IRKUTSK, Russia -- On March 7, 37-year-old Russian convict Yevgeny Rylsky died in a prison hospital in Irkutsk, to which he had been transferred a few days earlier from the notorious prison IK-15 outside Angarsk.
"His spleen had been ruptured," said Vladimir Osechkin, founder of the prisoners' rights NGO Gulagu.net, citing several confidential sources among both prisoners and prison staff. "His collarbone was broken, and other internal organs were injured. The doctors also found bedsores. That is, Rylsky had been beaten and had been lying in bed in life-threatening condition for at least three or four days at IK-15, during the time that an inspection commission from Moscow was there."
Word of Rylsky's death came just days after two senior prison officials in the Irkutsk region -- IK-6 prison warden Aleksei Arapov and the operations director of Detention Center (SIZO) No. 1 in Irkutsk, Maksim Volf -- were detained in connection with the alleged torture and rape of two other inmates, which purportedly happened at facilities under their authority.
Inmate Tahirjon Bakiev was allegedly tortured and raped by fellow inmates at IK-6, while Kezhik Ondar, from the Tuva region, experienced similar abuse at the Irkutsk detention center. According to Osechkin, some of the inmates accused in the case have confessed to the authorities and have claimed they acted at the direction of prison officials.
All three prisoners were serving their sentences at the maximum-security IK-15 prison near the city of Angarsk, about 50 kilometers northwest of Irkutsk, in April 2020 when a riot broke out. Dozens of prisoners reportedly injured themselves, while others set fire to prison buildings to protest alleged abuse by prison guards.
After the uprising was violently quelled by riot police, dozens of prisoners were transferred from IK-15 to other prisons and detention centers in the Irkutsk region. Activists believe that many of them are being tortured in an attempt by the authorities to get them to confess to organizing the riot.
About 50 prisoners, so far, have filed complaints of abuse in connection with the IK-15 uprising, says local defense lawyer Dmitry Dmitriyev, who is working on the case. "It is still too early to say where it will end," Dmitriyev told RFE/RL. "Not all of those named by victims have even been officially named as suspects, while not all those who are officially suspects have been dealt with appropriately."
Volf, the arrested former official at the Irkutsk detention center, has been released to house arrest despite the seriousness of the alleged crimes that took place under his watch, Dmitriyev added.
'The Law Doesn't Work In Irkutsk'
Moreover, prisoners' rights activists say the latest revelations are just part of a pattern of systemic abuse in the region's prisons dating back decades.
"I was in a detention center in Novosibirsk, and it is like night and day," said Anatoly Lesnikh, a prisoner being held at SIZO No. 1 after being convicted of theft. "The guards always spoke to you using polite pronouns. If you had the right to write a letter, you wrote a letter. If you had to right to a visit, you got a visit. There was never any problem meeting with your lawyer. But everything is just the opposite in Irkutsk."
"For instance, there is Article 51 of the constitution that gives the right not to testify against yourself," Lesnikh added. "In Novosibirsk, if you cite Article 51, you will sit and sit but no one will bother you. In Irkutsk, they don't even know about Article 51. They say things like: 'Don't you know? The law doesn't work in Irkutsk.' The prison system in Irkutsk is a completely separate country."
Tahirjon Bakiev's wife, Anastasia Bakieva, was able to see her husband in the hospital on February 24 as he was recovering from a long operation to repair damage to his intestines and other organs. "He walks with difficulty," she told RFE/RL. "He has a colostomy bag. He is barely able to move and can't really sit down."
Bakieva said her husband called her around Christmastime and told her he'd been transferred to IK-6. "His voice was normal and he asked when I could come and visit," she said. "I promised to come in February."
But at the end of January, she said, she received a call from another prisoner saying that her husband was being tortured. "I tried to call for almost a month before someone finally confirmed to me that he was in the hospital at IK-6," Bakieva said.
