Nothing at all happens here, says Roestam as he puts on his blue cap. The young market trader gets out of his reddish brown Lada with the engine running. From the car, he supervises his fish stall on Soviet Street. It is exactly zero degrees, a watery sun threatens its Astrakhan sturgeon vobli – family of the carp – in their plastic crates. In addition to a chocolate factory and a chocolate museum, Pokrov also houses a penal camp, Roestam knows. But that Russia’s best-known opposition politician Alexei Navalny will be serving his sentence here is news. He shrugs. “Some support him, others are against. This is not the case here ”.
On Friday, Navalny sent a note from his Moscow cell saying, “I have to pack my things, they are sending me somewhere – to a neighboring cell, or a neighboring region.” Neither family members nor lawyers had been notified of the transfer, his team began a search. In the end, the politician turned out to have been taken to ‘correctional institution’ IK-2 in Pokrov, one of Russia’s most notorious penal colonies, according to experts. His arrival there was confirmed on Sunday. Employees of Navalny’s anti-corruption fund FBK immediately went to Pokrov, 100 kilometers east of Moscow, to film the barracks with a drone.
IK-2 is located on the outskirts of Pokrov, right next to the American snack group Mondelez
IK-2 is tucked away next to the industrial estate on the outskirts of Pokrov. Next to the American snack group Mondelez, which provides the residents with work. Inhabitants slither on the ice-covered sidewalks. In the newsstand, next to crossword puzzles and women’s magazines, is the constitution.
IK-2 is one of more than 170 penal colonies in Russia, where a total of nearly half a million convicts are serving sentences according to the gravity of their offense. The system dates back to the Tsar’s time, when camps were an excellent means of harboring criminals and other undesirables and reclaiming the vast land. Under Stalin, millions of criminals, political prisoners and Soviet citizens disappeared in the Gulag camps. Although the penitentiary system has since become a lot more humane, Russian prisoners still like to refer to the past.
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That Navalny was not sent to Siberia stems from his conviction, Olga Romanova tells by telephone from Berlin. Romanova is director of the organization Roes’ Sidjasjtsjaja (‘Russia sits’), which assists detainees. Last month, Navalny was placed in custody for 3.5 years minus 10 months when a 2014 suspended sentence for theft was converted into a real one. “It is a relatively light offense, according to the rules he is not allowed to be further than 500 kilometers from his hometown Moscow”. Romanova does not rule out the possibility that the authorities will try to detain him longer, and possibly further away, through a third criminal case.
This proximity to the capital does not mean that conditions are better. IK-2 is a so-called ‘red zone’, where life is under total control of the camp management and there is hardly any contact with the outside world. There are cameras and guards everywhere, mail is read, phone calls are overheard. Likewise, conversations with lawyers, if they come in at all.
“Everything is set up to break prisoners. We had to fight for minimal rights such as food and sleep, ”far-right politician Igor Demushkin told journalists from the Russian news site Mediazona last weekend. Demushkin, who in the past organized nationalist marches with Navalny, was released last year after spending 2.5 years in the camp for ‘extremism’. The burly, bearded politician claimed to have lost 40 kilos in captivity.
Political activist Konstantin Kotov was also in the camp and told a similar story this week. “Convicts cannot breathe freely; they are under supervision and control all day long. It’s unpleasant and demeaning ”.
Lawyer Yulia Chvanova confirms the stories. She assists prisoners in the Vladimir region, to which Pokrov belongs. She has to move heaven and earth to be able to see clients, she says by telephone. The corona pandemic gives guards a good excuse. “When you arrive, they measure your temperature with a preset thermometer. Last week I suddenly had a fever of 38 degrees, while I was not sick at all ”. She did not get to see her client.
The daily routine follows a fixed pattern, say ex-prisoners, lawyers and social workers such as Chvanova and Romanova. Inmates live in wooden barracks with a hundred men, without privacy or comfort. Meals consist of soup, porridge, potatoes and tea. “The food is not nutritious and prisoners depend on food parcels from family members, which contain food, vitamins, toothpaste and toilet paper,” says Romanova.
Depending on the location of the camp, inmates spend their day sewing clothes, folding leaflets or manufacturing useless utensils. In camps in the taiga, beyond the Urals, wood is cut. The salary is a few hundred rubles a month, which is a few tens. Outside of working hours, prisoners are often forced to do unpaid chores, such as clearing snow, painting, and raking soil so that footprints are clearly visible.
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A strict social hierarchy applies in the barracks. The leadership is in the hands of the tough criminal leaders who command the ‘helpers’, ‘informers’ and ‘outcasts’, such as homosexual and weaker prisoners. Sitting on your bed during the day is prohibited, as are forks and knives and taking things from fellow inmates. Camp leaders follow every step of the prisoners through a network of informants. Violations, however minor, will be punished with an isolation cell.
“Navalny is a smart man and good-natured, he will find his place,” thinks Romanova. But she fears espionage and provocations. She refers to ‘accidents’ that occur regularly. “That is easy to orchestrate. Someone falls a ladder, or is attacked by a fellow prisoner during an argument ”. It happened to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oligarch and Putin critic who spent ten years in various penal camps. In 2006 he was attacked with a knife by a fellow inmate. The man later confessed to journalists that “serious people from Moscow” had forced him to attack Khodorkovsky.
Torture by guards and fellow prisoners is also a regular part of camp life. The newspaper published last week Novaya Gazeta video footage of torture practices in a camp near Yaroslavl, where a prisoner is said to have died. Last year, torture practices in a camp in Angarsk, Siberia, led to a prisoner uprising.
Navalny’s team is convinced that the politician will not escape it. But the question is whether the authorities want to risk a scandal. Ex-detainee Demushkin stated that he had not been beaten. Khodorkovsky, as a prominent prisoner, was not tortured either. The head of the Russian prison system FSIN, Aleksandr Kalashnikov, told Tass news agency last week that Navalny’s ‘health or life’ will not be endangered. It was announced on Tuesday that Kalashnikov has been put on the sanction list by the US and the EU for the treatment of Navalny.
In the center of Pokrov, smelly trucks make their way through the continuous Leninstraat. Two desk clerks at the Hotel Kornilov look surprised when asked about the camp. “Tourists come for the chocolate fountain in the museum, or for the seventeenth-century island monastery.” Since 2017, a bronze chocolate fairy has graced the roadside square, a gift from Mondelez parent company Kraft Food. All they can tell about prison is that there are frequent tuberculosis outbreaks. They were not yet aware of the latest news either. “Is Navalny here in Pokrov? Really?”
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Navalny Criminal Camp is aimed at breaking prisoners
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