Punishment cells, without natural light and forced to listen to recordings of Putin: how Navalny and other political prisoners live in Russian prisons

In this file photo taken from video provided by the Moscow City Court on February 3, 2021, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny makes a heart gesture while standing in a cage during a hearing (Moscow City Court via PA, File)

When Alexei Navalny turns 47 on Sunday, you will wake up in a concrete cell with almost no natural light.

You will not be able to see or speak to any of your loved ones. Phone calls and visits are prohibited for those in “punishment isolation” cells, a space of 2 by 3 meters. The guards often throw patriotic songs and speeches by the Russian president at him, Vladimir Putin.

“Guess who is the champion of listening to Putin’s speeches? Who listens to them for hours and falls asleep with them? Navalny recently said in a typically sardonic social media post through his lawyers from Penal Colony No. 6, in the region of Vladimirto the east of Moscow.

Navalny is serving a sentence of nine years that will end in 2030 for charges that are generally considered fake, and faces another trial on new charges that could keep him locked up for another two decades. Rallies have been called for Sunday in Russia in support of him.

Navalny has become the Russia’s most famous political prisonerand not only because he is Putin’s staunchest political enemy, because of his poisoningwhich he blames on the Kremlin, and for being the protagonist of an award-winning documentary oscar.

He has recounted his arbitrary placement in solitary confinement, where he has spent almost six months. follow a scant diethe is restricted in the time he can spend writing letters and is sometimes forced to live with a cellmate with a poor personal hygienewhich makes his life even more miserable.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is seen on a screen via video link from the IK-2 corrective penal colony in Pokrov during a court hearing to consider an appeal against his prison sentence in Moscow, Russia May 24. 2022. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina/File
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is seen on a screen via video link from the IK-2 corrective penal colony in Pokrov during a court hearing to consider an appeal against his prison sentence in Moscow, Russia May 24. 2022. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina/File (EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA/)

Most of the attention is focused on Navalny and other prominent figures, such as Vladimir Kara-Murzasentenced last month to 25 years for treason. But there are a growing number of less famous prisoners who are serving time in equally harsh conditions.

Memorialthe oldest and most prominent human rights organization in Russia and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022accounted 558 political prisoners in the country until April, more than triple that in 2018, when it listed 183.

The Soviet Union’s extensive gulag prison camp system provided inmates with labor to develop industries such as mining and logging. Although conditions vary between modern penal colonies, Russian law still allows inmates to work at tasks such as sewing uniforms for soldiers.

In a 2021 report, the US State Department claimed that conditions in Russian prisons and detention centers “were often harsh and life threatening. Overcrowding, mistreatment by guards and inmates, limited access to medical care, food shortages, and inadequate sanitation were commonplace in prisons, penal colonies, and other detention facilities.”

Andrei Pivovarovopponent sentenced last year to four years prison, he has been isolated in Penal Colony No. 7 in Russia’s northern Karelia region since January, and is likely to remain there for the rest of the year, said his partner, Tatyana Usmanova. The institution is famous for its harsh conditions and the torture reports.

Andrei Pivovarov, former head of the Open Russia movement, speaks to the media in Moscow, Russia, on July 9, 2020 (AP/Denis Kaminev, File) (Denis Kaminev/)

The former director of the pro-democratic group open russia41, spends his days alone in a small cell in a “strict detention” unit, not allowed calls or visits from anyone except his lawyers, Usmanova told Associated Press. He can get a book from the prison library, can write letters for several hours a day and is allowed 90 minutes outdoors, she said.

Other inmates are prohibited from making eye contact with Pivovarov in the corridors, which contributes to his “maximum isolation,” he said.

“It was not enough to sentence him to a real prison sentence. They also try ruin your life thereUsmanova added.

Pivovarov was taken off a flight bound for warsaw just before take off St. Petersburg in May 2021 and transferred to the southern city of krasnodar. The authorities accused him of collaborating with an “undesirable” organization, a criminal offense since 2015.

Several days before his arrest, Open Russia had disbanded after being labeled “undesirable”.

Following his trial in Krasnodar, the St. Petersburg native was found guilty and sentenced in July, as Russia’s war in Ukraine and Putin’s sweeping crackdown on dissent were in full swing.

