Russia’s prisons under spotlight as activist goes missing in system

Moscow Letter: Disappearance follows jailed protester’s claims of torture by prison guards

Concern has been growing in Russia over the New Year holidays about the fate of a jailed political activist who went missing in the prison system a month ago.

Ildar Dadin, who is serving a 2½-year sentence for staging a series of peaceful protests in Moscow, disappeared in Russia’s sprawling penitentiary network after claiming he had been tortured by staff at a prison in the Karelia region of northwest Russia.

Russia's Federal Penitentiary Service told Dadin's wife Anastasia Zotova in early December that the 34-year-old activist was being transferred to another facility, but there has been no official information about his whereabouts or wellbeing since then.

Russia's state-controlled media has not reported Dadin's disappearance, but with news travelling more freely on social networks a growing numbers of internet users clicking on the hashtag Where is Ildar Dadin have been demanding to know where he is.


Harsh sentence

Dadin was imprisoned in December 2015 after a court in Moscow imposed a three-year term for violating a controversial new law that criminalises anyone found guilty of staging more than two unsanctioned public protests in the space of 180 days. The harsh sentence caused a furore among other rights activists and was later reduced at an appeal hearing by six months.

Dadin attracted more sympathetic publicity when he married Zotova at a brief civil ceremony held in a Moscow jail last February. Before long the authorities moved him to a more remote location at the notoriously tough Number 7 prison in the Karelia region.

In a letter to his wife that was smuggled out of Number 7 by his lawyer in October, Dadin told of how on his first day at the prison he had been thrown into solitary confinement after guards claimed to have found razor blades among his possessions. He staged a hunger strike. Prison officers then turned up the heat, allegedly subjecting Dadin to repeated beatings and other physical and psychological torments.

In one particularly sadistic episode, he reported, they hung him by the wrists, tore off his pants and threatened to bring in another inmate to rape him unless he ended his hunger strike.

Prison authorities have denied any unwarranted use of force in handling Dadin, saying that in levelling the allegations the activist was trying to “draw maximum attention to himself”.

Yet the torture Dadin claims to have suffered is far from an isolated case in today’s Russian prisons, although few inmates are prepared to risk the wrath of their jailers by going public with complaints about widespread abuse of power.

Russia has sought to introduce some compassion in its penitentiary system since abolishing the death penalty in the early 1990s and closing draconian Soviet-era labour camps.

Backpedalling on reforms

But while there is still progress towards greater leniency in some areas – prisoners serving life sentences are to be allowed occasional family visits, starting this year – Russian legislators have been backpedalling on earlier reforms. Only last month the Russian Duma, or parliament, approved a Bill – dubbed by critics as the “sadists’ law” – that expands the grounds for using physical force against prison inmates and ensures a greater measure of impunity for guards.

Russia's penitentiary service acts like "a state within a state" where people are frequently humiliated and tortured, said Sergei Petryakov, a lawyer at Zona Pravo, an organisation dedicated to supporting prisoners' rights. Prison officers found guilty of inflicting injuries on inmates rarely face serious punishment as long as "there is no corpse", he told online magazine Slon.

The European Court of Human Rights has demanded that Russia reveal the whereabouts of Dadin before January 9th. But some Russian bloggers have braced for the worst, suggesting that the activist’s month-long disappearance in the prison system might mean he is badly injured or even dead.

The Kremlin is still suffering from the negative fallout of another high-profile case, that of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in pre-trial detention in Moscow in 2009 after being savagely beaten by guards. Magnitsky's former employer, the Hermitage Fund, has campaigned successfully for international sanctions against his torturers and is determined to bring them to justice.

Political analysts say the last thing Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, wants in the wake of the Magnitsky scandal is to create another martyr to the anti-torture cause.

But right activists warn that, with presidential elections looming in 2018, the Kremlin will continue repressive policies, giving law enforcers a free hand to crush all dissent.

Lev Ponomarev, the acting director of Russia's For Human Rights movement, who has frequently prepared reports for the Kremlin detailing torture, rape and even death in Russian jails, is pessimistic about the prospects for reform.

“The president says we must fight this, we must stop this. But nothing happens,” he wrote. “One fairly realistic conclusion is that these prisons need the system and the system needs the prisons.”