After a widely shared video of guards beating an inmate shocked the country, Alexander Zarechnev is one of a growing number of Russians to break their silence over violence and torture in Russian prisons.
Speaking to AFP over the FaceTime app, Zarechnev spoke about the eight years of hell – during which he was subjected to daily beatings and witnessed gang rape – that he endured in a prison colony after being found guilty of violent robbery as a 22-year-old in 2010.
Freed just a month ago, the former DJ served his sentence in the IK-14 colony near Nizhny Novgorod, 400 kilometres east of Moscow, dubbed “the camp of torture” by local NGOs.
“As a new arrival, I was beaten every day by the ‘activists’,” Zarechnev said, referring to prisoners who collaborate with the camp’s administration.
He told AFP about the humiliation he was subjected to himself and witnessed being inflicted on others, including inmates being urinated on and gang rapes in showers.
In December 2014, he witnessed brutal beatings that resulted in the death of a prisoner.
“The activists were only supposed to ‘re-educate’ the disobedient (prisoner), but they went too far,” he said.
“In fact, the prisoner was not disobedient at all. He just did not understand Russian,” Zarechnev said.
After two other “accidental deaths” in the prison, the local branch of the NGO, Committee Against Torture, was able to convince authorities to launch an investigation against the colony’s director Vasily Voloshin, who has since been on the run.
Cuffed and howling
On 20 July, independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta published a video of around a dozen prison guards beating an inmate who is howling while cuffed and held down on a table. It was filmed in a camp in the Yaroslavl region, 250 kilometres northeast of Moscow.
The video was widely shared and encouraged many Russians to speak out about their experiences of prison violence.
Since the publication of the video, eight of the camp’s wardens have been detained for abuse of power. And, in an unprecedented move, the prison administration apologised to the victim.
Igor Kalyapin, head of the Committee Against Torture, detected a positive trend in recent years, citing “hundreds of convictions against members of the penitentiary administration every year.”
“There is a political will inside the prison system to get rid of the Gulag, but it will be difficult to convince their 400,000 employees working in remote forests” to change their practices, he explained to AFP.
Smuggling complaint in a kiss
A sense of impunity still reigns at the heart of the Russian prison system, as seen in the reactions to the video.
Lawyers even told the independent website Meduza that Siberian prison guards beat inmates to console themselves when Russia lost to Croatia at the World Cup last month.
Another former prisoner, Sergei Nikonorov who served time in a colony in the Urals, told AFP the camp’s director went into a fit of rage when Nikonorov refused to do some construction work for his friend.
Nikonorov, who is a carpenter, accuses the director Filyus Khusainov of organising regular beatings on him and hitting his head against a table before sending him to a psychiatric hospital.
“I was only able to get out thanks to the help of the Committee Against Torture,” Nikonorov said, holding back tears. He spent a total of 25 years behind bars.
Beaming with pride, he told AFP how he smuggled a complaint against the administration when his wife Irina visited him.
“I folded the letter into a cone, put it in my mouth and gave it to Irina during a kiss,” he said. “Like in a spy film!”
It was only after several complaints were filed to the Committee Against Torture that the prison director was arrested and sentenced to seven years in a camp in 2016.
‘A plank of wood fell on his head’
Vladimir Chachuk, a prisoner in a detention centre in Orsk in the southern Urals, did not live to see those who tortured him punished.
In September 2013, three months before he was meant to be released, the 24-year-old was violently beaten in his cell and died a few hours later.
“I was officially informed that my son died because a plank of wood fell on his head,” his mother Nadezhda told AFP by telephone.
After prosecutors refused to open an investigation against the prison administration no less than six times, Nadezhda filed a suit to the European Court of Human Rights.
In March, the prison director and his deputy were sentenced to two and four years in prison respectively for abusing their positions.