Russian torture video goes viral, prompts outrage, soul searching

RUS-tortureMOSCOW - Ruslan Vakharov was in a punishment cell at a penal colony in central Russia’s Yaroslavl region when around a dozen prison guards led a fellow inmate into the neighboring cell and 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,” said Mr. Vakharov, who was released from the penal colony in March.

The torture session occurred in June 2017, but its brutal details only became known to the outside world this July, when a 10-minute video was published by Novaya Gazeta, a Russian opposition newspaper. The video, which was recorded by a body-mounted camera worn by a prison guard, was given to the newspaper by Irina Biryukova, a lawyer for Public Verdict Foundation, an independent Russian human rights organization. Ms. Biryukova refused to reveal how she obtained the harrowing footage.

In the video, a man identified as Yevgeny Makarov is pinned to a table by prison guards, while others strike him repeatedly with batons on his legs and the soles of his feet. Mr. Makarov, who was handcuffed, 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. Mr. Makarov, who is still behind bars, but has been transferred to a different penal colony, says the guards also waterboarded him.

The video triggered the arrests of six of the guards involved in beating Mr. Makarov, while seventeen officials have been dismissed from their posts. In August, the incident was discussed at the United Nations, where the UN Committee against Torture ordered Russia to report back next year on the prosecutions of those responsible for the brutality. The UN committee also said Russia should do everything to protect Mr. Makarov and Ms. Biryukova from possible reprisals. Ms. Biryukova fled Russia after receiving death threats.

The UN committee also demanded to know how Russia was investigating the death of Valeri Pshenichny, a 56-year-old businessman, who was found hanging in his cell in St. Petersburg in February. Medical experts 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.

Mr. 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 he would need a two meter-long grave,” Ms. Pshenichny said. Human rights groups believe he was killed after he refused to pay off corrupt officials. Before his death, Mr. Pshenichny managed to smuggle out of prison a note that read: “Don’t pay anyone anything.” No one has been charged over his death.

Russia has some of the highest incarceration rates in the world, with only the United States jailing more people annually among G20 countries. Some 600,000 people are held in nearly 1,000 prisons and detention facilities across Russia. Reports of torture are frequent, but video evidence of violence at penal colonies is rare.

After the video of Mr. Makarov’s ordeal was published, Russia’s Federal Prison Service promised to launch a nationwide inspection of correctional facilities. But human rights activists have little faith in such statements.

“Inspections do not uncover violations. 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?” said Olga Romanova, the director of Rus Sidyashchaya, a prisoners’ rights organization

Ex-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 five and a half years behind bars after being arrested while urinating at the side of a road. Police charged him with exposing himself to a minor, because there were children nearby, and demanded a bribe to ensure he received a suspended sentence. He refused to pay up, and complained to the authorities, something he believes contributed to his alleged ill-treatment behind bars. “Prison guards beat me because I stood up for my rights,” said Mr. Vakharov.

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 passed a law known as 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 was allegedly tortured to death in a Moscow prison after accusing interior ministry officials of tax fraud.

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

“They torture people, beat them, and kill them in the Zone,” she said. “(But most people think), 'Well, prison isn’t a health camp. And, anyway, how else should they be treated?'”

Photo: A screenshot from a 10-minute-video obtained by Russia’s Novaya Gazeta newspaper showing several guards from the Federal Penitentiary Service in Yaroslavl, Russia allegedly torturing prisoner Evgeny Makarov on June 2017. Guards used fists, rubber batons, and one was seen pouring water on the prisoner's face.

Story/photo publish date: 9/18/18

A version of this story was published by The Washington Times


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