – they’re all heinous criminals! And no one, it seems, gives any more thought to what separates these heinous criminals from the people who are torturing them. Nothing separates them, if you ask me. The eradication of torture from detention facilities in Russia will require not only organisational and legal changes, but also a fundamental shift in people’s mindset.

[1] The Russian word used here is “скрепы” [‘staples’] which refers to a kind of quasi-spiritual connection uniting members of a society and its ruler(s) and evokes a range of traditions, including the concept of serfdom, that puts the community above the individual. It was popularised by Putin in a 2012 speech – see [trans.]

Translated by Elizabeth Rushton and Lindsay Munford

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