Russia: Prisoner transport conditions evoke GULAG era legacy
Prisoners in Russia endure inhumane conditions, often for weeks on end, as they are transported thousands of miles in cramped, windowless trains to corrective colonies in distant parts of the country, according to a new report published by Amnesty International today.
Prisoner transportation in Russia: Travelling into the unknown documents the cruel and degrading conditions that both male and female prisoners continue to endure under practices inherited from the Soviet past.
“Convicted prisoners are packed into tiny spaces on trains with no ventilation, no natural light, little water, and infrequent access to toilets. At the end of journeys that can last well over a month, they finally arrive at their destination, thousands of miles away from their families,” said Denis Krivosheev, Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International.
“It’s time the Russian authorities finally rid themselves of the legacy of the GULAG. They must end these practices and ensure that prisoners are transported in conditions which comply with international law and standards.”
It’s time the Russian authorities finally rid themselves of the legacy of the GULAG
Prisoners are typically transported in special prison train carriages called “Stolypins” many of which date from the Soviet era. Twelve or more prisoners, along with their luggage, are put in each windowless compartment – of a size which on a normal passenger train would sleep only four people.
One prisoner described his journey, sharing a compartment with more than a dozen of other prisoners for up to four days during the five and a half week journey:
“We travelled for four days to Samara without bedding, in the clothes we came in, without anything. They didn’t even give us the chance to brush our teeth. It was 40 degrees Celsius, there was no water in the water container or in the toilet.”
During transportation, prisoners are only able to use the toilet once every five or six hours. During lengthy waits on railway sidings they have no access to toilets at all. Prisoners who have previously experienced conditions on the trains describe how they abstain from eating and drinking the night before being transported and take as many plastic bottles as they can.
Another former prisoner said:
“If I had known the day before I would have stopped drinking and I would have controlled my water intake. It is better to be thirsty than to suffer on the train.”
A geography shaped by the Soviet past
Despite legislation stating that prisoners should serve their sentences close to home to facilitate rehabilitation, most prisoners, in particular women, serve their sentences thousands of miles from their home and family.
The Russian Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) has inherited a network of penal colonies from the Soviet GULAG system, many of which are located in former labour camps in remote, sparsely populated parts of the country. This means that prisoners have to be transported over vast distances, often as far as 5,000 km, making visits from family members extremely difficult. As only 46 of Russia’s 760 penal institutions accommodate women, they are more likely to be subjected to these journeys than men. It is common for journeys to these destinations to last a month or more.
“Distance – it is one of the ways of psychologically weakening prisoners. They are very far from support, from help,” says Aleksei Sokolov from Urals Human Rights Group.
Incommunicado and outside the protection of the law
The Federal Penitentiary Service treats all information about prisoner transportation with the utmost secrecy. Neither the prisoners, nor their families or lawyers are informed about the end destination before the transfer begins. As well as being deprived of ventilation and natural light, a ban on wearing watches further increases the disorientation.
“During these long journeys there is no possibility for prisoners to contact the outside world and the authorities refuse to disclose their whereabouts. They effectively ‘disappear’ for weeks or even months at a time, leaving their families without news and placing them outside the protection of the law and open to further abuses. In legal terms it effectively amounts to enforced disappearance,” says Denis Krivosheev.
Prisoners effectively ‘disappear’ for weeks or even months at a time, leaving their families without news and placing them outside the protection of the law and open to further abuses
This was recently epitomized by the case of Ildar Dadin – an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience jailed for taking part in peaceful anti-government protests - who disappeared in December 2016 for more than a month after claiming he had suffered torture. He turned up weeks later on 8 January 2017 in a prison colony 3,000 kilometres from the custodial facility where he was previously held. The authorities said he had been moved “for his own safety.”
“Prisoners confined to overcrowded train compartments spend days or even weeks without contact with the outside world. Once they are in transit, prisoners become invisible, their suffering unmitigated and unseen. This is cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, pure and simple, and it’s time it stopped,” said Lyudmilla Alexeyeva, Chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group
Amnesty International’s research is also backed up by the findings of other organizations.
"Abuses against prisoners in transit are a serious problem that we have also seen in some of our own work in Russia," said Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch.
Abuses against prisoners in transit are a serious problem that we have also seen in some of our own work in Russia
“Just recently we have seen how the Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov was transported from Yakutiya in the Far East to the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug in the Far North - a journey that took over a month.”
Amnesty International, together with Human Rights Watch and Russian human rights defenders, call on the Russian government to reform the prison system and specifically the prisoner transport system, to end these abuses, and in particular to:
- Introduce time limits on transportation of prisoners
- Close those corrective colonies located at the greatest distances from centres of population
- End overcrowding in prison train carriages and vans
- Ensure that transportation facilities are subjected to public scrutiny, and that families and legal representatives are routinely kept informed about prisoners’ whereabouts
- Stop transferring prisoners from the region where they reside, in line with current legislation.