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Where 'stealing a chicken' can land you in jail

Galina Petrowskaja
March 2, 2017

Human rights activists say too many Russians are put behind bars, creating a "jail culture" that permeates society. Experts see similarities with the Soviet Gulag system.

Symbolbild Amnestie in Russland
Image: AFP/Getty Images/K. Kudryavtsev

"You can be sent to jail for stealing a chicken," says Olga Romanova, director of the civil rights organization "Russia Behind Bars." The organization helps convicts, their families and victims of the Russian justice system. Romanova criticizes harsh sentences and repressive policies in Russia. In her view, far too many Russians are imprisoned. For example, she cites last year's drastic rise in the number of people who have been put in jail for re-posting "abusive" or libelous social media content.

One in four of Russia's 143 million citizens - men in particular - has been in court, a jail or work camp or has been punished in some way for having committed a crime. The figures are higher than in any other country in Europe or Asia. In 2016, over 630,000 people were detained either in pre-trial custody, prison or a penal colony.

Once they are in, they don't get released very quickly. According to Russian prison authorities, almost half of the prison sentences last between three and ten years. Another 420,000 Russians received punishments that did not involve imprisonment. In 2016 alone, over two million crimes were registered in Russia and over one million perpetrators were caught.

Olga Romanova Direktorin des Fonds Russland sitzen
Olga Romanova, director of the activist foundation "Russia Behind Bars"Image: Fond Russland sitzen

Why are there so many offenders?

One of the reasons why so many Russians are put behind bars stems from investigators wanting to present a good track record, Romanova told DW in an interview. "If police solve 90 crimes in January, then they want to surpass that number to reach 100 in February and collect bonuses." She says that very poorly trained judges often make unlawful decisions.

Another issue is that of judges accepting bribes, Romanova reports. The state tolerates this practice and in return, courts stand firmly behind the state in cases related to elections and politics. Romanova also criticizes public prosecutors. "They have become an entity that understands neither rights nor responsibilities, but instead provides huge opportunities for corruption."

Zerkal: 'Corruption is everywhere and the changes come slowly'

Every year, over 200,000 innocent people are put in jail in Russia, stated Romanova. "It is only because the justice system makes mistakes or is simply indifferent and does not investigate cases thoroughly, let alone the people who are put on trial for political reasons or because somebody ordered it."

No state support

"The repressive bureaucratic system wants to break the people," says Petr Kuryanov from the Russian center for the protection of prisoners' rights. He points out that there have been cases of torture in Russian prisons. "Angry people who were treated like slaves are released from prison. Society is suffused with everything people keep bottled up," Kuryanov explains.

In 2016, 210,000 people were released from prison. Resocialization programs do not work in Russia, stresses Kuryanov. "In front of me sat a man who turned to the foundation because he had no work, no money or connections and I realized that if we do not help him, he will beat up somebody again tonight," recounts the human rights activist. Though the state does provide funding for resocialization measures, the money trickles away in government offices.

"Neither the state nor the people respect laws"

"Russia has not moved very far away from the Gulag," believes Kuryanov. "Gulag” is the Russian acronym for the government agency that managed a network of work camps; in a broader sense the term stands for the repressive Soviet system. Kuryanov and Romanova warn that the increasingly repressive measures in Russia cannot continue without consequences for society. Crime is rising and safety is declining. People trust the justice and penal system less and less.

Gedenkstätte der Geschichte politischer Repressionen Perm-36
The memorial center of the Perm-36 Soviet forced labor camp no longer honors victims, who are now referred to as "enemies of the Soviet Union"Image: Perm-36

The value of institutions, moreover, is being destroyed. Neither the state nor the population respect laws. When "the glorious deeds of the Stalinist law enforcement agency NKVD" are extolled in present-day Russia, human rights are trampled upon: experts say that the entity killed millions of people in its penal colonies. 

"We see humanism as a weakness; that is where all the cruelty comes from. It is a vicious circle," laments Romanova. She says Russia has become a country that is influenced by jail culture because so many people have had experiences with Russian prison." She adds, "When even the president speaks in thieves' slang, then you know that society is sick."

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