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A Lone Voice Tries To Reform Russia's Prisons From Within

  • RFE/RL

At Moscow's notorious Butyrka remand prison, lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died two years ago, allegedly after months in harsh conditions and after being denied basic medical care.

At Moscow's notorious Butyrka remand prison, lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died two years ago, allegedly after months in harsh conditions and after being denied basic medical care.

MOSCOW -- Senior Lieutenant Aleksei Kozlov has a difficult, thankless job. He is in charge of educational work among prisoners at Moscow's notorious Butyrka remand prison (SIZO).

He informs prisoners of their rights and responsibilities and fields their complaints. He writes reports that are requested by lawyers, prosecutors, and lawmakers about conditions in the prison.

For nearly two years now, Kozlov has filed his reports and urged reform from within a system that seems stonily impervious to change. "I haven't met with understanding on the part of [Butyrka's] administration," he says. "The violations are perfectly evident to anyone, but no one is doing anything about them."

Butyrka is the prison where, in November 2009, lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died, allegedly after months in harsh conditions and after being denied basic medical care. The Magnitsky case has provoked international outrage and President Dmitry Medvedev has ordered an investigation.

On November 24, the Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights will hold an extraordinary session devoted to the Magnitsky case and conditions in Russian prisons.

Aleksei Kozlov

Aleksei Kozlov

Two years after Magnitsky's death, Kozlov says, the situation in Butyrka -- and Moscow's other remand prisons, where an estimated 50 prisoners die each year of various causes -- is largely unchanged. The conditions and attitudes that led to Magnitsky's death, he says, still prevail and similar tragedies are seemingly inevitable.

Corruption, Abuse Of Prisoners

Earlier this month, Kozlov -- an eight-year veteran of Russia's corrections service -- recorded a video appeal to Medvedev about the situation in Butyrka. A small fragment of that appeal briefly appeared on YouTube and other websites, but it soon disappeared under unclear circumstances.

In the video, Kozlov asserts that a double standard of treatment exists in Butyrka, with some prisoners able to access mobile phones, cameras, and computers. Kozlov tells RFE/RL's Russian Service that he believes some prisoners are even able to continue criminal activities such as money laundering via the Internet from within Butyrka's walls.

Cautious and measured in his statements, Kozlov stresses that he has never seen a prisoner pay a bribe for special treatment. "But I have the impression that corruption is a factor here because nothing comes for free in life, and this is even more true in prison," he adds.

While some prisoners are able to secure favorable treatment, others can easily be harassed by hostile officials. Kozlov says that physical abuse is "a daily phenomenon" at Butyrka and adds that it's easy for the administration to trump up pretexts for discipline.

"There is a rule about the movement of prisoners around the territory of the SIZO -- that is, prisoners must move around escorted by a guard. But as a rule they move around by themselves, using a special wire tool to open the doors," Kozlov says. "He [the prisoner] ends up in a situation where, if he doesn't show up where he is supposed to be, he can receive a citation. Or if he does show up using that special tool, he can also get a citation for moving around by himself. He ends up in the position where no matter what he does, he breaks the rules."

'Complain To General Wastebasket'

He adds there are a nearly infinite number of similar ruses to trip up prisoners at any moment. Moreover, prisoner complaints are so often ignored that an expression has emerged: "They are under the consideration of General Wastebasket." Prisoners are not given written confirmation that their complaint has been filed and have no right to receive a response.

Kozlov says he's been harassed himself by other prison officials at Butyrka.

Kozlov says he's been harassed himself by other prison officials at Butyrka.

Likewise, access to health care continues to be a problem. "To take a recent example -- we had one prisoner who came from Infectious Disease Hospital No. 2. He told me that he had not received any treatment for three months, although he was officially registered as HIV-positive," Kozlov says. "He was later transferred to a prison hospital in SIZO No. 1. His condition was quite bad -- hepatitis C, pneumonia, fever. I simply cannot comment on the reason why he was originally released from the hospital."

Kozlov says that he has been subject to harassment himself by other prison officials at Butyrka and urged to "mind his own business." He says that in September he was forced to submit to a strip search in front of prisoners.

Nonetheless, he is hopeful that his effort to reform the system from within can bear fruit. He estimates that up to one-half of the staff at Butyrka are fed up with the human rights abuses, but most are too afraid of being fired or persecuted to speak up.

Prisoner-rights activist Vladimir Osechkin told "Novaya gazeta" recently that his NGO had filmed video statements from three other Butyrka officers who, unlike Kozlov, are unwilling to be publicly identified.

Kozlov says he expects more resistance and knows that other recent whistle-blowers in Russia have been dismissed and even prosecuted. But even if that happens, he says, he will continue to work for reform as a civil-society activist.

written in Prague by RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson on the basis of reporting by Yelena Vlasenko of RFE/RL's Russian Service
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