Russian authorities say they are investigating the alleged torture of a prison inmate in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg after a local news portal published disturbing footage showing the man being subjected to humiliating punishments and indicating that he had been severely whipped.
Russia's Investigative Committee said in a February 18 statement that it launched the criminal investigation based on the videos published earlier in the day by the website, 66.ru, which reported that the clips and documents it has obtained suggest such cruelty -- including sexual abuse -- is endemic at Yekaterinburg's Penal Colony No. 2.
The first video shows a purported inmate at the facility naked and being forced to dunk his head in toilets, which his tormentors proceed to flush. Throughout the one-minute clip, in which he also appears to be spat on, they cackle in delight and ridicule the man as a "rat" and "bitch."
The second video appears to show the same man, still naked, face down on the bathroom floor with his hands bound behind his back, which is covered with bloody lacerations consistent with wounds from a whipping. One man proceeds to urinate on him.
It was not immediately evident from the footage if those subjecting the man to this treatment and filming it were employees of the prison. Nor was it clear when the video was shot.
According to 66.ru, the news portal obtained a third video showing abuse in the prison that it deemed too disturbing to publish.
The Investigative Committee said it was investigating possible torture and abuse of office in connection with the published materials.
"A legal evaluation will be made not only of the actions of citizens who directly participated in torture, but also of officials under whose authority such use of violence was made possible," the committee's regional branch in Yekaterinburg said in the statement.
Rights groups and Western governments have long criticized the living conditions and abuses that inmates face in Russian prisons.
The U.S. State Department's most recent annual Human Rights Report says that, in some cases, Russian "prison authorities encouraged prisoners to abuse certain inmates." It also said prison authorities "provided little or no protection" to so-called "untouchables" in an "elaborate inmate-enforced caste systems," namely "informers, gay inmates, rapists, prison rape victims, and child molesters."
In addition to the videos, 66.ru published a copy of what it said is a prisoner's handwritten letter suggesting such a caste system was used to coerce inmates into keeping quiet about abuses at Yekaterinburg's Penal Colony No. 2.
In the letter, dated 2012, the purported inmate promises not to disclose information about his first several weeks in the camp, when his lack of knowledge of the written and unwritten rules of the prison could result in harsh punishments, or about the prison in general.
The author then "requests" to be sodomized and placed in a "harem" -- a separate brigade of prisoners who were sexually abused and generally are not allowed to mingle with other inmates -- should he break his vow of secrecy.
In its report, 66.ru said it had collected several such letters dated in various years and addressed to different heads of the prison colony.
"This piece of paper carries great weight," the website quoted prisoners' rights activist Aleksei Sokolov as saying. "If this document lands in the hands of other prisoners, then the author will be placed in the harem....This is a typical weapon to pressure inmates."
He added that such matters occur not only at the Yekaterinburg facility, "but in other [prison] colonies" in the region as well.
Aleksandr Levchenko, a spokesman for the regional branch of Russia's Federal Prison Service, was quoted by the state-run TASS news agency as saying that the materials published by 66.ru could be a "provocation" by rights groups to "destabilize the situation" in the prison.