Her husband told her that in January he had been transferred to barracks No. 10, which is notorious in IK-6 as the home of the prison's "razrabotchiki" -- inmates who violently "work over" other inmates at the behest of prison officials.
"After his transfer to No. 10, the razrabotchiki came up with pretexts to create conflicts with him," she said, recounting her husband's story. The conflicts quickly escalated to physical beatings.
She said that when Bakiev appealed to guards for help, they instead bound his hands with tape and left him helpless together with the razrabotchiki, who proceeded to beat and torture him.
"After they beat him, they raped him with a mop handle," Bakieva said. "Then they threw him under a bunk and covered it with bags and other things so that no one could see their victim. For more than two days he was lying there, and during roll calls one of the razrabotchiki answered for him."
Bakieva added that her repeated requests that her husband be transferred to another hospital have been denied.
Activist Osechkin said Bakiev has named six razrabotchiki who allegedly victimized him, but none of them has been charged in connection with the case. One of the men Bakiev named, inmate Denis Ryazanov, has already been convicted of the 2013 torture and murder of fellow prisoner Aleksandr Chestyunin in SIZO No. 1.
"Bakiev lost no less than 75 centimeters of his intestines, turning a healthy man into a disabled person with a colostomy bag," Osechkin said.
Beaten By 'Mafia' And 'Yarovoi'
Pavel Fyodorov, a resident of the town of Bodaibo, about 1,300 kilometers north of Irkutsk, was in SIZO No. 1 from October 2018 until December 2019. He told RFE/RL he was tortured there by two razrabotchiki that he knew by the nicknames "Mafia" and "Yarovoi," on the orders of investigators who wanted him to confess to a crime he didn't commit. He said they stripped him naked and tied him splayed out to the side of some bunk beds.
"They used a water boiler to burn my palms and my legs," he said. "All over, actually."
Fyodorov said that when he tried to smuggle a letter with some of his allegations to a guard "who looked more or less normal," he was sent back into the cell with the two razrabotchiki. They proceeded to knock out most of his teeth.
Fyodorov added that he requested visits by representatives of the Public Oversight Commission, an advisory body that monitors conditions in prisons, five times. "Every time, the investigators at the detention center made up some story about how I was out being questioned or something so I could not speak with them," he told RFE/RL. "They apparently believed this and meanwhile I was tied naked to the bunks."
After more than a year in the detention center, Fyodorov was released without being charged. Another man from Bodaibo was not so lucky, Fyodorov said. He was convicted after "confessing" to the crime.
Adam Gisayev, a native of the Chechen capital of Grozny, was in SIZO No. 1 from March 26, 2018, until December 12, 2019. He was never charged after it turned out that the crime he was accused of had been committed before Gisayev arrived in Irkutsk.
"I will remember those nine months for the rest of my life," he told RFE/RL. "I was in cell No. 406 and during that entire time, with just a few breaks, I was beaten by an inmate called Mafia. He didn't rape me, but he beat me so badly that, although I weighed 96 kilograms when I arrived, I was just 69 kilos when I got out. My friends who met me couldn't recognize me. Of course, the staff at the jail knew all about it."
During the investigation into the allegations of torture connected to the IK-15 prison uprising, several prisoners told investigators that they had worked as razrabotchiki, according to documents seen by RFE/RL. Inmate Sergei Shmakov testified that he agreed to participate in the torture of fellow inmates after prison guards threatened to rape him.
On February 26, the body of inmate Adygzhy Aimyr-ool was found in a solitary-confinement cell in Irkutsk region prison IK-25. "His body showed likely signs of a violent death," Osechkin said, citing reports from prisoners who asked not to be identified. "But the prison administration is saying that it was suicide."
The inmate's relatives say they don't believe the 26-year-old would commit suicide.
The press office of the regional penitentiaries administration told RFE/RL that investigators from the police and the prosecutor's office were looking into the case.
"Information about signs of a violent death on the body of the convict that has appeared in the media is false," the office's statement said.