“I think some of Russia’s prisons can be compared to World War II era concentration camps”
Lev Ponomaryov is a Russian human rights activist and politician. He serves both as director of the Moscow-based organisation For Human Rights and as deputy chairman of the board of the Foundation for the Protection of Prisoners' Rights
I think some of Russia’s prisons can be compared to World War II era concentration camps. We hear reports of inmates being beaten, tortured and raped. Prisoners also have very little recourse in such instances of abuse, because it’s nearly impossible to lodge a complaint or alert anyone on the outside.
Guards are rarely the ones to actually beat their prisoners. More often than not, they will order ‘aktiv’ – prisoners sentenced to long-term sentences for violent crimes such as murder or rape – to mete out physical abuse. In exchange, the ‘aktiv’ are rewarded with special privileges.
Many of Russia’s prisons are like black holes – one of the only ways for us to gather information about what’s happening on the inside is from former detainees, or relatives of inmates. Our organisation works hard to collect whatever information we can, and occasionally we’re able to force the authorities to fire or open a criminal case against abusive prison staff.
Despite these victories, the system hasn’t changed. As soon as we get rid of one bad guard, another is hired to replace him. I think this is because abuse is essential to Russia’s penal system. Almost every region has at least one ‘torture’ camp which is used as a way to suppress or threaten vocal or unruly prisoners.
Finally, I also believe that part of the reason why these sort of abuses are allowed to persist is because Russian society just doesn’t care. When I’ve discussed violence in prisons on radio talk shows, people reacted by saying, ‘Let them all die there’”.