MOSCOW -- Under the cover of darkness in the early hours, Russian jailors unexpectedly transferred 30 Greenpeace activists from their Murmansk cells onto a special prison train carriage that rolled out of the far northern city.
Lawyers and relatives were given no advance warning. It was unclear where the prisoners were being taken. And it was unclear when they would arrive.
There was nothing unusual about the prison transfer, which took place on November 11. The only thing about it that stood out was that investigators subsequently clarified that the group was being transferred to a pretrial detention center in St. Petersburg -- an exception to standard procedure.
In Russia, prison transfers can take days, weeks, or even months. And, as the case of jailed Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova illustrates, the authorities are not legally obliged to provide information as to the detainee's whereabouts or condition during this period.
Tolokonnikova's location had been a national mystery from October 21, when prison authorities announced that she was being transferred from Women’s Prison Camp No. 14 in Mordovia, until November 12, when officials announced her location at a new penal colony in Siberia.
The mystery surrounding her journey has drawn attention to the secretive and unsettling way that prisoners are transported across vast distances in ramshackle, decades-old prison carriages to new facilities -- a process known in Russian simply as "etapirovanie," or "inmate transfer."
INTERACTIVE MAP: Tolokonnikova's Travels
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The "etapirovanie" process involves specially equipped train cars with cells and a network of "transfer prisons" where inmates sleep -- sometimes for days while they await the next prison train -- en route to their ultimate destination. The prisoners remain incommunicado throughout the process, which is highly secretive.
"The very fact that a person disappears from the field of view of relatives and rights workers is scandalous, especially in modern times," says Valery Sergeyev, deputy director of the Moscow-based Center for Prison Reform. "This is not the era of the GULAG [Soviet-era prison camps]. This practice is a typical tool of the GULAG."
Sergeyev painted a grim picture of the conditions that detainees endure.
He said 12 prisoners are usually confined in a cramped space that would normally accommodate just four on commercial trains. Inmates also typically have 50-kilogram bags with them, meaning they have to "take turns to sleep." They are only permitted to use the toilet at allotted times twice a day. They are given drinking water twice a day.
Pyotr Verzilov, Tolokonnikova's husband, has spent the past three weeks traveling thousands of kilometers acting on erroneous tips as to his wife’s whereabouts.
He spoke to RFE/RL by telephone from the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk on November 11. "We were expecting that she would arrive in Krasnoyarsk last Thursday [November 7]," he said. "But this did not happen."
Quoting Justice Ministry officials, Russian Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin told the Interfax news agency on November 12 that Tolokonnikova had arrived in a prison in Krasnoyarsk Krai. Russian authorities decided to transfer Tolokonnikova to Siberia because she was born in Krasnoyarsk Krai and has been registered as a permanent resident of the city of Norilsk there, Lukin said.
In August 2012, members of the Pussy Riot art collective -- Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich -- were sentenced to two years in prison for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. The three were arrested in March 2012 after performing a "Punk Prayer" in Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral calling on the Virgin Mary to liberate Russia from Vladimir Putin.
Samutsevich was released on probation in October 2012. Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova are due to complete their sentences in March 2014.
On his blog
, author and opposition activist Dmitry Bykov called Tolokonikova "the world's most famous Russian other than the president," noting that "she has rapidly and decisively forced the authorities to discredit themselves."
In September, Tolokonnikova went on hunger strike to protest conditions for inmates at the prison colony in Mordovia, where she was incarcerated. She also demanded that she be transferred to another prison.
'Act Of Revenge'
A Presidential Human Rights Council commission confirmed Tolokonnikova's reports. The scandal drew attention to an issue that had been mostly out of the public eye -- and raised hopes of reform.
Tolokonnikova was hospitalized, but after recovering was transferred back to her prison colony in Mordovia. She then announced another hunger strike, after which the authorities announced their decision to transfer her. Tolokonnikova's whereabouts had been unknown until now. On November 6, Amnesty International called on the Russian government
to disclose her location.
Sergeyev said the majority of prison carriages in use were manufactured in the late 1960s -- although the Federal Penitentiary Services began replacing them in recent years. He said there are no windows on cells and there is a problem with ventilation that is felt acutely when prisoners are kept onboard for more than two days.
Verzilov calls the lengthy transfer his wife is enduring an act of revenge by the Federal Penitentiary Service.
“We think that this super-long prison transfer which has gone together with the complete isolation of [Nadezhda] is basically a sort of punishment that has been used by the Russian prison system in order to punish Nadezhda for the big attention that her letters have brought to the human rights abuses inside the prison system," he says.