Denial of care, abusive convictions, statistics manipulated ... The journalist Zoia Svetova analyzes the Russian prison system.
Moscow eye takes control of prison visits
— Published 9 February 2018.
A shortage of medical assistance, abusive convictions…Russia continues to violate the law in its prison system. By excluding activists from prison visiting commissions, the government has taken another step toward illegal and inhumane practices.
The famous and brave journalist, Zoia Svetova, spoke with Elisa Juszczak about detention conditions for Prison Insider.
Dmity Komnov was a director in the wretched prison in Boutyrka and is now at the head of the Moscow commission.
Moscow eye takes control of prison visits
Since 2016, the Public Oversight Commission no longer has any legitimacy. The activists, including Zoia Svetova, have been excluded from these commissions in order to leave room for people close to the government. The only independent Russian organisation that gives Human Rights defenders the possibility of visiting prisons was established in 2008. This was the ideal opportunity to report on the unhealthy and inhumane detention conditions and to collect testimonies from prison populations. From now on, former military or intelligence officers will be taking over their spot. Dmity Komnov is one of them. He was a director in the wretched prison in Boutyrka and is now at the head of the Moscow commission. The use of torture, the absence of medical aid or even the food problems could continue with impunity.
"You will get it when you are free, in here, no one is obligated to provide you with such a treatment."
An almost inexistent medical aid
The absence of medical assistance is what struck the Russian journalist the most during her prison visits.
"For certain prisoners, dying in prison has become inevitable because the sick do not get any medical help.” She recalled the Serguei Magntiski case, where Magntiski was imprisoned arbitrarily in November 2008 and his later death caused a scandal in the international press and was denounced by human rights organisations. In her documentary book, The Innocent will be guilty, that was released in 2012, she published a report on Sergei Magnitsky that was addressed to the prosecutor of the Russian Federation General.
The lawyer described his sickness ordeal: soon after his incarceration, the doctors diagnosed him with an inflammation of the pancreas and of the kidneys, a syndrome that he had never suffered from before being placed in preventative detention.
In his prison, the caregivers prescribed him with the necessary treatment. They evoked an upcoming surgery. Once he was transferred to the deemed terrifying Boutyrka prison, the medical help disappeared. No doctor took over his file. Despite his numerous written demands, Serguei Magnitski did not receive any prescribed treatment. One of his executioners told him "You will get it when you are free, in here, no one is obligated to provide you with such a treatment." This was said at one of the meetings where the lawyer tried to assert his rights, in vain. Without any medical assistance, Serguei Magnitski passed away on November 16th, 2009, less than a year after his incarceration.
According to the activist and journalist, one out of three people were sent to prison at least once.
The frequent use of confinement
In 2017, Russian prisons had 700,000 common law prisoners. Some of them were victims of abusive convictions. According to the journalist, "The government is quick to use imprisonment.” “The courts are not the place where justice is served in a balanced and impartial manner. They are more than ever instruments used to repress those who think otherwise, and, more broadly, everyone the power considers against their enemies. (…) The judges are unfair toward the average citizens who are neither opponents nor dissenters."1.
In addition to the dismantling of the Russian judicial system, these arbitrary decisions worsen living conditions in prison in part. This leads to overcrowding and malnutrition problems.
If the number of convictions decreased, it is because it was only a game of statistics. The number of people incarcerated had gone from 1 million in 2000 to 646,000 in 2016, according to The Institute for research in criminal policy from the British Birkbeck University. Progress in human rights, a fortiori. In reality, the number of inmates had not decreased over those past fifteen years. The figures dealt with the situation in part and did not take into account all establishments.
Zoia Svetova pointed out that "The statistics only include the official penal colonies, but not the so-called alternative prisons where there are also confinement and mandatory labor."
According to the activist and journalist, one out of three people were sent to prison at least once. In Russia, prisons are not from an imaginary order but rather from a lived one.
Zoia Svetova, The innocent will be guilty , 2012, ed. François Bourin * ↩
Written by Elisa Juszczak
Journalist and human rights activist
Zoïa Svetova is an independent journalist and human rights activist. She analyses and describes the Russian penitentiary system. During her career, she has received several international and Russian awards, including the International Amnesty Award in 2003 and the Andreï Sakharov Award "for journalism as an act of courage." She has been writing articles for the opposition Russian weekly, The New Times, since 2009. As a long-time prisoner visitor, she took part in an investigation on November 16th, 2009 led by the Presidential Human Rights Council regarding the cause of premature deaths in custody, lawyer Sergueï Magniyski. In 2012, she published a critical work, The innocent will be guilty, based on the Russian judiciary system.