Illustration of a female prisoner sitting in solitary confinement

Russia: Authorities punishing imprisoned anti-war critics and dissenters by denying family contact

Russia’s authorities are systematically denying arbitrarily imprisoned government critics contact with their families, Amnesty International revealed in a new report.

Using several emblematic cases, the report documents how authorities have exploited legal loopholes and fabricated pretexts to further isolate dissidents, including those imprisoned for speaking out against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“These are not isolated practices being used by a few rogue officials. This is a deliberate strategy of the Russian government to isolate and silence dissenters and inflict further suffering on them and their families. All forms of contact – visits, phone calls, letters – are being curtailed,” said Natalia Prilutskaya, Amnesty International’s Russia Researcher.

This is a deliberate strategy of the Russian government to isolate and silence dissenters and inflict further suffering on them and their families

Natalia Prilutskaya, Amnesty International’s Russia Researcher

A range of tactics is being used by the authorities to arbitrarily deprive prisoners of contact with their families and friends.

One method is to routinely deny requests for visits and phone calls while the individual is held in pretrial detention, often without citing any reasons. In other instances, family members are being designated as “witnesses” in their loved one’s trial proceedings, thereby precluding them from having any contact. In such cases, families might not see their loved ones for months or even years. Authorities may also delay detainees’ and prisoners’ mail or outright ban correspondence with certain individuals.  

Another tactic is the unannounced transfer of prisoners from pretrial detention to penal institutions on the eve of a planned family visit, which is then cancelled. Such transfers require judicial approval by the same court that approves the visit, making this practice even more cynical.

A form of harassment widely used by the penal authorities is arbitrarily placing a prisoner in a disciplinary cell for allegedly committing a minor, often made-up disciplinary violation, just before a scheduled family visit. The prisoner is then deprived of visits and phone calls for the duration of the punishment.

Such practices not only additionally punish the incarcerated dissenters but also inflict severe psychological suffering on their families.

“These tactics are utterly inhumane. The authorities not only devastate the lives of those who dared to express dissenting views by imprisoning them, but they also rob their loved ones of the few possibilities to keep in touch. This cruel ill-treatment must stop immediately, and all those imprisoned solely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly must be released,” said Natalia Prilutskaya.  

Emblematic cases

Vladimir Kara-Murza, an opposition politician arrested in April 2022 and sentenced to 25 years’ imprisonment on multiple trumped-up charges, was denied permission to call his wife and children for 14 months. “The most difficult thing [in detention] is separation from your family,” said Vladimir Kara-Murza in an interview published through his lawyer.

Aleksandra (Sasha) Skochilenko, an artist from Saint Petersburg, was arrested in April 2022 for her anti-war activism and sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment. She was isolated from her partner, Sonya, who had been designated a “witness” in the case, for a year. “After a year of separation, I am so glad I can see Sasha. I would love to hug her, but it is impossible,” Sonya said to Amnesty International.

After a year of separation, I am so glad I can see Sasha. I would love to hug her, but it is impossible

Sonya Subbotina, Sasha Skochilenko's partner

Oleg Orlov, a human rights defender and co-chair of Memorial, was sentenced in February 2024 to two-and-a-half-years’ imprisonment for an article critical of Russian authorities. His wife was only granted a visit in April but just before she could come and see him, Oleg Orlov was transferred from a Moscow remand centre to another region, more than 1,000 km away.

Aleksei Gorinov, a Moscow municipal councillor, was detained in April 2022 and sentenced to seven years in prison for criticizing Russia’s war in Ukraine during a council meeting. While serving his prison time, he has been repeatedly placed in a punishment isolation cell for minor alleged infractions, including just before a scheduled visit. This resulted in his family traveling to the penal colony only to be denied the visit.

Violations of international law

The right of detainees to maintain contact with the outside world is enshrined in international human rights standards. Denying contact with families breaches these standards and might amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Some cases may amount to incommunicado detention or enforced disappearance.

Amnesty International urges the Russian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release everyone imprisoned solely for exercising their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, expression, and association. The authorities must ensure that all detainees and prisoners can maintain regular contact with their families. Penal legislation should be amended to prevent arbitrary denial of contact. The authorities should investigate all reported human rights violations and bring those responsible to justice.

The report, titled “Russia: “I would love to hug her but it’s impossible. Imprisoned dissenters deprived of family contact,” highlights the systematic and widespread use of isolation and denial of family contact against those imprisoned in Russia for expressing dissent. These practices are not isolated incidents but are part of a broader, politically motivated, strategy employed by the Russian authorities to stifle free expression and punish those who speak out against the government.