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Press release by Chelyabinsk Public Oversight Commission on situation at Kopeisk Penal Colony No. 6

20 February 2013

Press release by an observer group of the Chelyabinsk Public Oversight Commission under the leadership of Nikolai Shchur on an inspection of Penal Colony No. 6 (Kopeisk) on 19 February 2013

Three people took part: D. Latypova, N. Shchur and T. Shchur. We were given unhindered access to all areas of the penal colony and we were not prevented from carrying out any activities. We were accompanied through the colony by the head of the education section Andrei Vasilev and acting assistant for human rights to the head of the main directorate of the Federal Penitentiary Service for Chelyabinsk Dmitry Khromov.

We had not visited the colony for a month: currently the situation is difficult in Chelyabinsk Women's Penal Colony No. 5, our time had been taken up there, and in addition there have been other issues. 

We have had no particular concerns about Penal Colony No. 6 during this time: the situation there is stable after the dismissals of the head of the colony Mekhanov and its chief operative Zyakhor. The extortions, torture, beatings and arbitrary detention in disciplinary cells have stopped, so we can say that the situation has become stable.

The work of the prisoners has resumed in the normal way, and dodgy and dangerous practices have ceased (though possibly not all, there are a few signs that some of them have started up again; we did not check this out yesterday), so this is the basis of the stability.

Strange as it may seem, however, this stability is no cause for celebration. That is because it has not been achieved as a result of the rule of law finally triumphing, in other words not through everyone, prisoners and prison guards alike, complying with the internal rules and regulations, but because the prisoners have set up a form of self-governance. For the past few months, it has been hard to find a prison officer in the living areas during the day. It is as if this is seen as a good thing: look, the prisoners have organised themselves, are showing public spiritedness and a willingness to take responsibility for themselves and others, which is exactly what the Federal Penitentiary Service should get them to do during their time in prison. But that is not how it is. 

That is not how it is because it is not self-organisation, but a transfer of power into the hands of convicted criminals, which is something that should not happen as a matter of principle. And if you let Penal Colony No. 6 govern itself, you have to acknowledge it and give credit to the people responsible (from among the prisoners), but that does not mean that this situation will continue in the future. There is currently a bitter struggle for power in the colony among them and no one can guarantee that today's "overseers" will stay on top or even stick to their current principles for the rest of their lives (or at least for their rest of their prison terms). And a situation where the administration bargains certain concessions out of the prisoners in exchange for this very stability, and is openly afraid of issuing them demands to abide by the regime, is completely unacceptable. This is bad for a very simple reason: both they and the other side have one thing in mind, not an understanding of the absolute need to comply with the law, but the waiting for a situation in which they will be able to "deal with" their opponent, in other words the same dream of lawlessness. But sometimes you get something different from what you were counting on, as the saying goes… 

The prisoners have no real complaints about their conditions of detention: they don't like the prices in the shop, they're not happy with the medical assistance, but these are minor matters and no one is getting worked up about them. What there are a lot of, though, are complaints against the public prosecutor, here there is a veritable barrage of them. And these complaints are serious. 

Prisoners have said that regional prosecutors (names were given) have started turning up at the colony demanding that prisoners retract the complaints they made previously. Here is a quote from one prisoner's complaint (this is not an isolated instance): 

"On 14 February 2013, I, M. Ivanov, together with inmates D. Korolyov, born 1985, and inmate R. Rakhmatullin, born 1982, were summoned to the main office of Penal Colony No. 6 by Public Prosecutor Lavrov in connection with a complaint we had made previously against the head of Penal Colony No. 6, D, Mekhanov, about the fact that he was extorting money from us and other inmates, as well as other violations of Russian law by staff at Penal Colony No. 6. 

"Whereupon Public Prosecutor Lavrov began threatening to put myself and inmate D. Korolyov into disciplinary cells if we did not make a written retraction of the complaint we had previously submitted against the administration of Penal Colony No. 6. During the conversation with us, Public Prosecutor Lavrov showed through his behaviour that he was on good, friendly terms with the administration of Penal Colony No. 6. I take Prosecutor Lavrov's threats seriously." 

That is the picture.

The names of other prosecutors were mentioned, the prisoners said that prosecutors arrived with forms for retracting complaints already filled in, all they had to do was write in their names.

These stories come as no surprise to us and we believe them, because during all the time we have been working with the Public Oversight Commission we have observed exactly this kind of stance taken by the public prosecutor: the staff of the main directorate of the Federal Penitentiary Service are white doves, and the inmates are all crooks and liars. We have consistently said that as part of the investigation of the criminal case at Penal Colony No. 6, it is not only the actions of Federal Penitentiary Service staff that need to be investigated, but also the actions of the public prosecutors of the Chelyabinsk Regional Prosecutor's Office. 

Today we sent the complaints about the actions of the public prosecutors to the regional Investigation Directorate and the FSB Directorate, because we consider there is evidence of a crime having been committed here. We await the response from these bodies. We do not see any point in sending the complaints to regional prosecutor A. Voitovich, as it would be strange to think that "simple prosecutors" would not coordinate their actions with their boss. 

So those are, as we see it, the grim results of our latest visit to Penal Colony No. 6.

Yes, it’s true they are not being beaten. Yes, it’s true they are not having money extorted from them. That is what they wanted to achieve.

But the authorities are keeping their heads down and waiting to pounce. In other words, nothing has really changed as far as the Chelyabinsk main directorate of the Federal Penitentiary Service is concerned.

And they are lying in wait on the other side too, and what's more not only in Penal Colony No. 6.

Because bloodshed is very, very close and probable, and it is likely. And it will not be the actions of the inmates that lead to it.

And one final point. 

Contributing to the current atrocious situation is the, excuse my bluntness, foolish, and in the current context quite possibly, criminal, silence of the Investigative Committee: the investigation may or may not be progressing, but one thing that is obvious is the deafening silence. Individual prisoners have already started writing complaints (and soon this will become an avalanche), along the lines of: "I submitted my complaint and no one has replied to me, no enquiry has been launched, have I not been recognized as a victim...??" What are you waiting for, esteemed investigators? Do they have to climb out onto the roof again to get through to you? General Markin [spokesperson for the Investigative Committee] is hardly off our TV screens when the news is about Khodorkovsky or the girls in the Christ the Saviour Cathedral, but in this case there is barely a word to be heard from the Investigative Committee. 

Marx was right: the authorities always produce their own gravediggers.

Nikolai Shchur, 
Member of the Chelyabinsk Region Public Oversight Commission 
Head of the Urals Democratic Foundation 
20 February 2013