Russia's Pretrial Detention Centers Replace the Gulag as Sites of Horror A Tattered Economy and Broken-Down Legal System Leave People Who Are Presumed Innocent Languishing in Torturous Holding Cells

By Wendy Sloane, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, May 1, 1995 | Go to article overview
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Russia's Pretrial Detention Centers Replace the Gulag as Sites of Horror A Tattered Economy and Broken-Down Legal System Leave People Who Are Presumed Innocent Languishing in Torturous Holding Cells


Wendy Sloane, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


INSIDE a dimly lit cell built for 35 men in Moscow's two-century-old Butyrka prison, some 85 detainees stand or sleep in shifts on the filthy floor.

The air is so thick it stings the eyes; a mixture of cigarette smoke, sweat, and unwashed bodies mingles with the stench of human excrement from the lone toilet in one corner, draped with a cloth for privacy.

"It's always stuffy and hot because there are so many of us. We get new people every day," says 20-year-old Yura, his pale face emerging from a hatch in the cell door where bowls of greasy cabbage soup and kasha (gruel), are shoved through each day. (In some Russian regions, 90 percent of prison inmates are reportedly underweight.)

Yura, who was scared to give his last name for fear of retribution from prison officials, came to Butyrka last year on charges of "racketeering," or petty extortion, a crime increasingly fashionable in the new Russia. He could face an eight-year sentence in a penal colony -- if his trial gets off the ground.

"Three people have already died of TB since I've been here," Yura says, before a prison guard impatiently slams his only window to the outside world firmly shut.

Insects and vermin are common here, and medicines are so scarce that many health problems among prisoners often go untreated. Prison officials admit that the number of incidents of tuberculosis greatly exceeds the national average.

Butyrka has been dubbed the "death factory" by Russian human rights activists.

Prison reforms have changed the infamous camp system chronicled in Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag Archipelago." But it is a bitter paradox that today the worst conditions are not in jails, but in pretrial detention centers such as Butyrka, where people who are presumed innocent under the law are sent to await trial.

"The conditions are out of this world, like the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch. It is hell," said Nigel Rodley, a special rapporteur to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, after recent visits to several facilities, including Butyrka, in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

If a society can be judged by the way it treats its prisoners, as Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, then Russia's judgment could be harsh indeed.

As a consequence of Russia's spiraling crime rate and its overburdened judicial system, more than 235,000 people -- men and women -- are currently housed in 178 pretrial detention centers, called isolators, or sizos in Russian.

In total, the country has almost 1 million people incarcerated, according to Interior Ministry statistics.

The law mandates that detention cannot last more than two months without trial, with special extensions up to 18 months possible in extreme cases.

But some detainees end up waiting in appalling conditions -- where people accused of murder and rape are thrown in the same cell with those accused of petty economic crimes which may no longer even be on the books -- for as long as six years while their trials drag on.

"Only torture can equal incarceration in such a facility," says Viktor Mironov, head of the Commission to Study Investigative Isolators in the State Duma, or lower house of parliament. "But we received this horrible legacy from the Communist regime, and the state is doing all it can based on the finances we have."

As a final irony, about 10 percent of detainees in such facilities, according to Butyrka chief warden Alexander Volkov, are eventually either acquitted or set free on technicalities -- without realistic financial compensation or even an apology to take back home.

And many return to their old lives only to learn they no longer have their former jobs or even their apartments waiting for them -- and branded with a stigma that can follow them the rest of their lives.

"The principle of the presumption of innocence, which is supposedly upheld in Russian law, should preclude people from undergoing such torture," says Rachel Denber, director of the Moscow Office of Human Rights Watch/Helsinki.

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Russia's Pretrial Detention Centers Replace the Gulag as Sites of Horror A Tattered Economy and Broken-Down Legal System Leave People Who Are Presumed Innocent Languishing in Torturous Holding Cells
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