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Op-ed – “The operation of Russian prisons is unquestionably a case of mass violence”

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This op-ed was initally published on 1 March 2024 in the French newspaper Le Monde.

The death of Alexeï Navalny in the IK-3 colony in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District is a visceral illustration of the centrality of the prison system in Russia’s repressive machinery. The precise circumstances of the death of the main opponent to the Kremlin remain unknown, and there are two reasons to believe that they will remain so: investigations into suspicious deaths in prison are systematically concealed in Russia and attacks on opposition figures enjoy widespread impunity.  

It is evident that destructive prison techniques were employed against Alexeï Navalny, who was subjected to secret transfers, incessant disciplinary isolation, harassment by inmates loyal to the administration, deprivation of sleep and medical care, and the dreadful conditions of the Far North. The authorities have not made any effort to dispute the extensively documented accounts of the suffering inflicted on the Country’s most notorious prisoner, which directly facilitated the deterioration of his health which had already been weakened by his poisoning in 2020.

Instrumental in executing the regime’s efforts to suppress dissenting political voices, the Russian prison system also operates as a formidable apparatus for crushing the mass of convicts it takes in on a daily basis. Within Russia, the prison administration relies on a strictly punitive rationale underpinned by fostering complete subordination. The daily operations of prisons are marked by the pervasive threat of humiliation and degradation, often of a sexual nature, perpetuated by the isolation of prisoners working under orders from the administration.

In recent years, the use of torture, sometimes on a large scale, has attracted significant media attention. In this way, prisons not only facilitate the breakdown of the individuals they detain, but also acclimatise society as a whole to State violence. This normalization is further compounded by the historical familiarity of the population with prisons and the extensive entrenchment of the criminal justice system.

In this regard, it is evident that military servicemen engaging in violence against the Ukrainian population, often socialised to violence in their barracks, hold an understanding of institutional functioning steeped in police and prison methodologies. This perception ascribes normalcy to institutions infused with such operating methods, particularly as the army frequently incorporates individuals from the criminal justice system. Consequently, prisons act as a breeding ground for violence, specifically contributing to fostering a rape culture within society.

Writing in Le Monde on 7 December 2021, Russia’s leading human rights organisations expressed concern at the relative indifference shown by international organisations to the occurrence of torture behind bars, despite its profound societal consequences. The crimes committed in Ukraine, that defy comprehension, and the rampant criminal justice system in Russia, lends painful credence to their warning. Reflecting on the post-1991 efforts to integrate Russia into democratic nations, it becomes apparent that the bodies overseeing these initiatives failed to grasp the pervasive influence of the Soviet prison legacy and its extraordinary potential for disseminating violence and political repression, despite the cooperation programmes that were deployed.

International law, in particular the UN principles for the protection and promotion of human rights through action to combat impunity (“Joinet principles“, adopted in 1997 and revised in 2005), provides for the establishment of guarantees of non-repetition. This aims to create conditions conducive to eradicating the root causes of mass violence during political transitions, with Russian prisons undoubtedly constituting one such cause. The picture is set to get even darker, with the inevitable return to detention of prisoners recruited en masse to fight in Ukraine. The precedent of the two Chechen wars shows the extent to which war catalyses the use of torture in prisons and criminal justice agencies.

At a time when Russia’s leading political figures and independent voices are being crushed by arbitrary imprisonment, and when Russian prisons are serving as the final link in a filtration system terrorising the Ukrainian territories under occupation, there is an urgent need to work on prefiguring these mechanisms of non-repetition, without waiting for “better days” to arrive. It is likely that, even if Russia undergoes a change of political regime, it will, as in the 1990s, be plagued by economic and social crises that will not be conducive to conducting crucial work on prisons.

The Russian diaspora in exile in Europe today has many lawyers and activists who specialise in prisons, who know the prison system from the inside, and who are capable of forming the ranks of a body with a mandate to draw up the genealogy of prison violence, to analyse its causes, identify its protagonists and outline the conditions for a radical overhaul of the prison administration. The UN bodies whose mandate it is to outline the violations of international law perpetrated by Russian authorities, and to devise an international response to them, should already be encouraging such a process, which is the only way to break the vicious cycle of institutional violence.


Daniil Beilinson, co-founder of OVD-Info; Sergei Davidis, head of the Political Prisoners Support Programme, Memorial (Nobel Peace Prize 2022); Antoine Garapon, honorary magistrate; Anne Le Huérou, lecturer at the University of Paris-Nanterre; Lev Ponomarev, president of the Andrei-Sakharov Institute; Damien Scalia, Professor at the Université libre de Bruxelles; Hugues de Suremain, Legal Director of the European Prison Litigation Network; Nicolas Werth, Research Director at the CNRS, Chairman of Memorial France; Yevgeniy Zakharov, Director of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (Ukraine), Co-Chairman of Memorial International.


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