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Former Butyrka Inmate Says, 'They Throw You There To Break You'

Roman Popkov is escorted into the defendants' cage before a session at a court in Moscow in March 2008.
Roman Popkov is escorted into the defendants' cage before a session at a court in Moscow in March 2008.
The death last month of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in Moscow's Butyrka prison sparked a public debate over the notorious living conditions in Russian jails and holding cells. Roman Popkov, who led the Moscow branch of the banned National Bolshevik party, spent more than two years in pretrial detention in Butyrka. He was recently awarded 5,000 euros after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that his detention was illegal. Popkov speaks to Anastasia Kirilenko of RFE/RL's Russian Service about life in one of the city's most infamous prisons.

RFE/RL: What can you tell us about your experience in Butyrka prison?

Roman Popkov:
I was held in the second cell block of Butyrka, the same place as Magnitsky. All the images are familiar to me. As I read his diaries [written in prison], I understood that nothing has changed in the year [since I was released]. There's the same dark atmosphere. And this cell block, in fact, is a torture cell block.

The majority of Butyrka prison cells are big rooms, with some 20 to 25 beds and more or less acceptable conditions. But in the second cell block, nothing has changed for years. There are the same terrible conditions -- small cells with four to six beds. These are the cells for special people -- known criminal bosses, political prisoners, "Nazbols" [members of the banned National Bolshevik Party], and, as we see now, businessmen.

Friends and relatives pay their last respects to Sergei Magnitsky in Moscow on November 20.
They throw people there with a single aim -- to break them, to sap their health. Being in a big cell with 20 to 30 people is somehow easier. There's a mutual sense of support. If the administration is putting pressure on prisoners, you can organize a small revolt, make loud demands for medical help, or somehow press for something.

And here, [in the second cell block], there are only two or three helpless people in a "stone sack." Medical assistance is of much worse quality there. We had to call for a doctor for our cell mate, who had a weak heart. During his attacks, we would knock on the metal doors and call for a doctor. We waited for hours until basic medical assistance was provided.

When they searched the room -- when the administration was looking for forbidden substances -- the prison officials entered the cell in a group and threw all your belongings out into the corridor, stepping on them with their boots. They would make trumped-up charges against people, send prisoners to lockup. We all saw this. One of my buddies had to spend 15 days in lockup, reportedly because he was caught sleeping during daytime hours.

Any central Moscow prison has a special cell block designed to put pressure on prisoners, with small cells, practically in the basement. It's not because there's no other place where they can serve their time -- Butyrka was recently cleared out, there's lots of free space. The National Bolsheviks were the first "clients" of the second cell block. People charged with Article 159 -- fraud -- get sentenced by someone from the GSU [the main investigations directorate of the Moscow police] to serve time in Butyrka, and then Butyrka transfers them to these basements, to make people more amenable during the investigation and in the courtroom. This is a common practice.

Butyrka prison in Moscow
RFE/RL: After Magnitsky's death, several top officials from the Federal Correction Service (FSIN) were dismissed. Do you think this will help improve the situation in Russian prisons?

I think FSIN chose the easiest way out. I don't think the conditions in the second cell block are going to change. [To solve the problem], human rights activists need to come to this particular [cell block]. Because when they come, they're usually shown the corridors of the special, more or less attractive, cell blocks that have been specially prepared for guests to visit. They should go the places where access is closed to human rights activists. The second cell block should be visited by some serious delegation.

RFE/RL: You have the legal option of sending a formal complaint to the Prosecutor-General's Office regarding the conditions of your stay in prison. Is that something you're considering?

Sending complaints to the Prosecutor's Office is stupid. The FSIN, the Interior Ministry, and Prosecutor-General's Office… it's very difficult to see justice triumph when you pit one of these institutions against another. My lawyer and I are considering the possibility of sending a complaint to the [European Court of Human Rights] in Strasbourg.

We've already won one lawsuit there regarding my pretrial detention, and the Russian Federation has to pay 5,000 euros. Now we're considering a second lawsuit, regarding the prison conditions.

Translation by Komila Nabiyeva

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