Russia: after deadly prison riot in Siberia, officials are tight-lipped as families seek information on survivors

MOSCOW – It wasn’t until two days after Russian authorities violently suppressed a riot at his prison in Siberia that Kristina Ilinova learned her husband was missing.

Yevgeny Ilinov was one of 200 inmates of Corrective Colony No. 15 who mutinied on April 9 in protest of their treatment by guards at the maximum-security prison, commencing a two-day standoff that ended only when Russian special forces swept in on April 10 to restore order.

A conflagration left a large part of the compound destroyed. According to local NGO Siberia Without Torture, nine inmates were hospitalized, and one later died of his injuries. On April 11, under the rubble of one charred building, the body of inmate Maksim Dautov was found.

Ilinova repeatedly called a hotline for relatives set up by the prison service. She was told to patiently await further news. On May 13, two weeks after she wrote to the head doctor of the Irkutsk prison service, an answer finally came – signed by the head of the regional prison service, Leonid Sagalakov.

Ilinov was under medical supervision at another detention facility in Angarsk with a bruised spine and injuries to his lumbar region, Sagalakov said in the letter seen by RFE/RL. His condition was “satisfactory.”

“You can’t lie a month with bruises under supervision,” Ilinova said by phone from Ust-Kut, a town 800 kilometers north of Angarsk. “They’re holding something back.”

The letter had one final piece of news: To comply with measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus, no parcels were allowed. And a lockdown across the Irkutsk region meant Ilinova could not travel to see her husband.

Ilinova is just one among more than 100 relatives, according to rights activists, who are searching for information about 54 inmates from the prison in Angarsk, a city 5,000 kilometers east of Moscow near Russia’s border with Mongolia. They have picketed the facility, demanding answers from its management, and sent multiple letters to officials.

Prison officials have prevented independent monitors or journalists from visiting the prison or speaking with inmates, so a picture of the events must be constructed from official statements and fragmentary reports from prisoners and their families.

In interviews with RFE/RL, two relatives said they had received vague assurances that their loved ones are receiving medical treatment for undisclosed injuries. Others said they’d gotten no answers at all.

“The authorities are refusing to give information about the health of the prisoners,” said Pavel Glushchenko, an Irkutsk-based human rights activist who is helping relatives file requests for information.

A group using the Viber messenger app that was launched to coordinate their campaign has 125 members, he said.

Valeria Goleva, Maksim Dautov’s wife, only learned of his death on April 11 from friends who had read about it in the news. Dautov called her from prison on the afternoon of April 10, she said, and told her there were “problems.” That was the last she heard from him.

After several calls to the prison service, she finally got through on April 13.

“They simply asked me: ‘Will you bury him yourself or what?’” she said. “And that was it.”

She received Dautov’s body on April 17 with an official report from the coroner: Dautov had hanged himself, it said.

Goleva doesn’t believe it. His body was “covered in bruises, his arms were blue, and there were scratches on his neck,” she said. She suggested they recorded the death as suicide “to avoid taking responsibility themselves.”

Another relative, Alyona Pashina, has in vain sought information about her brother Mikhail Pashin, 29, who had three years left of his sentence. On May 8, almost a month after the riot, she received an unexpected call from Pashin. She immediately suspected he wasn’t alone.

“It was a terrible connection,” she said by phone. “I couldn’t really make out what he was saying. It was also obvious that someone was standing next to him.”

Pashin didn’t reveal his location and urged her to stop making enquiries, she said.

“‘Why are you writing these appeals? Why are you making calls?’” she recalled him saying. “‘Just sit quietly.’”

Their conversation lasted 22 seconds.

For weeks, frustration had been mounting at the Angarsk prison, with visits by relatives circumscribed as part of measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

But it was the severe beating by one of the guards of inmate Anton Obalenichev that was the final straw, according to prisoners. In a video from the prison posted online on April 9, Obalenichev shows injuries he allegedly suffered as a result. Pointing to his left arm, he said he had cut his wrists in protest.

In solidarity, 17 other inmates did the same, apparently using shards of glass from security cameras they shattered as they rampaged through the facility. Video posted on April 10 showed a group of inmates with bloodied bandages on their forearms, appealing for help.

“They’re beating us and sparing no one,” one shouts, as flames rise up in the background. “They’re going to kill us! We need your help people!”

Two days later, after the mutiny had been suppressed, Russia’s penitentiary service released a statement accusing several inmates of attacking a prison guard and instigating the riot.

All the inmates involved had been transferred to other prisons, it said, and their health was “satisfactory.”

But on May 6, rights activists reported that another, unidentified inmate had died from a spinal fracture sustained during the riot.

“Already on April 14, when we learned of his serious injury,” said Svyatoslav Khromenkov of Siberia Without Torture. “We filed a request for criminal charges. Three weeks have passed, and there’s no news.”

In a statement on May 7, the Irkutsk prison service denied press reports about the second death and warned media outlets against spreading “fake news.”

Obalenichev, the inmate whose alleged beating by prison guards provoked the mutiny, retracted the accusations he made on April 9 in an interview with the flagship state news channel Rossia 24.

“What is said there is untrue,” he said quietly, shrugging his shoulders. “No one beat me.”

Another inmate accused of helping organize the riot, Andrei Kalinin, was shown in the same television report with deep bruises under each eye. He said he and others were manipulated by unspecified “people with influence.”

On April 10, Justice Minister Konstantin Chuichenko said the riot had been “orchestrated from the outside” by “so-called ‘rights defenders.’”

The prison service did not respond to RFE/RL’s requests to comment for this article.

According to a December 2019 analysis by the business newspaper RBC, for every 44 complaints of violence implicating guards at Russian prisons, only one criminal case is launched. In the Irkutsk region, where the April 9-10 riot took place, not a single such case was launched between 2015 and 2018 despite 262 complaints, the third-highest count among Russia’s regions.

The dire conditions and overcrowding in many Russian prisons have come into stark focus since the coronavirus pandemic began spreading across the country in March, with activists warning that the estimated 875,000 inmates behind bars run an increased risk of infection.

Kristina Ilinova suspects that if something bad has happened to her husband, the authorities may use that risk as an excuse.

Yevgeny Ilinov had six years remaining of his eight-year sentence for grievous bodily harm, but his health had been steadily deteriorating, she said.

The couple have two children, aged 3 and 6, who don’t even know their father is in jail.

“I hide it from them,” Ilinova said.

Now she fears they may never see him again.

“Maybe he’s no longer alive. Perhaps that’s why they’re limiting information,” she said. “In the end, they’ll blame it all on the coronavirus.”