Russian officials describe the November 2012 disturbances at prison camp No. 6 in the Urals town of Kopeisk as a violent uprising.
Prisoners and their advocates say it was a desperate and peaceful protest against alleged torture and abuse.
Now, although 17 defendants have been on trial in Kopeisk for more than 18 months, activists say there is little expectation that the truth -- or justice -- will emerge.
“We believe that the accusations and the criminal prosecution of the prisoners is not justified because they were protesting to defend their rights, to protect themselves from torture and extortion, and they were doing it peacefully,” Aleksei Laptev, a Russian member of the European Prison Litigation Network who is monitoring the Kopeisk trial, told RFE/RL’s Russian Service.
“These facts have been established and have not, in principle, been contested. There are also two verdicts by the courts against the head of the colony, Denis Mekhanov,” he said. “Moreover, these facts have been established in a report by the presidential advisory Council on Human Rights and Civil Society.”
Former prison director Mekhanov was convicted in December 2014 of extorting prisoners and their relatives and abusing his position. He was given a three-year suspended sentence and sent home -- a verdict that activists saw as evidence of a conspiracy of prosecutors and the court to protect the defendant.
Moreover, two other former employees of the camp -- Viktor Krayev and Sergei Davletov -- were convicted on similar charges and fined 200,000 rubles ($3,100) and 300,000 rubles ($4,700), respectively.
'They Smashed My Car'
The events of late November 2012 at prison camp No. 6 (IK-6) remain murky. A tense situation in the prison had been building up for months. In June 2012, Gazeta.ru and other Russian media published scandalous reports of the alleged extortion and abuse, specifically implicating Mekhanov and former Chelyabinsk Oblast Deputy Governor Viktor Timashev, who is serving a 10-year term for bribery at IK-6.
Relatives of prisoners learned on November 25, 2012, that something bad was going on at the prison. When they tried to reach the site, they found the road blocked by a battalion of riot police.
Those who were stopped on the road to the prison say the police suddenly began to disperse them violently.
“They smashed my car; they beat me so much that I lost consciousness twice,” says Dmitry Kolomeitsev, who is now a defendant at the trial, accused of organizing an “uprising.” “My car was smashed into pieces -- hardly anything left untouched. They claim that I attacked them and tried to run them down, the riot police. Then I supposedly got out of my car and smashed it. Even though there are clearly traces of their rubber truncheons on the car. This is in the record.”
Oksana Trufanova is a local human rights activist who was at the scene that night.
“I fell to my knees on the ice,” she recalled. “And a red-headed riot police officer attacked me. Apparently in the excitement he’d forgotten to lower his visor. He was waving his truncheon. I showed him my identification card and told him who I was. He said, ‘Get the hell out of here, rights activist! F*** off.’ Then a call came over the radio and they all turned back.”
Police at the time said that eight officers were injured in the altercation and that most of the 38 people who were arrested were “drunk.”
Meanwhile, Russian social media were flooded with images of prisoners standing on the roof of a building in front of handmade banners crafted from sheets with slogans calling for protection from torture and extortion.
A few days later, Trufanova was allowed into the prison with a group of rights monitors, including representatives of the presidential council on human rights.
“Inside the prison, there was a protest going on,” she said. “It was spontaneous and clearly hadn’t been organized by anyone. There were no telephones there. The people who say the banners were prepared in advance are lying…. That idea also arose spontaneously.”
Of the defendants in the current trial, 12 were inmates at the prison and five were among those arrested on the access road.
One of the defendants, Oleg Loktionov, was in the prison hospital when the protest broke out, recovering from a suicide attempt. He had been serving his time peacefully until June 2012 when he witnessed the fatal beating of prisoner Nikolai Korovkin and sent a written account of the incident to government rights monitors.
Activist Trufanova says the charges against Loktionov and the other prisoners are retribution for their defiance.
“When the investigators came to the prison, Mekhanov hadn’t been fired yet,” she said. “When they said, ‘Guys, make a list of those who you think organized the protest and took part in it,’ the…prison officials just made a list of the ‘complainers’ and handed it over. Luckily, they didn’t charge all 200 ‘complainers,’ but just the most active ones.”
She notes that prisoner and now defendant Yevgeny Terekhin was among those charged, even though he was confined to an isolation cell at the time.
“They didn’t care that he was in solitary confinement at the time and had no idea what was going on,” Trufanova said. “When he heard that the guards were coming toward his cell, he thought they were coming to beat him again, so he slit his wrists.”
Terekhin was scheduled to complete his nine-year term for a nonviolent offense in 2015. Instead, he has remained in prison in pretrial detention. He has told activists that he has personally been subjected to torture and beating repeatedly during his time at IK-6.
“They picked Terekhin because he maintained active contact with [rights monitors],” activist Trufanova said. “He was one of the few who refused to recant his allegations.”
Charges of the rampant abuse of convicts in Russian prisons have again made headlines in Russia. Opposition activist Ildar Dadin last month published an open letter detailing torture and abuse at the prison where he is being held in Karelia.
“It is a system of torture,” said Trufanova. “And it still exists across the whole country. What happened in Kopeisk is exactly word-for-word what Dadin is saying.”