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Activists say Russia torture scandal no isolated case

July 26, 2018

A video showing an inmate being brutally beaten in Russia has highlighted the issue of abuse in the country's prisons. The lawyer who released the video is now facing threats. Human rights activists are demanding action.

barbed wire fence
Image: picture-alliance / dpa

Irina Biryukova is in hiding. The lawyer, who works with the Russian human rights organization Public Verdict, was forced to flee the country, her colleagues reported on Facebook. Shortly before she left Russia, she gave the newspaper Novaya Gazeta a video showing an inmate being tortured in a Russian prison.

She also informed Alexander Bastrykin, head of the the Investigative Committee of Russia, that "some of the people in the video were threatening her with revenge." Members of Public Verdict also say they fear reprisals against Biryukova. She has asked Russian authorities for protective measures for herself and her family. While her application is being reviewed, she intends to remain abroad.

Investigation being carried out

The video published by Novaya Gazeta was viewed more than 2 million times in just one week. The recording shows 18 officials attacking prisoner Yevgeny Makarov at Penitentiary No.1 in the Yaroslavl region, northeast of Moscow. He is lying face down on a table, being beaten with clubs. According to the paper, the video dates from the end of June.

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Alongside the release of the video, Public Verdict also published the names of the guards seen in the recording on Facebook. Russia's Investigative Committee has instigated criminal proceedings for abuse of office and the Yaroslavl Region Prison Authority is investigating the case. Seventeen of the prison employees who could be identified in the video have now been suspended; seven people have been arrested.

Strafanstalt Jaroslawl Russland
Makarov is an inmate at Penitentiary No.1 in YaroslavlImage: picture-alliance/dpa/O.Smyslov

Criticism of the public prosecutor's office

According to Public Verdict, Biryukova has also asked the Russian public prosecutor's office to examine its division in the Yaroslavl region, as authorities there have repeatedly refused to initiate investigations into claims of prison torture.

"Despite repeated complaints from victims, in more than a year-and-a-half, no violations have been confirmed," the human rights organization said.

Biryukova also asked the Investigative Committee to move the investigation into the Makarov case from Yaroslavl to Moscow. According to information from Public Verdict, the responsible investigator in Yaroslavl is related to one of the prison guards seen in the torture video.

Verifying abuse

Sergei Baburkin, human rights commissioner for the Yaroslavl region, first learned of the case at the beginning of July. "I went to the prison and spoke to the managers. I was told that there had been physical violence and that everything was recorded," Baburkin told DW. He said he was also able to speak to Makarov, and that the prisoner told him that he fears for his life.

Sergei Baburkin
Baburkin said that Makarov fears for his lifeImage: Privat

"I received 456 complaints in 2017. More than a quarter are directed against employees of the penal system," Baburkin said.

Those complaints describe both physical and psychological injuries, but it can be difficult to verify them. Prisoners often withdraw their claims after they are threatened.

"I see bruises on a prisoner, and then he tells me that he fell," Baburkin said. "Things like that make it more difficult to hold the penal system accountable."

Holding higher officials to account

Russian journalist and human rights activist Olga Romanova believes monitoring of the prison system is needed to bring transparency. "It's becoming more and more cut off from the outside world because of the total corruption," she told DW. "Torture is used to stop the truth from getting out."

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Romanova runs the prisoner aid organization Rus Sidyashaya, but also left Russia after her office was raided last year. Since September 2017, Romanova has been helping Russian prisoners from her base in Berlin. She says that there are many cases of torture that are publicly known, but that the Yaroslavl case is now directing both Russian and international attention to the problem.

In Romanova's opinion, it's not enough to punish individual guards. "In the video, you can see 18 people, so 18 people should be punished," she said, adding that the prison directors and officials higher up the chain must also be brought to account. "Our task now is to end this practice of torture in Russia," she said.