Vladimir Osechkin: Fighting for free expression in Russia’s prisons

Vladimir Osechkin, 30, has become one of Russia‘s most successful freedom of expression advocates.

The former businessman fell foul of Moscow’s regional authorities in 2007, Osechkin claims he was asked to pay numerous bribes after he began building one of the biggest automobile sales centres in the area. He reported these extortion attempts to the prosecutors office. Controversially Osechkin was then charged with fraud, a claim he believes was trumped up to punish him for refusing to pay bribes. He was detained for almost four years in Mozhaysk pre-trial prison. It is worth noting that since Osechkin’s 2007 arrest, many of his accusers have faced criminal suits and corruption accusations.

When Osechkin was released on parole in June 2011 he had two goals: exoneration and to fight for prisoners’ rights, namely their freedom of expression.

He began by creating Gulagu.net (“no to GULAG”), where prisoners’ relatives, attorneys and penal system workers could register and post details of violence in prisons and suggest ways to confront abuse. The information provided can then be investigated by Russian prosecutors.

It is common that prisoners’ voices cannot be heard outside prison, Osechkin explains. Prison authorities often tear up prisoners’ written complaints in front of them and resort to beating those who dare complain. In August 2011 inmates in Mozhaysk were beaten and refused appropriate medical care. Records of their complaints of cruel treatment were allegedly destroyed by prison authorities so that no investigation would be launched.

This led to Osechkin’s first major campaign. Alongside inmates’ relatives, a whistleblowing prison staffer called Alexey Ivanov, turned to Osechkin for legal assistance and help publicising their plight. Osechkin published their evidence on gulagu.net and convinced other prison staff and former inmates to come forward. He sheltered Ivanov, who was threatened by his bosses after he gave evidence to prosecturos, and sent the statements detailing other allegations of abuse he had received to the Moscow region’s Prosecutor’s Office and Investigative Committee.

The result was outstanding. An investigation was launched, prison head Vyacheslav Melnik was removed from his position, the beating and physical abuse of prisoners ended and inmates were given a chance to complain to prosecutors, who began prison inspections.

Osechkin says that, while Russian non-governmental supervisory committees also conduct prison checks and are required to report on and investigate prisoners’ rights abuses, they frequently turn into circus shows. Supervisors are told how perfect the prison is and inmates are often threatened physical violence for expressing their concerns. Once supervisors accepted two iPhones from one of Russian big prison’s deputies, Osechkin recalls. Having been caught on the prison’s video cameras, the supervisors would likely face a bribery accusation if they were to report inmates’ rights abuses.

The Mozhaysk Investigative Committee is due to make a decision about filing a criminal case against the prison head and his deputies. If it files the case, Osechkin’s struggle for prisoners’ freedom of expression may well trigger real change in the Russian penal system.

If not, there is one thing he has achieved permanently: he has created an online space where all Russian prisoners’ complaints about brutal treatment can be documented without fear of censorship.