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North Koreans work at the construction site in the Russian Far East city Vladivostok.

Choe Myong Bok has lived in Russia since 1999, has carved out a living working odd jobs, and resides in St. Petersburg with his partner and their two young children.

But the North Korean defector's life in Russia has been one on the lam. While he arrived in the country legally with a group of laborers to work in a logging camp in Russia's Far East, he has been without documents since escaping from the camp and making his way to the northern capital.

Now Choe faces imminent deportation back to his homeland -- a fate his lawyer fears could mean torture or even death -- despite a ruling from the European Court Of Human Rights (ECHR) ordering Russia not to send him back until further review.

His situation stems from a year-old agreement between Russia and North Korea under which they agreed to repatriate citizens living illegally in each other's countries. Choe's detention in January left him at the mercy of the Vsevolozhsky district court, which ruled that the 54-year-old should be sent back to North Korea, effective February 10.

The ECHR -- to which Russia is a signatory -- ordered the Russian authorities on February 6 not to deport Choe until his case could be reviewed.

But his lawyer, Olga Tseytlina of the Memorial human rights organization, has expressed concerns that her client could be deported within days, and fears that he may have signed off on such a fate.

Tseytlina was quoted by the daily Kommersant media as saying that Federal Security Service (FSB) officers visited Choe's home on February 1 and asked him to sign some documents.

The lawyer suggests that Choe, whose knowledge of Russian is limited, might have signed a request to send him back to his home country.

Choe lives in St Petersburg with his Russian partner Yelena Kogai and their two young children. Kogai told Kommersant that Choe's passport was confiscated in 1999 when he arrived in Russia to work at the logging camp run by North Korean authorities in Amur Province, in Russia's Far East.

Choe reportedly escaped the camp in 2002 and moved to St. Petersburg, where he has since lived illegally without documents.

Kogai told the Russian daily that she met Choe in 2010, and that he worked on construction sites for churches and took other odd jobs to make a living.

Deadly Deportation

The deportation agreement worked out between Moscow and Pyongyang would most likely affect North Korean defectors living in Russia, as there are no known cases of Russian citizens living illegally in North Korea.

The United Nations criticized the treaty at the time, saying that sending defectors back to North Korea puts them at risk of serious harm in their home country. A 2014 UN report stated that defectors forcibly sent back home face detention, torture, or execution in North Korea.

It's unclear whether Choe has ever officially applied for asylum in Russia. However, Russian authorities reportedly often reject asylum requests by North Koreans.

According to the Civic Assistance human rights group in Russia, only two North Korean applicants out of 211 were granted refugee status in Russia between 2004 and 2014.

Ninety others out of 170 applicants were granted so-called temporary refuge, which lasts for only one year.

In 2008, Russian authorities deported North Korean defector Ryu En Nam, who sought asylum in Russia. Civic Assistance claims Ryu was killed by North Korean authorities who tied him to the back of a train after his forcible return home.

Choe's lawyer warns that he might face a similar fate if sent back.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service and Kommersant

Frustrated Siberians Take On Russia's Justice System

In 2016, one activist says, about 15,000 verdicts were delivered in Novosibirsk, only 12 of which were "not guilty." Of those, 10 were overturned on appeal by prosecutors.

Olga Linkova is desperate and angry. Her husband, Maksim Khakhlev, is serving a four-year sentence in a Siberian prison. He was found guilty in October of beating soldiers, a conviction on charges the couple says were completely fabricated and upheld by a sham trial.

"The prosecutors didn't bring a single victim to court," Linkova tells RFE/RL's Russian Service.

"There were a lot of procedural violations at the trial," she says. "One of the most glaring was that he was given a court-appointed lawyer even though he had his own attorney; the judges purposely scheduled a hearing for a day when the [defendant's chosen] attorney couldn't show up, and when he wasn't there, they replaced him."

The court-appointed lawyer, Linkova says, spent all of her time trying to get Khakhlev to sign a confession.

Although desperate, Linkova is not alone. She is one of around 1,000 relatives of convicts from Siberia and the Russian Far East who have banded together with Moscow prisoner-rights advocates to draw attention to what they say are outrageous abuses of the legal system.

"Some group that we didn't know, about 50 people, wrote to us about how they had come together around [Criminal Code] Article 228 -- narcotics," Olga Romanova, director of the Moscow nongovernmental organization Russia in Prison (Rus Sidyashchaya), says. "A lot of people are put into prison under that article, and it is very easy to do so. We were amazed that people had come together in this way and were sharing experiences with one another and helping each other."

By the time Romanova could travel to the Siberian city of Novosibirsk to meet with the fledgling activists, their ranks had grown to 1,000. And every one of them has a story of tragedy.

"These are people who have lost something very precious in life -- often, the most precious thing: their children, their spouse, or parents," Romanova says. "Many have lost their income, their faith in justice or mercy or the law. It is very hard to frighten such people. It is very hard to take anything from them."

