Thursday, May 15, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Russian Penal Colonies Now ‘Worse than Fascist Concentration Camps,’ Chechen Inmates Say

Paul Goble

Baku, May 16 – Conditions for ethnic Chechens and others confined in the penal colonies in Irkutsk for military crimes are now so dire that the inmates have sent a letter to Russian media outlets saying that “compared with the administration of [the camps] there, even the fascists may seem like angels.”
Such a statement, of course, is less a genuine comparison than a expression of just how desperate the prisoners there feel, even though making this appeal may subject them to retribution, and of their effort to attract attention to their plight by invoking what is still the most powerful negative epithet in the Russian language (
Among the sites which have received and posted these letters is, the portal of the Islamic Committee of Russia. “For understandable reasons,” the site’s editors say, they have “not indicated the names of the prisoners,” although they invited lawyers and human rights activists to ask for them if they take up this case.
“I want to tell about the horrors which are taking place in the strict regime colonies of Irkutsk oblast. In them rule cruelty, force, and total illegality. [And] all these nightmares and terrors are visited on convicts from the North Caucasus, in particular the Chechens,” one letter begins.
Saying that he personally saw these actions, the writer indicated that he is prepared “to sign a declaration” about them and “give testimony” in court should the occasion arise. One of his friends, he said, was “beaten, tortured, forced to give false testimony, [and] the victim of an attempted homosexual rape” by guards.
Driven to despair, the friend of the writer tried to commit suicide by slitting his veins, feeling that “the shame” of this situation “was equal to death itself.” After that, the man was transferred to another camp where a Russian MVD major took a personal interest in his “moral and physical destruction” and “promised to make that institution into a hell” for the convict.
The major kept him in solitary confinement, made sure he was cold and did not get warm food, and “promised” that as a result, the Chechen would become ill with tuberculosis.” And the letter writer continues, the Russian officer kept his promise: the man came down with TB, but that was not the end of it.
Again, guards attempted to rape him. He fought them off, the writer says, but these attempts continued, often with the kind of violence that left its marks on his body. The writer gives the names of the officers involved, apparently hopeful that someone will bring charges against them or at least force them to cease and desist in other cases.
The man was then transferred to yet another colony, where he was again beaten. Indeed, that camp had become “famous for the particular cruelty it visited on convicts of “Caucasus nationality,” the term Russian officials have used with little or no Western criticism since 1993 to exploit, harass and otherwise mistreat North Caucasians and others since 1993.
The “inhumanity” of the guards and commanders in that camp knows “no limits,” the writer says, and “even the fascists in comparison may seem like angels!”
In the past, most prisoners believed that they dared not complain, thinking that to do so was “the equivalent of suicide.” They kept their mouths shut during checks by more senior officials, lest the guards take violent retribution against them as soon as the inspectors left the zone.
One of the reasons why the guards behave with such brutality to convicts from the North Caucasus is that many “earlier participated in military actions in Chechnya and now are taking out the hatred they feel for the Chechens on helpless inmates,” confident that no one will do anything to stop them.
”I consider that society not only of Russia but of the entire world must know about what is taking place in the ‘civilized’ state of the Russian Federation,” the letter writer continues, hopeful that someone, somewhere will do something to protect the basic human rights of these prisoners in these camps far away.
He says, as do the other letters from the Irkutsk camps that the website has received, that “we demand that our imprisoned landsmen undergo punishment in colonies near their place of residence so that they can, like others, serve their sentences as is established by law, with visits by their wives, mothers, sisters and brothers and the observation of their rights.”
And he concludes that “we demand” that the authorities bring to justice those Russian commandants and guards who have violated the rights of imprisoned Chechens by beating and raping them, crimes that do not cease to be crimes just because the victims are members of a nationality that those who commit them do not like.
Unfortunately, because the victims are Chechens, neither of these things is likely to happen. But Russian officials who fail to put a stop to this wave of violence need to remember two things. On the one hand, such reports, however much they are likely to be disputed, will lead many now struggling against Moscow to continue to fight, fearful of what surrender might mean.
And on the other, as human rights activists routinely argue, no society is judged by how it treats favored groups who enjoy the support of the population but rather by how it acts toward those whom many in that society despise. On that measure, these letters suggest, the current Russian government falls short of what humanity requires.

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