Russia softens prison conditions for World Cup hooligan detention

Opposition’s Alexei Navalny claims cells and jail menus getting temporary revamp

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny freed after a 30-day sentence: “If you are planning to breach public order you had better hurry...”  Photograph: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny freed after a 30-day sentence: “If you are planning to breach public order you had better hurry...” Photograph: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty

 

Russia’s prison service will offer exceptional comforts to rowdy football fans unlucky enough to be detained during the World Cup, according to Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Mr Navalny, who was released on Thursday from a Moscow jail where he had been serving a 30-day sentence for staging an unlawful street protest, gave an eyewitness account of the facelift under way at the city’s notoriously uncomfortable detention cells ahead of the Fifa football championships.

“Evidently the authorities have not ruled out the possibility that drunken English fanatics will be arrested and don’t want to smack them in the face,” he wrote on the Echo Moskvy radio website.

Tens of thousands of foreign fans are expected to visit Russia during the month-long World Cup celebrations that opened on Thursday with a match between Russia and Saudi Arabia in a Moscow stadium.

Russia has taken steps to prevent a repeat of the clashes that marred the European Championships in France in 2016 when Russian hooligans ganged up on England supporters in the streets of Marseilles. Observers were shocked by the scale of the violence that left many fans seriously injured.

Known troublemakers

While law enforcers have piled pressure on known Russian troublemakers to stay away from the World Cup, they have introduced measures to screen even law-abiding fans before they get anywhere near a stadium. All supporters planning to visit the championships are required to apply online for special fan IDs that, together with a valid ticket to attend a match, serve as visas to enter Russia. Security has been stepped up at the 11 Russian cities hosting the football with numerous police checks in and around stadiums.

At the same time Russia is keen to use the prestigious event to show a positive face to the world and avoid heavy-handed law-enforcement tactics that would only fuel western criticism of its shortcomings on human rights.

Mr Navalny, who was arrested in May at an unauthorised demonstration against Vladimir Putin’s inauguration to a fourth presidential term, is familiar with the workings of the Russian penitentiary system, having served five prison sentences over the past year alone.

LCD television

In a report published by Echo Moskvy on Thursday, he described how Moscow prisons were being refurbished to accommodate foreign football fans during the World Cup.

In addition to repainting the bars and installing toilet bowls in cells, the authorities were supplying each with LCD television screens to beam matches to detainees and setting up makeshift football pitches in exercise yards.

Mr Navalny said students from police academies with English language skills had been drafted into prisons to help staff communicate with foreigners. Among their tasks was to distribute menus offering dishes ranging from lamb kebabs to cherry pies and tiramasu, in place of the usual dull prison fare.

For anyone thinking these fairytale conditions sounded too good to be true, Mr Navalny had a warning. “The number of places is limited, so if you are planning to breach public order you had better hurry,” he wrote. “After the World Cup the golden carriage will turn into a pumpkin.”