As an example, Romanova tells of a woman she identifies only by first name, Tatyana. Her daughter, Nastya, has spent the last two years in Novosibirsk's remand prison (CIZO) No. 1 on drug charges. About six months ago, Nastya suffered a stroke and was partially paralyzed. When Tatyana goes to visit her, jail officials wheel her into the meeting room on a stretcher. She hasn't seen a doctor since the stroke.

Grassroots movements like the one emerging in Siberia are rare in Russia under President Vladimir Putin. But the appalling conditions in Russian prisons and rampant allegations of torture, extortion, and other abuse by prison officials are increasingly becoming a focus for activism around the country.

The Wild East

Romanova says such problems are magnified in Siberia and the Far East, where sentences and conditions are often harsher than in the European part of the country. "Of course such things happen across Russia," Romanova says, "but the concentration of misery per square meter, the extent of the unbearable injustice and official indifference in Siberia is definitely elevated."

In central Russia, she says, the average prison sentence for offenses under Article 228, the possession or manufacture of psychotropic substances or narcotics, is nine to 10 years. In Siberia, the average is 13-15 years.

Russian prisoner-rights activist Olga Romanova says that in Siberia and the Far East sentences and conditions are often harsher than in the European part of the country.
Russian prisoner-rights activist Olga Romanova says that in Siberia and the Far East sentences and conditions are often harsher than in the European part of the country.

In addition to those in prison on drug charges, many of the prisoners represented in Romanova's group are serving time for financial convictions -- cases that activists say are often trumped up.

"Lately they have been going after business owners under economic articles, usually Article 159 [on] swindling," says Dmitry Petrov, a former prisoner who is also part of Romanova's group. "As a rule, the cases are fabricated by those who want to take over the business -- often law enforcement figures. It is a widespread practice to go after a person either in order to take over the business or to destroy the business of a competitor."

One such case involved 40-year-old Roman Drozdov. He died in Novosibirsk's notorious CIZO-1 in November 2015 after spending four days in his cell spitting up blood. His widow is fighting for justice.

"This young woman has been left a widow with an infant daughter," Romanova says. "She is going to fight. She is going to fight for her husband's name. After all, he wasn't convicted of anything; his trial hadn't even started yet. She is going to fight to make sure that someone is held accountable for his death."

Former prisoner Petrov knows CIZO-1 well. He spent almost three years there while a swindling case against him was investigated and tried.

"Its history goes back to Stalin's times," Petrov says. "And not much has changed since then. The so-called Old Building was built in 1932. It is supposed to hold 2,300 people but often has as many as 3,000. When I was there, it was normal to have 12 or 15 prisoners in a cell designed for eight. People had to take turns sleeping."

He says that three prisoners died at CIZO-1 in the month of November alone, including prison-reform activist Pavel Podyachev. He was facing charges of cheating a city councilor of 3 million rubles ($50,000). "This is just one example of the high mortality rate," Petrov says, "and it is connected to the fact that there is almost no medical help there."

Making Your Name In Novosibirsk

Romanova has a theory about why Novosibirsk looks to some like the epicenter of injustice in Russia.

"Novosibirsk is the third-largest city in Russia after Moscow and St. Petersburg," she says. "It is home to the academies of the Interior Ministry and the Federal Security Service. There are numerous institutes connected with the military and law enforcement. Young men and women from across Siberia study there. And they quickly understand that it would be good to stay there or to be assigned to some other major city. But how? How can they stand out? By finding three cases of stolen sausages? You'll spend your whole life in some isolated village making a few hundred rubles a month. No one wants that."

"But if you find four criminal gangs and manage to get 20-year sentences for them," she adds, "that's the ticket. You'll be a colonel for sure."

In 2016, activist Petrov says, about 15,000 verdicts were delivered in Novosibirsk, only 12 of which were "not guilty." Of those, 10 were overturned on appeal by prosecutors.

Moreover, the harsh conditions in Siberia's prisons and pretrial detention centers are the result of their origins in the GULAG system of dictator Josef Stalin, Romanova says. "The last prison reform was conducted by [secret police head Lavrenty] Beria in 1953," she says. "No further reforms touched this area."

But even a hammer-and-tongs reform of the prison system, she says, is only "a half-measure." The real problem is the judicial system as a whole, she adds.

"And reforming the judicial system is a matter of pure politics," she says. "The judicial system now defends the current political situation. It is focused on defending our elections, defending the authorities in all possible ways. And this defense is what gives it the right to treat the people so criminally. For many reasons -- orders from the government, money, bribes, a banal desire not to do any work, fatigue, a lack of professionalism, whatever. And all of that is overlooked and allowed in exchange for it maintaining political stability, political succession, and the political class."

Robert Coalson contributed to this report

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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