′Russia Behind Bars′: Fighting for victims of an often arbitrary justice system | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 29.05.2017
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'Russia Behind Bars': Fighting for victims of an often arbitrary justice system

Hundreds of thousands of Russians are in prison, and many feel they have been treated unfairly. A Moscow-based nonprofit organization looks after victims of an often unjust justice system. DW's Juri Rescheto reports.

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Critics condemn Russian jail system

The ground-floor apartment in Moscow has seen better days. Those who come by have seen better days, as well. They are family and friends of people behind bars - in particular those who feel they have been mistreated by the Russian justice system.

Here they fight for their loved ones' freedom. At the very least, they hope to receive proof of life or be able to send them something from the outside world. They do this with the help of the apartment's occupant, a nonprofit called Russia Behind Bars.

Olga Romanova runs the organization, Russia Behind Bars

Olga Romanova runs the organization, Russia Behind Bars

"The entire country is in prison," said Olga Romanova, the organization's director. "We have an expression for Russia's prisoners: One-third are there on false charges; one-third are there on no charges at all; and one-third really deserve it."

Many innocent victims

Romanova knows all the cases of misfortune well, whether it's torture at the notorious Saratov penal colony or limited visitation rights at the women's prison in Nizhny Novgorod. Sitting around her are lawyers - some of whom, like Artyom Nikitushkin, have spent time in prison.

"I'm the only one here who has not been convicted," she said. Her darkly humorous tone suggesting a "yet," she added: "Although, in our system, that can quickly change."

A quarter of Russian men have been caught up in the criminal justice system, as has every eighth Russian woman. It is a numbers game, said Artyom Nikitushkin, an ex-convict who works with Romanova.

"The Russian justice system needs to show concrete results. The number of solved crimes has to go up," he said. "The legal institutions and courts are nothing more than statistics hunters."

Nikitushkin went to prison on trumped-up financial crimes, then was further blackmailed by the justice system, he said. "They think you can afford it. You are constantly pressured to pay up."

Lawyer, Artyom Nikitushkin, has spent time in jail and now helps others

Lawyer, Artyom Nikitushkin, has spent time in jail and now helps others

Prison life is "hell"

Piotr Kurjynov, a volunteer with Russia Behind Bars, deals with those who are constantly rotating in and out of prison. Many of them are innocent. "They are easy prey for police," he said. "Once a criminal, always a criminal." He himself has served five prison sentences, he added, only one of which was justified.

Convicts talk of their handlers' greed and brutality. "When I arrived, they broke me in the most sadistic of ways," Kurjynov said. "My psyche and body were abused and humiliated. I was beaten. It was so bad I could think of nothing else than, 'Why? Why are they hitting me?'"

An historical photo of Gulag Perm 36 in the Urals

An historical photo of Gulag Perm 36 in the Urals

The gulag lives

Stories like this fill Romanova with rage. "Russian prison isn't to make people better, rehabilitate and return them to society," she said. "Its purpose is punishment. Punishment by way of legalized torture."

President Vladimir Putin has himself called for reforms to the justice system. But so far nothing has changed. The country's Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) is considered a state within a state, and it has wielded considerable power over a long period of time.

"The gulag is alive and well," Kurjynov said. "Its ghost haunts Russia."

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