Jailed for not having their papers

 

WHEN Russia became a member of the Council of Europe in February 1995 it accepted as a condition of its membership that it would apply an immediate moratorium on the implementation of the death penalty. In 1996 it has been estimated that 103 executions have taken place.

The death penalty is carried out with a pistol shot to the back of the head. The president has the right to commute the death penalty by appeal but in not a single case has he done so.

On the political front Valeriya Novodvorskaya, who leads the small, eccentric, Democratic Union of Russia, attacked her fellow Russians as a lazy lot very much in the way Irish people have become accustomed to putting their compatriots in their place.

Novodvorskaya has been charged with "inciting inter-ethnic discord and belittling the dignity of the Russian nation" under article 74.1 of the Criminal Code.

Shortly before Christmas, Alexander Nikitin, who had been charged with high treason, was released after 10 months in prison. He had been accused by the FSB, the internal security successor of the KGB, of informing a Swedish ecology group, Bellona, that more than 21,000 cubic metres of nuclear waste and 24,000 nuclear fuel rods were g stored in the Kola peninsula in Russia's Arctic north "without any security."

Mr Nikitin, an ecologist and former submarine commander, had been declared a "prisoner of conscience" by Amnesty International. Although he has been released, the charges against him, which carry the death penalty, have not been dropped.

Figures for civilian deaths in the war in Chechnya in which carpet bombing of residential areas took place, vary between 40,000 and 90,000. There have also been what the US State Department has described as reports from "credible sources of "severe mistreatment" of Chechens in what have officially been described as "filtration camps" in southern Russia.

The State Department has put most of the blame for "the worst violations of international humanitarian law and human rights" in Chechnya on the kontraktniki, men who joined the Russian forces on contract, rather than on the ordinary Russian conscript soldiers, most of whom had no taste for what was going on.

The massacre of 105 civilians in the village of Shamashki is generally believed to have been carried, out by kontraktniki.

These cases are the more serious violations of human rights in Russia's embryonic democracy. There are other less publicised instances in a country where, according to Sergei Kovalyov dismissed as human rights commissioner by President Yeltsin and replaced by a communist "everything is perfect on paper, but little is put into practice.

There are other less frequently reported cases. People who stray onto the streets of Moscow without their proper documents, for example, run the risk of being arrested and imprisoned for up to 30 days despite the formal abolition of the propiska system in which special residence permits were needed.

In the town of Serpukhov, about 80 miles south of Moscow a pre-revolutionary schoolhouse has been turned into a jail for these "offenders". Barbed wire runs along the top of the perimeter wall, a German Shepherd prowls the radius of his tether inside the main gate.

Inside the cells are full. In one, eight men share what appears to be a single large bed made of planks. The stench is overwhelming, the room is almost completely dark. Now and again a guard lifts the shutter on a peep hole.

Numbers of detainees have increased since Mr Yeltsin launched a "fight against crime" and in the first nine months of the year 963 people have been detained in the Serpukhov centre which is one of 10 in the Moscow region. Of the 963, only 21 were wanted by the police. They are first held for 10 days until their identity can be proven. If this has not been done by then a court can keep them for 30 days. After that they are put on a train to their place of origin.

Anatoly Solovyov will have a long train journey in front of him when he is released. He is a tough looking guy, a plumber from a small town in the far east where the local factory hasn't got the money to pay its workers. "When they stopped paying us I started travelling around to look for a job. I lost my documents and was arrested and sent here."

Solovyov had a previous conviction. He had been in a fight in his home town of Blagoveschensk in 1992, and was sentenced to three years in a labour camp for "hooliganism". No one had been badly injured in the brawl but the sentence was normal for that sort of thing. "This is Russia you know," he said.

Anatoly was classed as a BOMZh (Person of no fixed abode) by his jailers, there were others who were termed BIChI (Formerly Intelligent Persons) who had ended up in Serpukhov because of a fondness for vodka.

Yevgeny Verin was one of these. A dishevelled little man, his fly open, his face unshaved. He gave his age in the manner of someone used to doing so to the authorities "fifty nine and a half SIR!"

Yevgeny's story was a sad one. He had had a quarrel with his wife, they sold their apartment. He got half and money and drank it, then he moved through Moscow's warm basements and rubbish dumps, the railway stations and the metro. He would like to give up the drink, he said. He would like to get the chance. At that stage the little prison's governor, Anatoly Nikonov, told him he was suffering from a disease and would always be a drunk.

Makrus Aliyev (25) from Baku in Azerbaijan was in for having no passport which he said he had given in to the authorities to have it registered for residence in Moscow.

There were just three women in the little prison during my visit. Their cell was clear, the air was better and there was light. Two were Ukrainians looking for work when taken into custody. The other, a Russian woman of 27 called Irina Chochina, had lost her documents, she said.

The medical orderly, Manna Ignatova, said all the prisoners were alcoholics but later admitted that she had no evidence to prove this claim. Twenty to 30 of the yearly intake suffered from TB, others had lice. Bad cases were sent to hospital.