Torture videos, death of businessman in Russia rouse prison reformists
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.”