Tor­ture videos, death of busi­ness­man in Rus­sia rouse prison re­formists

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY MARC BENNETTS

MOSCOW | Rus­lan Vakharov was locked in a cell at a pe­nal colony in cen­tral Rus­sia’s Yaroslavl re­gion when about a dozen prison guards led an in­mate into the neigh­bor­ing cell and sud­denly be­gan tor­tur­ing him.

“I heard him scream­ing and saw how the prison guards were tak­ing breaks in be­tween tak­ing turns to beat him. They tor­tured him for at least 40 min­utes,” Mr. Vakharov, who was re­leased from the pe­nal colony in March, told The Wash­ing­ton Times in an in­ter­view.

The tor­ture ses­sion oc­curred in June 2017, but its bru­tal de­tails did not be­come known to the out­side world un­til this July when No­vaya Gazeta, a Rus­sian op­po­si­tion news­pa­per, ob­tained and aired a 10-minute video.

The video im­ages, cap­tured on a prison guard’s body-mounted cam­era, were given to the news­pa­per by Irina Biryukova, an at­tor­ney for Public Ver­dict Foun­da­tion, an in­de­pen­dent Rus­sian hu­man rights or­ga­ni­za­tion. Ms. Biryukova re­fused to re­veal how she ob­tained the har­row­ing footage.

From the days of the czars and the Soviet gu­lags, Rus­sia’s prison sys­tem has never held a strong in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion, but the emer­gence of the video has gal­va­nized crit­ics in­side Rus­sia and be­yond who say re­forms are ur­gently needed.

Rus­sia has some of the high­est in­car­cer­a­tion rates per capita in the world. Among the Group of 20 lead­ing rich and de­vel­op­ing na­tions, only the United States im­pris­ons more peo­ple an­nu­ally.

Ac­cord­ing to the World Prison Brief, about 2.1 mil­lion Amer­i­cans — 665 for every 100,000 peo­ple — are be­hind bars. In Rus­sia, some 600,000 peo­ple are held in nearly 1,000 pris­ons and de­ten­tion fa­cil­i­ties, a rate of 405 in­mates for every 100,000 Rus­sians.

Re­ports of tor­ture are fre­quent, but video ev­i­dence of vi­o­lence at pe­nal colonies has been ex­ceed­ingly rare — un­til now.

In the video, a man iden­ti­fied as Yevgeny Makarov is pinned to a ta­ble by prison guards at Cor­rec­tive Colony No. 1 while oth­ers strike him re­peat­edly with ba­tons on his legs and the soles of his feet. Makarov, bound in hand­cuffs, screams with pain and begs for mercy. From con­ser­va­tions au­di­ble in the video, it ap­pears that the in­mate was tor­tured as pu­n­ish­ment for swear­ing at a prison guard.

A sec­ond video from the prison, show­ing in­mates run­ning a gaunt­let of guards who beat and kick them, sur­faced in Au­gust, fu­el­ing de­mands for re­forms.

Makarov, who is still be­hind bars but has been trans­ferred to a dif­fer­ent de­ten­tion site, said the guards also wa­ter­boarded him.

The video trig­gered the ar­rests of six of the guards in­volved in the in­ci­dent, and 17 of­fi­cials have been dis­missed from their posts.

In Au­gust, the U.N. Com­mit­tee Against Tor­ture or­dered Rus­sia to re­port back next year on the prose­cu­tions of those re­spon­si­ble for the bru­tal­ity. The U.N. panel also said Rus­sia should pro­tect Makarov and Ms. Biryukova from reprisals. Ms. Biryukova fled Rus­sia this sum­mer af­ter re­ceiv­ing death threats.

U.N. in­ves­ti­ga­tors also de­manded to know how the Krem­lin was han­dling the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the death of Va­leri Pshenichny, a 56-year-old busi­ness­man who was found hang­ing in his cell in St. Peters­burg in Fe­bru­ary. Med­i­cal ex­am­in­ers ruled out sui­cide.

“Elec­tric shock burns from a hot-wa­ter boiler cord were found in his mouth. Cuts and stab wounds on his body. A bro­ken spine,” re­ported No­vaya Gazeta, the op­po­si­tion news­pa­per. “In short, he was tor­tured.” He was also raped be­fore his death, med­i­cal re­ports said.

Pshenichny was ar­rested in Jan­uary at the apart­ment he shared with his wife, Natalia. Po­lice were said to have told him that he would have no fur­ther use for his busi­ness suits.

“An in­ves­ti­ga­tor told him [all] he would need was a 2-me­ter-long grave,” Ms. Pshenichny said.

Ms. Buryakova said the sit­u­a­tion “has def­i­nitely be­come worse” in the past decade, while Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin was cen­tral­iz­ing power and adding curbs on govern­ment crit­ics.

“I don’t re­call there ever be­ing as many com­plaints about tor­ture as now,” she told the Ger­man news ser­vice DW in an in­ter­view last week. “Oc­ca­sion­ally in the past, there were cases where of­fi­cers would abuse their power dur­ing ar­rests or in­ad­ver­tently use ex­ces­sive force and break some­one’s arm. … In the past five years, the tor­ture of in­mates has be­come more so­phis­ti­cated and bru­tal.”

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