“In Russia, a huge prison complex subjects half a million people to a tyrannical order”

Tribune. The reality of Russian prisons has burst onto our screens. The unbearable images of rape and torture, echoed by reports of massive abuses inflicted in settlements in different parts of the country, immediately made graspable a situation that Russian human rights defenders face on a daily basis, namely the debasement as a way of managing detention.

The reduction by half of the prison population in twenty years, the result of the decrease in crime but also of the influence of European case law, has been a considerable step forward. However, in a member country of the Council of Europe, there is still a huge prison complex which subjects nearly half a million people to a truly tyrannical order.

The daily life of Russian prisons remains, to varying degrees according to the regions and the officials in place, structured by violence, an unsurpassable horizon of a system which sees punishment only as the annihilation of the personality of the condemned.

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This order requires that prisoners be beaten and terrorized upon their arrival, that the most recalcitrant be exposed to sexual brutality and torture, that ordinary discipline be delegated to groups of lawless auxiliary prisoners, and that everyone lives in the anguish of falling into the caste of the “untouchables”, the most humiliated and despised inmates. Hell on earth.

Culture of Soviet camps

In this regard, the – real – improvements made to the material comfort of prisoners have in no way changed the prison condition. The hopes that some have been able to nourish of an acclimatization of Russian prisons to the law, in favor of the trivialization of complaints about hygiene and have proved to be in vain. Everything that touches the heart of the functioning of the system remains fiercely forbidden to any form of external gaze. This is evidenced by a law of June 2021, which removes lawyers’ right to use cameras and video during visits to convicted persons, an essential means of proof of ill-treatment.

The historical inertia of the prison did not make the survival of the culture of the Soviet camps inevitable. Formalized by a 2008 law, civil society commissions have surveyed places of detention for years. Year after year, they have documented cases of ill-treatment and the functioning of the system.

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They had the immense merit of fostering a societal debate on prisons and of breaking through the wall of silence through which impunity thrives. Power has gradually but resolutely neutralized these commissions by removing human rights defenders from their ranks.

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“In Russia, a huge prison complex subjects half a million people to a tyrannical order”