The video is brutal. It shows guards at a Russian prison colony torturing an inmate. In it around a dozen guards in uniform pin down the prisoner, Yevgeny Makarov, to a table and take turns beating him on his arms and the soles of his feet with rubber truncheons.
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After several minutes of relentless clubbing, Makarov appears to pass out but the guards wake him up by pouring water over him. The guards hit Makarov for so long and so energetically that they have to tag one another to continue the beating.
The video was captured by one of the guard’s bodycams at a penal colony in Yaroslavl, about 170 miles north of Moscow. When the investigative newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, published it just under two weeks ago it immediately provoked a scandal. Authorities suspended 17 prison staff and eight have now been arrested on criminal charges. The deputy head of Russia’s prison service apologized publicly and the case was raised at the United Nations, where Russia was pressed to promise it would root out torture in its penitentiary system.
At the same time, Makarov’s lawyer, Irina Biryukova, who gave the video to the newspaper, has fled Russia with her family after receiving death threats. On Tuesday Makarov and other inmates announced they were going on hunger strikes over conditions at their colony.
According to Biryukova, the beating was a punishment for yelling obscenities at the guards. Makarov had returned to his cell to find that guards had gone through letters from his mother and left them on the floor. Biryukova said Makarov then called the guards insulting names and was told in response that he would pay for his words. In the video, one of the guards can be heard threatening Makarov and asking him to repeat the obscene word he had called him.
It is a remarkable scandal for Russia, where torture and abuse in prisons normally elicit little public reaction.
Human rights monitors have said it is the reaction, not the torture, that is unusual in Russia, noting that the video had made it impossible for authorities to ignore or suppress Makarov’s case.
“To say that the prison service or the prosecutor’s office didn’t know that they beat people in the prison colonies and use torture, it’s absolutely not so. They themselves are saying that they knew about that,” Biryukova, who works for the rights group Public Verdict and represents Makarov told ABC News on Tuesday by telephone. Biryukova said she had had to flee Russia after receiving death threats through an intermediary, uncertain that authorities would protect her.
She said cases like Makarov’s were widespread and usually ignored by authorities.
“They only react when some kind of video appears," she said.
Human rights monitors have long reported that torture was common in Russian prisons. Last week the UN’s Committee Against Torture said in its periodic review that “there was reliable information that torture was practiced widely in the country.”
Conditions in prison colonies, which are often remote and usually decrepit and overcrowded, are grim. But complaints of ill treatment are often smothered by prison authorities and local law enforcement.
Such was the case with Makarov. The torture shown in the video happened a year ago; at the time, Biryukova had immediately reported it to investigators. They rejected there had been any wrongdoing. According to Novaya Gazeta, which has seen the case files from the time, a young investigator, Radion Svirsky, actually watched the video but stated there had been no evidence of abuse.
The initial coverup, Biryukova and other rights campaigners said, was typical of how such cases are handled. They said oral and written testimonies of abuse normally led nowhere because prison authorities and other local officials easily contested them and state media had little interest in raising them.
“Russia’s disinformation industry is so highly developed that it can effectively diffuse reports so shocking that they would throw any other government into crisis,” Oleg Kashin, a prominent journalist who himself was severely beaten by hired thugs in 2010, wrote in an op-ed for The Moscow Times.
“In this system, evils occur on the fringes of public awareness, and even revelations of wrongdoing have almost no real impact,” he wrote. “But the evidence of torture in Yaroslavl has broken the old boundaries."
Makarov’s prison, Yaroslavl Penal Colony Number 1, was already known among human rights defenders for reports of beatings there. Since the video’s release, 50 more complaints of beatings have emerged from the prison. Makarov — who is serving a sentence for assault and is due to be released in October -- has been moved to a nearby colony. Russia’s presidential human rights council on Monday expressed its continuing concern for his safety and on Tuesday he and other inmates declared a hunger strike.
Although Biryukova said she thought the case would lead to specific punishments and perhaps improvements at the Yaroslavl prison, she did not believe it would lead to fundamental changes in Russia’s penal colonies.
Responding to questions from the UN Torture committee last week about the case, Russia's deputy justice minister, Mikhail Galperin, asserted that Russia had robust procedures for handling claims of abuse in its prisons and pledged that all reports of torture would be thoroughly investigated.
“It would be naïve to believe that the Yaroslavl video will mark a significant turning point in Russian society,” Kashin wrote in The Moscow Times.
“The undeniable abuses captured by the Yaroslavl video simply shift the line of debate from 'This requires further clarification' to 'How indicative is this of a wider problem?' No single video can answer that question,” Kashin wrote.