YEKATERINBURG - The latest human rights concerns in Russia are focused on the nation's prisons.
This past weekend one of the most serious prison protests in Russia in recent years came to a high-security facility in the Ural region, as inmates demonstrated against torture and monetary extortion in the prison. Prison guards denied that either takes place, and said that the protests were really an attempt to get several prisoners out of solitary confinement.
Aleksei Sevastyanov, the region’s ombudsman, was the first to report on the protest. He said on Saturday night around 200 prisoners refused to go to sleep and announced a hunger strike. Prisoners who were in the prison’s industrial area also announced a hunger strike. According to Sevastyanov, the prisoners were calm and non-violent.
Sevastyanov said that there is a serious ongoing conflict between the prisoners and the administration of the prison. The Russian office of Human Rights has promised to study the situation and sent investigators to the prison on Monday.
The prison administration’s press office told a slightly different story. The administration say that prisoners “carried out an illegal protest with demands for softer treatment," including the release of several prisoners from solitary confinement. The administration further stated that it has no intention to fulfill the protesters' requests, but that it has no plans to use force to quash prisoner demands.
Dina Latinova, a member of a watchdog commission, said that there were around 300 prisoners on the roof of the facility, all of whom said they were on hunger strike. The prisoners were yelling, “People, help!” The administration would let neither relatives nor human rights workers in the prison.
UN eyes the situation
Latinova also said that complaints of torture and extortion were common from this particular prison. “Prisoners have told us that for minor violations of rules their arms and legs are taped to the fence for several hours. They complain of being extorted money. They say that some people have been in solitary confinement for years. We have told the administration about this, but there has never been any interest,” she said.
This prison protest came just as the United Nations Committee on Torture was reviewing a report that found a troubling level of abuse in both Russian prisons and in the army. The Committee was particularly concerned about relatively well-documented cases of torture in the prison system, such as one that resulted in the death of two prisoners earlier this year -- which have nonetheless been denied by the Russian government.
The Committee Against Torture also noted that although it has been recommending since 2006 that Russia include specific references to torture in its criminal code, the country has failed to do so. As a result, the Committee concluded that Russia is essentially incapable of investigating and prosecuting cases of torture, especially when the accused torturer is an employee of the state. Because most torture cases involve either the prison administration or the army, nearly all alleged cases of torture involve government employees.
Although the criticism from the Committee Against Torture has been increasing as Russia continues to ignore its recommendations, the Committee has no real teeth to make sure its recommendations are followed.