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Russian Prison Whistle-Blower Faces Reprisals

  • RFE/RL

Butyrka remand prison in Moscow is where lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died in November 2009, allegedly after months in harsh conditions and after being denied basic medical care.

Butyrka remand prison in Moscow is where lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died in November 2009, allegedly after months in harsh conditions and after being denied basic medical care.

MOSCOW -- Usually the Russian authorities are slow to respond to complaints of human rights abuses. But Senior Lieutenant Aleksei Kozlov, an officer at Moscow's notorious Butyrka remand prison, is learning that sometimes the response comes quickly.

On November 17, Kozlov gave an interview to RFE/RL's Russian Service in which he talked about routine rights abuses in Butyrka and described a "double standard" under which some prisoners are given preferential treatment, including access to computers and mobile telephones, while others are subjected to routine harassment and abuse.

He said that the attitudes and conditions that led to the high-profile death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in November 2009 still prevail at the prison, or SIZO.

Kozlov's candor produced an immediate reaction. But not the one he'd hoped for.

"A staff meeting was called, but of the entire staff of the SIZO, 47 were at the meeting, including the head of the corrections personnel department for the city of Moscow. It was proposed that we discuss what I had done and someone in the room proposed that I be allowed to speak first," Kozlov says.

Aleksei Kozlov

Aleksei Kozlov

"But the head of the SIZO immediately said he didn't want to hear anything from me and he didn't want any advice," he continued. "Then an inspector from the educational department stood up and announced that he had made a written report about how he did not want to be in an office with me because it is likely that forbidden items might be found in the office, items that are not allowed on the territory of the prison."

There was no discussion of the content of Kozlov's interview or of the problems that he outlined, Kozlov says. "The representative of the Veterans Union said that they had been taught not to air dirty laundry in public. And I couldn't take this, so I stood up and answered that I had been taught to tell the truth."

Out On The Street

Kozlov's problems continued when he showed up for work on November 21. "I showed up at work and they didn't let me in," he says. "After about 15 minutes, someone came down, led me into an office, and said that the head of the SIZO had ordered me to clear out my personal things from my office and hand over my key. And I was told to report to the security department."

Kozlov was assigned to walk a beat on the street outside the prison, a place where no guard had ever been placed before. He said that his regular paycheck was about 3,000 rubles ($97) less this month. Kozlov plans to appeal to the Federal Corrections Service.

A spokesperson for the corrections service told RFE/RL that the allegations Kozlov made in his interview with RFE/RL were under investigation and preliminary findings could be released as early as the end of the week. In the meantime, the service cannot comment.

Kozlov says many of his co-workers have been supportive of his reform efforts, although they have been ordered not to communicate with him. He says he believes that many Butyrka staff members are fed up with the atmosphere in the prison but don't come forward for fear of reprisals and because they don't think the authorities will do anything.

"I think that there are some staff members there who would do the same thing," Kozlov says. "But people don't yet believe that doing that could bring any results because the control organs so far have not taken any steps."

Others Waiting To Speak Out?

Prisoner-rights activist Vladimir Osechkin is a member of President Dmitry Medvedev's Council on Civil Society and Human Rights, which is scheduled to hold an extraordinary session on November 24 to discuss the Magnitsky case and the situation in Russian prisons. His NGO is providing legal assistance to Kozlov.

Osechkin agrees that the Russian prison system harbors many potential Kozlovs who would come forward if only the government made a serious commitment to reform.

"In the corrections system there are more than 340,000 workers," Osechkin says, "and among them there are senior people who completely oppose the policies of the leadership and who do not intend to obey illegal orders or participate in corrupt conspiracies."

Human rights activists estimate that about 50 prisoners die in custody each year in remand prisons in Moscow alone.

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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