Prague, 12 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Right now, Russia's most famous prisoner, Mikhail Khodorkovskii, and his former business associate Platon Lebedev are likely trundling through the Russian steppe on a crowded prison train, bound for a labor camp that could be thousands of kilometers away.
Only the Federal Corrections Service knows their whereabouts. As Khodorkovskii's mother told RFE/RL yesterday, she has received no news of her son and neither have his lawyers.
"We sit and listen to the radio," Marina Khodorkovskaya said. "The lawyers don't know [where he is being sent] and we don't know."
The Russians have a special word for it: "etapirovanie." It means the transport of prisoners in stages, usually by train, to a distant labor camp. Etapirovanie originated under the tsars, when prisoners were sent by stagecoach to Siberia. It was expanded manifold by the Soviets who shipped prisoners to the Gulag in cattle cars and it continues, on a lesser scale, to this day.
Khodorkovskii's lawyer, Yurii Shmidt, told RFE/RL that the worst part of the journey is that it usually takes a very long time.
"Usually, all convicted prisoners are sent off in special train cars, on a 'journey in stages,'" Shmidt said. "This trip can take an indirect route to the penal colony -- almost by way of the Equator -- because many people are sent together and they all have to get to different places."
Incapable of communicating with the outside world, they are at the mercy of their guards, who usually stuff up to 20 prisoners in a six-berth compartment.
Pavel Chikov runs the legal-affairs department of Public Verdict, a Moscow-based nongovernmental organization that tracks the actions of the Russian justice system. He said that during the transport period -- which can last days or in some cases, even weeks -- the Federal Prison Service does not inform anyone about a prisoner's location. By law, a prisoner's relatives must be told where a convict is serving his or her sentence, but no deadlines are set out.
"This rule about informing relatives is not applied in the way it was intended," Chikov said. "It is applied literally, which means that since there is no time limit given for when relatives have to be informed, at what stage they must be informed, there is no formal violation of any rules on the part of the prison administration when they send this information only after all the convicts have already been delivered to the various penal colonies."
Valerii Abramkin, head of the Moscow Center For Prison Reform, another NGO, was quoted in "The Moscow Times" today as saying the time during which prisoners are in transit is used to "shock them and break their spirit."
Incapable of communicating with the outside world, they are at the mercy of their guards, who usually stuff up to 20 prisoners in a six-berth compartment. Abramkin told the newspaper that during stops, prisoners are often pulled out and made to lie down or kneel in the snow or dirt for hours and beaten.
Guards are frequently changed so the abusers cannot be traced, according to Abramkin.
Yelena Lipster, Platon Lebedev's lawyer, said she is worried that her client's already poor health could further deteriorate during his transfer to the penal colony.
"This 'transport in stages' is a very difficult procedure for the prisoners," Lipster said. "And naturally, people who are sick have a harder time than the others. Of course, it can have an effect on their health."
"It's easier in the penal colony. There is considerably more freedom. There is at least the freedom to move around the territory of the camp. A person doesn't sit in a 20-square-meter or 30-square-meter cell where they can count the number of steps from the door to the window." -- lawyer Yurii Shmidt
The good news -- if there can be any -- is that arrival at the labor camp, compared with pretrial detention and the train ordeal, usually brings some relief, according to Shmidt.
"Naturally, it's easier in the penal colony. There is considerably more freedom. There is at least the freedom to move around the territory of the camp," Shmidt said. "A person doesn't sit in a 20-square-meter or 30-square-meter cell where they can count the number of steps from the door to the window. He may spend most of his time in the open air. In open-regime camps, he has the right to four long-term visits, where his wife can come and stay for several days. He also has the right to six four-hour long visits per year. Compare this with what he had at the Matrosskaya Tishina detention facility [in Moscow], where twice a month he could speak to his relatives for a maximum of 40 minutes, by telephone, through a glass partition. Naturally, pretrial detention facilities can be compared to prisons and the conditions are incomparable."
Unless, of course, the penal colony is near the Arctic Circle. Interfax yesterday cited an unidentified source as saying Khodorkovskii was being sent to a labor camp in the far northern Yamal Peninsula -- home to nomadic reindeer herders and permafrost. The head of the region's prison administration told journalists he could neither deny nor confirm the report.
If further criminal charges are filed against Khodorkovskii, which appears possible as several investigations into his business dealings continue, he would likely be sent back to Moscow's Matrosskaya Tishina detention facility for another trial.
(RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report.)