Andrei Pivovarov, former head of the Open Russia movement, stands behind glass during a court session in Krasnodar, Russia, on June 2, 2021 (AP/File)

In a letter sent to the PA in December from Krasnodar, he stated that the authorities transferred him there “to hide me further” from his hometown and Moscow. That interview was one of the last given by Pivovarov, who described his life in prison as “boring and depressing”, with the only fun being a one-hour walk through a small courtyard. “Lucky” inmates with money in their accounts can shop at a prison store once a week for 10 minutes, but must otherwise remain in their cells, she wrote.

Letters from his followers lift his spirits. Many write that before they were not interested in Russian politics, according to Pivovarov, and that “only now they begin to see it clearly.”

Now, letters take weeks to arrive, Usmanova said.

Conditions are easier for some less famous political prisoners, such as Alexey Gorinov, former member of a Moscow municipal council. Gorinov was sentenced in July for “spread false information” about the military following anti-war comments he made at a council meeting.

Criticism of the invasion was penalized a few months earlier, and Gorinov, 61, became the first Russian sent to prison for it, receiving seven years.

He is being housed in a barracks with 50 other people from his unit in the Vladimir Region Penal Colony No. 2, Gorinov stated in written responses transmitted to PA in March.

Alexei Gorinov holds an “I am against war” sign while standing in a cage during a courtroom hearing in Moscow, Russia, on June 21, 2022 (AP/File)

The long sentence for a low profile activist shocked many, with Gorinov saying that “the authorities needed an example that they could show to others (of) an ordinary person, rather than a public figure.”

Inmates in your unit can watch television and play chess, backgammon or table tennis. There is a small kitchen to prepare tea or coffee between meals, and they can take food from personal provisions.

But Gorinov said prison officials are still carrying out “enhanced control” of the unit, with him and two other inmates receiving special checks every two hours as they have been labeled as “runaway prone”.

There is little medical assistanceaccurate.

“Right now I don’t feel entirely well, since I can’t recover from a bronchitis”, he said, adding that last winter he needed treatment for pneumonia in the hospital ward of another prison, because in Penal Colony No. 2 the most they can do is “reduce the fever”.

The artist and musician also suffer health problems Sasha Skochilenko, arrested in the middle of the trial that follows her arrest in April 2022 in Saint Petersburg, also accused of spreading false information about the army. her crime was replace supermarket price tags with anti-war slogans in protest.

Sasha Skochilenko, a 32-year-old artist and musician, stands in a defendant’s cage in a courtroom during a hearing at the Vasileostrovsky District Court in St. Petersburg, Russia, on April 13, 2022 (AP/File)

Skochilenko has a congenital heart disease and is celiac, so you must follow a gluten-free diet. She receives food packages weekly, but there is a weight limit, and the 32-year-old cannot eat “even half of the things they give her there,” says her partner, Sophia Subbotina.

There is a big difference between detention centers for women and menand Skochilenko has it easier in some ways than male prisoners, Subbotina said.

“Interestingly, the staff is mostly gentle. Most of them are women, they are quite friendly, they give useful advice and they have a very good attitude towards Sasha,” Subbotina told the AP by phone.

“They often support Sasha and say: ‘You’ll be out of here soon, this is so unfair’. They know about our relationship and it’s okay with them. They are very human,” she asserts.

In jail there is no political propaganda and dance music plays on the radio. Cooking shows are broadcast on television. Skochilenko “wouldn’t see them in normal life, but in prison they are a distraction,” Subbotina says.

She recently arranged for an external cardiologist to examine Skochilneko, and since March she has been able to visit her twice a month.

Subbotina is moved when she remembers her first visit.

“It’s a complex and strange feeling when you’ve been living with a person. Sasha and I have been together for over six years – waking up with them, falling asleep with them – and then not being able to see them for a year,” she said. “I was nervous when I went to visit her. She didn’t know what she was going to say to Sasha, but in the end she went very well.

Still, Subbotina noted that a year behind bars has been tough for Skochilenko. The trial is moving slowly, unlike fast-track trials against high-level political activists, and a conviction is almost certain.

Skochilenko faces a penalty of up to 10 years if she is found guilty.

(With information from AP)

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