MOSCOW -- A group of former inmates and convicts' relatives has publicly alleged widespread abuse by staff at a prison in northwestern Russia currently housing a high-profile protester who claimed torture earlier this month.
Ildar Dadin, who is serving 2 1/2 years for repeatedly holding unsanctioned demonstrations, in an open letter on November 1 alleged systematic abuse by prison guards.
Dadin's wife has warned that "they will kill him" if he remains at the IK-7 prison in Karelia.
The new allegations from prisoners and families come as Valery Maksimenko, deputy director of Russia's Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN), said a formal investigation had found no evidence of abuse against Dadin or other inmates. He called the activist "a very talented faker with great artistry and a great imagination."
"Today we will rebut the words of the deputy director of the FSIN," said Lev Ponomaryov, head of the For Human Rights movement, who led the November 28 press conference at the Sakharov Center where former inmates and relatives of current inmates painted a grim picture of prison abuse.
"My son has been there two years and he has another 1 1/2 years to go," Zhanata Gabzayeva, the mother of a 25-year-old Chechen serving time at IK-7, told reporters. "I'm not even sure whether he'll make it out of there alive."
She said her son, Khasbulat, was sent to the punishment cell for no reason and beaten until he lost consciousness, and has been targeted with other abuse.
"They hang him by his legs, they beat his feet, dunk him in the toilet, pour cold water on him," Gabzayeva said. "Help, please. You cannot treat people like this just because they are behind bars. There are no laws there."
"We don't even treat animals like this. How is this possible?" she added.
The allegations increase the public pressure that began on November 1 when the 34-year-old opposition activist Dadin said he had been subjected to violent beatings and death threats from the warden and jailers at the IK-7 prison facility.
The European Parliament called in a joint statement on November 24 for Dadin's immediate release and for an independent investigation into allegations of torture. It also discussed "targeted sanctions" against individuals responsible for Dadin's treatment.
Human rights workers visited Dadin in prison and recommended that he be transferred from the IK-7 prison but Dadin declined such a solution, saying he believes his staying there would help.
The Federal Penitentiary Service has said its doctors found no traces of trauma or violence when they examined Dadin.
Maksimenko said on November 28 that a Federal Penitentiary Service inquiry found no evidence to support Dadin's allegations of torture or of the "illegal use of physical force against other inmates."
At the press conference in the Sakharov Center later the same day, Ponomaryov read out a transcript of an interview he conducted on November 27 with a former inmate dubbed "Bek," who served a five-year sentence at the prison in Karelia Oblast but who was unwilling to attend the press conference out of fear of retribution.
Bek said he was immediately placed in the punishment cell upon arrival at the prison by guards who smelled of alcohol.
He said that the jailers would "take you out into the short corridor, where there is no camera, and turn off their personal cameras" before lifting him by his legs and contorting him into highly uncomfortable positions.
"When the pain becomes unbearable," Bek said, "they throw you onto the floor and start kicking you, literally trampling you into the ground. They don't kick in the head -- they kick the kidneys and the legs. It goes on for six-to-seven minutes."
He said that a female nurse was usually present during the beatings. "They watched and said, 'What are you shouting for?' or, 'Hold on,' or, 'Stop pretending.' I saw nothing human in any of them."
Other relatives and four former inmates who appeared via Skype made similar allegations.
Ponomaryov said the evidence and statements will be submitted to law enforcement for an investigation into the Karelia prison.
The purported mother of an inmate whose name was not given praised Dadin as a "real" human rights defender for declining to be transferred from the prison. "Today I have high hopes, thanks to human rights defender Dadin. After Dadin ended up there, there is resonance," she said.
"Today we are appealing to society with the hope that society can influence at least this," the woman said, complaining that regional law-enforcement agencies in Karelia cover up for each other's wrongdoing.
She said she hoped that outside investigators from Moscow would become involved.