“This is the legacy of the Gulag”

Human rights advocate and Presidential council for Human Rights expert Vladimir Osechkin has reported freedom of expression violations in penal colony №7 in Tver. Inmates and their relatives appealed to Oscechkin saying they had been seriously injured by the staff, he told Index on Censorship.

According to Osechkin, Pavel Kaitsukov was released on 23 January after four years in the colony for use and storage of drugs, and immediately went to hospital where he was diagnosed hard brain concussion. This, he said, was the consequence of the colony’s staff’s response to his attempt to complain about harsh treatment, including numerous insults and “groundlessly” locking him up in penal isolations wards.

He adds that on 19 January the staff commanded inmates should leave the cells and run through corridors with about 20 staff members who beat the inmates to Rammstein’s song “Murder”. Kaitsukov told Osechkin he asked for the colony’s head and a local prosecutor, but was beaten harder instead, lost his front teeth and was concussed.

After Kaitsukov’s term ended on 23 January he came to Moscow and filed a number of complaints to the General Prosecutor’s office from himself and other inmates — their written complaints had not been sent out from the colony, but had been allegedly torn or burnt, he says, noting that inmates were beaten for complaining.

Pavel Kaitsukov’s allegations were later confirmed by two other inmates, Ibragim Sardalov and Ruslan Artskhanov. They are still serving their terms –— for larceny and robbery with violence respectively — and appealed to Osechkin through their relatives. The pair have claimed they were repeatedly beaten for their Chechen nationality. Sardalov is to be operated on because slivers got into his injured leg after one of the beatings and caused infection. Artskhanov has got cancer. Both of them have filed complaints to prosecutors.

The response from Tver colony superiors is yet to be heard by the public. Vladimir Osechkin says the three victims have reported psychological pressure after speaking out, including the released Kaitsukov, who said he had been receiving phone calls from his former cellmates who “asked him to take back complaints and stop the scandal about the colony from flaming up”. Osechkin says those inmates were forced to call him because they had been under pressure themselves.

“Inmates are deprived of their right to express concerns about administration’s illegal actions, by threats of physical violence and of being sent away to North Russian colonies where their relatives can’t visit them”, Osechkin explains.

“This is legacy of the Gulag: inmates are supposed to work in colonies. But in Tver’s colony they are forced to work for miserable fees (up to 30 roubles — 0.6355 GBP — a month), like slaves. They are put in penal isolations wards if they refuse, and if they dare to file complaints to prosecutors, they are beaten and their complaints are torn”, he continues.

The investigation into Tver colony №7 human rights abuse is yet to be launched, although Tver prosecutors and a local non-governmental supervisory committee has already started interviewing inmates. Russia’s Public Chamber and Presidential Council for Human Rights members have expressed concerns about the reported incidents and promised to see to the situation.

Moscow prison whistleblower under pressure

Senior lieutenant Alexey Kozlov, responsible for educational work at Butyrka pre-trial prison in Moscow, has virtually lost his job after having publically criticised the penitentiary system. He has appealed to rights activists and journalists whistleblowing on prisoners’ rights abuse.

Butyrka pre-trial prison (the accused are kept there at the time of criminal proceedings) became notorious when Hermitage Capital lawyer Sergey Magnitsky died after spending almost half a year there in conditions rights activists later called torturous. Kozlov came to Butyrka soon after Magnitsky died and eyewitnessed violations which, in his perspective, could lead to similar tragedies. Alexey Kozlov told Index about his concerns and consequences of his whistleblowing.

–        ­Why have you decided to work in the Russian penitentiary system and particularly Butyrka prison?

–        I wanted to become a general one day; I found it romantic. I’ve been in the system for eight years: I worked in Moscow pre-trial prison Medvedkovo and in the convoy department. In February 2010 I came to work in Butyrka. I’ve been doing my job in line with the law and did everything to enhance its prestige.

–        What made you criticise the system you worked in?

–        I’ve been a witness of double standards towards prisoners. Some get everything, some are unfairly oppressed. Here’s how it works. Prison staff are supposed to convoy inmates to working places – prison premises repairs, for example. Normally they don’t do this because the prison is simply out of staff. Prisoners are unofficially told to go to their working places on their own, having to unlock the doors with handmade passkeys. If they follow the rules and don’t go alone, they may get punishment for not arriving to their working place. If they do go, they may get punishments for going alone. A prisoner is put in a position when he can have penalties imposed on him either way. This triggers corruption.

I’ve also never seen a prisoner who spent a day in court be brought to shower, although this is staff duty.

And I am  concerned about medical care in prisons. One of the inmates, HIV-positive, told me he hasn’t received proper medical care for three months. He ended up having high fever and pneumonia. Only then was he delivered to hospital. I’ve also seen that when a prisoner gets sick and acute care arrives, they in the prison for an unjustified long time before taking the prisoner out to the hospital.

All these violations have been evident to the prison’s superiors, but no one seems to do anything about them.

–        What are the consequences of your allegations?

–        Before talking to rights activist Vladimir Osechkin I talked to my bosses about violations I saw and heard of from prisoners. First they told me to mind my own business. Then they subjected me to full examination — that is undressed me — in front of the prisoners. After I made the violations public, they called on extraordinary meeting to criticise me. The Moscow Department of the Russian Correction Service, together with Moscow Prosecutor’s Office said they investigated the facts I made public and didn’t find any confirmations. As far as I know they were uninterested and haven’t checked properly. According to my sources the head of the prison has signed papers to fire me. Actually I have already lost my job as my superiors told me I was no longer in charge of educational work and had to guard the entrance to Butyrka.

–        Weren’t you going to quit yourself or do you still think the system can be improved from within?

–        My bosses in Butyrka told me I shouldn’t have brought facts “to the outside”. But long before that I was taught to tell the truth, which I did. I am ready to repeat them in court if needed. it is not impossible to improve the system from within, one should just stay honest. And if they fire me, I’ll most probably become a human rights activist fighting not just for prisoners, but for honest prison workers. They do exist and they support me.

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.