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Valeri Pshenichny death, Russia prison torture videos spark U.N. probe

September 19, 2018

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.”

Payoffs

Human rights groups believe Pshenichny was killed after he refused to pay off corrupt officials. Before his death, the businessman managed to smuggle out of prison a note that read, “Don’t pay anyone anything.”

No one has been charged in his death.

Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service promised to launch a nationwide inspection of correctional facilities after the video of Makarov’s ordeal was published, but human rights activists expressed little faith in such statements.

“Inspections do not uncover violations,” said Olga Romanova, the director of Rus Sidyashchaya, a prisoners rights organization. “But if a [torture] scandal gets too big, then charges will be bought, but the investigation will be focused on two things: who leaked the information and who will be the scapegoat.”

Former inmates such as Mr. Vakharov are also skeptical that anything will change. “In Russian penal colonies, torture isn’t an exception to the rule; it is the system. This goes on every day, every week, every month,” he said.

Mr. Vakharov served 5 years behind bars after his arrest while urinating on the side of a road. Police charged him with exposing himself to a minor because children were nearby and demanded a bribe in return for the promise of a suspended sentence. He refused to pay and complained to authorities. He said he believes the complaint contributed to his ill-treatment behind bars.

“Prison guards beat me because I stood up for my rights,” said Mr. Vakharov.

Officials from the Federal Penitentiary Service say their own investigations have turned up more than three dozen cases in which guards “exceeded their authority or abused the dignity of prisoners,” Lt. Gen. Valery Maximenko, the penitentiary service’s deputy chief, told the Tass news agency. The general said officials have introduced video recorders throughout the penitentiary system that can’t be shut off or altered by prison officials.

Russia’s prisoner abuse is just a domestic problem.

Torture within Russia’s penitentiary system is one of the issues that has led to the dramatic worsening of relations between Moscow and Washington.

In 2012, the United States enacted the Magnitsky Act, which gives Washington powers to impose financial and visa sanctions on Russian officials accused of human rights abuses. The law was named after Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who his defenders say was tortured to death in a Moscow prison after accusing Interior Ministry officials of tax fraud.

Ms. Romanova, the prisoners’ rights advocate, said that only mass dismissals of penal colony staff and officials will eradicate the culture of torture in Russian penal colonies. She also complained that many Russians are indifferent toward reports of torture in penal colonies, which are known collectively as “The Zone.”

“They torture people, beat them and kill them in The Zone,” she said.

Most people, she said, think, “Well, prison isn’t a health camp. And, anyway, how else should they be treated?”

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