Russia: prisoners who protested against torture and extortion face 10 years in prison

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RIA Novosti / Sputnik

Four years to this day, after a protest that took place in the Penal Colony of Kopeysk (Ural Region), which had come to symbolize the use of torture and of extortion in Russian prisons, 17 of its participants are on trial and face 10 years of imprisonment. An international mission is observing the hearings to monitor the respect of the rights of the persons concerned.

Seventeen individuals are being tried by a court in Chelyabinsk (Ural Region) since 1 June 2015 for having committed acts that according to the prosecution amount to “mass riots”. The facts date back to 24 and 25 November 2012, when hundreds of prisoners climbed onto the prison roof in order to protest against the torture and extortion practices they were being subjected to on a daily basis on the part of the prison staff. The prisoners demanded that a prosecutor be sent from Moscow, as well as media teams, so that their complaints vis-à-vis the administration are followed up on. The events inside the prison, which rapidly obtained widespread media coverage, passed off peacefully and ended when the prisoners’ demand was met.

On the other hand, clashes outside the colony opposed the prisoners’ relatives and acquaintances and the police’s anti-riot unit, as a result of which 8 police officers were injured and 38 persons were arrested. Six of the trial’s indictees are former prisoners who were outside the prison during these events.

Russia’s Presidential Council on Human Rights sent a fact-finding mission to the scene immediately after the protest. This mission collected 358 complaints, of which 255 were related to torture, physical violence and other forms of harassment. It uncovered a large-scale corruption scheme based on the extortion of money from the prisoners’ relatives and the widespread use of violence, which involved the prison’s direction, the guards and a “disciplinary section” made of prisoners. The mission found out about practices including keeping detainees tied to a grid for the all day and sometimes more. For instance, it reported that a prisoner was tied to the grill, with a bucket on the head and subject to pepper spray during about 16 hours, due to the fact that he wrote a lot of complaints about the conditions of detention.Moreover, the mission has established that the legal avenues for complaints had been completely ineffective. In addition, the mission criticized the shortcomings of the investigation on the death of a prisoner in summer 2012, allegedly caused by AIDS and described by witnesses as the result of his beating by colony wards.

In a statement published on 11 March 2013, the Presidential Council came to the conclusion that “massive, systematic and flagrant violations of the rights and interest of the prisoners” exist in the prison. It found that “all these circumstances have led to a situation in which (…) the protection of the rights and interests of the persons serving a sentence in Prison IK-6 was impossible. As a consequence, this has pushed the prisoners to stage a protest, which has received public attention not only in the Chelyabinsk Region, but also in the whole country.”

Despite the seriousness of the acts documented by the Presidential Council, such acts have largely remained unpunished. On the disciplinary plan, warnings were imposed on 12 officers. The Director of Colony No. 6, Mr. Mekhanov was dismissed. Several officials of the Colony and the Regional Penal Service, including its Director, were also forced to retire or were transferred to another working place.

Until now only the former director of the Colony, Mr. Mekhanov, was prosecuted. On 22 December 2014, a court sentenced him to 3 years of suspended imprisonment with regards to 10 occurrences of money and asset extortion, and for organizing an illegal manufacturing of knives. On 5 June 2015, the court handed down yet another judgment in which Mr. Mekhanov was equally proven guilty of exceeding official powers (extortion of money from prisoners and their relatives) on several other occurrences. This time he was sentenced to one and a half year of suspended imprisonment. However, due to an amnesty, he was released from the given punishment. The acts of torture did not lead to any judicial proceedings.

Upon the request of local organizations, and in light of the fact that the protesters risk being convicted to harsh sentences for a protest action that originated from acts of an extreme gravity, the European Prison Litigation Network has established an observation mission for the trial under the auspices of an international steering committee comprising nine experts.

Without prejudice to the observations which will be published by the steering committee, the Network and FIDH are gravely concerned by the failure to consider, during the preliminary phase of the trial, of the context of torture which led to the protest. In these conditions, any shortfall in summoning the defence’s witnesses would seriously compromise the fairness of the trial. Furthermore, the absence of an in-depth and effective investigation aimed at identifying and prosecuting the perpetrators, represents a violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECtHR, Lyapin v. Russia, 24/07/2014, no 46956/09). Therefore, the Network and FIDH urge the authorities to put an end to this situation of impunity. It recalls that, under Article 3, the investigation must be complete, prompt, independent, impartial and subject to public scrutiny (Lyapin v. Russia, prev.).

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