Moscow, 6 July 2005 (RFE/RL) -- During the night of 26 to 27 June, hundreds of inmates at the Lgov jail slashed their wrists, stomachs, necks, and limbs with razor blades. Some of them swallowed blades and metal hooks. The mass mutilation was followed by a hunger strike.
Mutilation and hunger strikes are not rare in Russian prisons -- inmates often have to resort to desperate actions to make their protests heard.
"The conditions in Russian prisons and preliminary detention centers are monstrous.... Conditions are changing very slowly and remain close to torture."
But the scale of this mutilation is unprecedented in Russia. While the authorities say some 300 inmates inflicted wounds on themselves, human rights groups put this figure at around 800.
Aleksandr Malygin, 23, was among those who slashed their bodies, although he then had only three more days to serve. Speaking to reporters in Moscow this week, he said the rebellion broke out when some inmates were beaten up for refusing to become members of special units responsible for helping guards enforce order in the prison.
"Of course, the guys started to refuse," Malygin said. "They were then beaten up, three of them straight away. They began cutting their veins. No one was brought from the medical unit, they were all sent to the solitary confinement cell. They cut their bellies, their necks, their arms. People say there were 200, 300 hundred of them? More than 800 people slashed themselves there, and 1,300 are on hunger strike. They drove nails into their lungs, some swallowed blades, others swallowed hooks."
Malygin showed reporters several cuts on his forearms and stomach. Although the cuts appeared to be deep, they had not been closed with stitches.
An investigation into the incident confirmed that inmates had been beaten up by prison guards. On 4 July, the prison director, Yuri Bushin, was sacked together with his two deputies.
For Human Rights, a rights group that has actively helped the Lgov inmates, has hailed the dismissals as a small victory.
But this has done little to appease the families of the inmates, many of whom are still without news from their imprisoned relatives.
Representatives of For Human Rights say dozens of prisoners have been taken to unknown destinations.
Tatyana Nikitina's son Nikolai was transferred to the Lgov jail in early June. She has managed to see him since the start of the protest, but she says he had severe wounds and was not receiving any medical care.
"He showed his hand to me, his left hand was cut in five places, two cuts were very deep and still bleeding," she said. "No treatment had been given. I asked: 'Kolya, why did you cut yourself?' He said: 'I have very strong stomach pains, we are on hunger strike.' I started crying and said: 'Kolya, for God's sake, stop the hunger strike.' He answered: 'Mom, I can't. We won't stop until they get rid of Bushin.'"
Lev Ponomarev is the executive director of For Human Rights in Moscow. He says his group has received hundreds of letters from inmates describing how prison staff beat and humilate them.
Ponomarev says cases have been reported to his organization where inmates were forced to march and sing at the sound of drums and undress collectively to undergo humiliating body searches.
According to him, it is not rare that bodies of inmates who allegedly committed suicide are returned to their relatives with contusions and broken limbs.
"The conditions in Russian prisons and preliminary detention centers are monstrous," Ponomarev said. "Recently I saw a report on a detention center which has three times more people than it should. People have to take turns to sleep. Conditions are changing very slowly and remain close to torture."
The mass mutilation that took place in Lgov has created outrage in Russia. And Ponomarev said it is now threatening to spark similar violent protests in other Russian prisons: "Our employees are in a state of panic. People are calling from everywhere to say: 'Should we also slash ourselves so that you come and restore order? A similar sadist heads our prison, we are beaten up.' Our phones are simply jammed [with complaints]."
Russian and foreign rights groups regularly criticize Russia over the dire conditions in its prisons. Despite recent progress, many Russian jails remain overcrowded and disease-ridden, with soaring HIV and tuberculosis infection rates.