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Russia: Rights Group Compares Current State Of Country's Prisons To Gulags
By Bruce Pannier
Copyright (c) 2005. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

In a new report, a group of leading Russian rights activists is accusing authorities of ignoring systemic abuses and torture in the country's prisons. The nongovernmental movement For Human Rights compares the current prison system to the infamous gulags of the Soviet Union. The rights group is calling for new legislation allowing public oversight of detention facilities. The activists are also calling for the dismissal of the countrys top prison official.

Prague, 26 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- For Human Rights says its report is based on the monitoring of prisons in some 40 out of Russia's 89 regions.

In an interview with RFE/RL, the group's executive director, Lev Ponomaryov, compares the situation in the countrys jails to the Soviet-era gulag system and draws a parallel to one of the most infamous prisoner abuse cases in recent history.

Everything that happened at Abu Ghurayb [in Iraq] is widespread in Russian prisons, and therefore one could say that a gulag system has been created in Russia where people torture, beat, and murder [inmates], Ponomaryov said.

Ponomaryov alleges that the policy at Russias prisons is increasingly to make the punishments more severe to morally and physically crush each convict. He charges that inmates are regularly humiliated and subjected to cruel treatment for no reason.

Ponomaryov says the mistreatment of prisoners become worse after new heads of prisons were appointed and given revised orders on how to deal with inmates.

The main problem is that in the last few years there has been a change of the heads of prison colonies and detention facilities. More than 50 [new] people throughout Russias regions took up responsibilities [for prison administration] and received, according to our information, strict instructions for keeping order using all available means. They were given carte blanche, Ponomaryov says.

During the years of Boris Yeltsin's presidency, Ponomaryov says there were more prisoners -- some 1.3 million -- but that most prisons were open to rights groups who wanted to check on conditions.

After Vladimir Putin came to power, Ponomaryov says many prisoners who were serving sentences for minor crimes were freed, lowering the prison population to between 700,000 and 800,000. But he says cooperation between rights groups and prison officials worsened.

On Putins coming to power, the situation changed drastically, and the prison system was closed off to civilian observers, Ponomaryov says.

Ponomaryov blames Russias top prison official, Yuri Kalinin, for the worsening conditions. Under Kalinin, he says, prison officials routinely deny rights groups access to jails, particularly when there have been reports of unrest.

Now the prison officials as a rule refuse to allow civil rights workers to visit with prisoners, particularly when there has been a crisis, Ponomaryov says.

Ponomaryov points to one recent protest in particular -- at a prison in the western city of Lgov, where hundreds of inmates cut themselves to protest brutal conditions and the beatings of several other inmates by jail officials. One of the inmates who was allegedly beaten has filed an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights, claiming he was tortured.

Two jail officials have reportedly been charged in connection with the Lgov case.

The jailing of Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovskii has also put a new spotlight on Russias prison system. Khodorkovskii announced a hunger strike on 19 August after the co-defendant in his tax evasion trial, Platon Lebedev, was transferred to an isolation cell.

Lebedev was reportedly moved back to a regular cell on Thursday after almost a week in solitary confinement.

There has been no comment from the Russian government so far to the new report.

(RFE/EL's Claire Bigg contributed to this report from Moscow.).