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21st Century Gulag -

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has been confirmed today that Tasmanian Greenpeace activist, Colin Russell, has been formally charged in Russia with hooliganism after attempting to climb an oil rig in the Arctic. The charge carries a maximum penalty of 7 years - the same charge that saw members of the Punk Band, Pussy Riot jailed. Tonight we have shocking claims of brutality and extortion in the prisons, including a former prison boss who says his country's infamous gulag system, exposed by Alexander Sovenitsin, still operates. Our story is narrated by Victoria Strobl and a warning it contains some disturbing images.

NARRATOR: Victoria Strobl

Human rights activist, Oksana Trufanova, and former prisoner, Daniil Abakumov are on their way to a prison in the city of Chelyabinsk. Minutes after setting off, they suspect they're being followed.

DRIVER (Translation): We’ll go round and round the roundabout to see where that car following us is going to go…

Their suspicions are confirmed.

DANIIL ABAKUMOV (Translation): It’s following us, doing circles.

DRIVER (Translation): Let’s go round once again.

DANIIL ABAKUMOV (Translation): He’s taken the exit. I think he’s figured us out.

OKSANA TRUFANOVA (Translation): He figured out we were taking him for a ride…

Oksana and Daniil believe they're being watched by the Secret Police. They're on their way to a sensitive location - Penal Colony Number 6 - where inmates recently staged a protest against torture.

OKSANA TRUFANOVA (Translation): They called it a riot, but it was just desperation.

For 48 hours in freezing temperatures, the prisoners took turns in occupying the rooftops, pleading for help.

OKSANA TRUFANOVA (Translation): First a slogan went up reading.. “People, help us!” Then a banner appeared reading “Torture and extortion.” Everybody knew this colony was the worst one ever. At some point they had to erupt.

A guard approaches. Daniil, fresh from a 3-year stretch in the prison, recognises him.

DANIIL ABAKUMOV (Translation): This official used to beat me up and torture me. You tortured me.

GUARD (Translation): Impossible.

DANIIL ABAKUMOV (Translation): In the warden’s office, beatings. You kicked me in the groin, tried to smash my balls. You hung me from the bars and gassed me.

GUARD (Translation): Who ?

DANIIL ABAKUMOV (Translation): You!

OKSANA TRUFANOVA (Translation): Is it just a lie ?

GUARD (Translation): Yes, it’s a lie.

OKSANA TRUFANOVA (Translation): They don’t torture people here?

GUARD (Translation): No. Get that camera away from me !

As the guard heads off to raise the alarm, Daniil describes the torture techniques he says are regularly meted out to inmates.

DANIIL ABAKUMOV (Translation): It’s systematic, it goes on every day, 24 hours, one prisoner after another in this very building. They hang you from the bars with duct tape, strip you naked. They kick your legs apart, make you stretch, they put pencils under our feet so we couldn’t stand properly. They put a metal bucket on our head with speakers welded in. The sound is a car alarm. They switch it on with a booster. It all happens in the sickbay of this building.

A local human rights group filmed rare footage of Colony 6. It shows dormitories packed with beds…. Mealtime in the canteen…. The workshops where inmates sew uniforms….and the cage in the sickbay where Daniil claims prisoners were bound with tape to be tortured.

DANIIL ABAKUMOV (Translation): Touch it here.

OKSANA TRUFANOVA (Translation): Here.

DANIIL ABAKUMOV (Translation): Sticky isn’t it?

OKSANA TRUFANOVA (Translation): Sticky.

Today Oksana is meeting up with campaigner Dina Latypova who has collected over 1,000 complaints about the actions of guards at Colony 6.

DINA LATYPOVA (Translation): They say the inmates are bad guys who’ve committed crimes, but you, you are committing the same crime. You’re a criminal just like them. When you kill and rape, you are breaking the law just the same. But you think what you are doing to them is right.

According to Dina, prison staff also use violence to extort money or goods from inmates' families.

DINA LATYPOVA (Translation): They approach an inmate and say “You don’t want to be beaten, do you?” Naturally, any human being would say “No, I don’t want to be beaten:. “Then you have to… Then your relatives have to, say, bring a pack of cleaning materials. Here’s the phone, call them.” And it all adds up, it multiplies, they always demand more. So all their relatives end up giving all they earn to the institution to ensure their son or husband isn’t killed.

It's a criminal enterprise that few families are willing to auk about. They fear reprisals against their loved ones. Vera Chigvintseva has decided to speak out. Her son Viktor was arrested five years ago for drug trafficking and sent to Colony 6.

VERA CHIGVINTSEVA (Translation): This is the list from when my son had just arrived in the colony. He called to tell me what was required… “Write it down quickly, I don’t have much time”. I wrote this list down: pliers, side cutters, strippers and cables. I said “That’s too much. Why do you need 300 meters of cable?” He said “That’s for the colony, and if I get it all it will go better for me.” Then some time later a phone call came saying that he needed 40,000 roubles. I didn’t have that kind of money.

40,000 roubles is the equivalent of $1,300, about half a year's salary for Vera. Today she and Viktor's fiance Irina, are expecting him to make a rare call from inside the prison.

VIKTOR (Translation): If you promise them “Yes, I’ll get it for you.” And don’t deliver, you’ll end up in the solitary for sure… What happened to me is they beat me up in solitary. They kicked my legs further apart than is possible and kicked me in the groin.

VERA CHIGVINTSEVA (Translation): I’ve heard a lot about what’s been happening there. But right now for me… that’s it’s really happened to my own son… It’s very hard. All the same I still hope that justice will triumph one day nonetheless.

In recent years, one case above all has drawn global attention to Russia's prison system. Along this grim stretch of road in Mordovia, 400 km east of Moscow, are 16 of Russia's harshest jails. It is here that Nadia Tolokonnikova, of punk band, Pussy Riot, is being held. This now infamous anti-Putin protest saw her sentenced to 2 years in a reform colony. Today at a parole hearing, she's hoping for an early release. But her father Andrei believes the proceedings are a sham.

ANDREI TOLOKONNIKOVA, NADIA’S FATHER (Translation): This hearing is a formality. It’s 100% certain we’ll be refused. Nothing is done because there’s no political will. Not a sign of it, not even a hint.

JUDGE LIDIA YAKOVLEVA, ZUBOVO-POLIANA TRIBUNAL, MORDOVIA, (Translation): The request for an early release on parole is denied.

Nadia is taken away to serve her sentence through until March next year. Her husband, Piotr, believes the Russian President is making an example of his wife to repress political opposition.

PIOTR VERZILOV, NADIA’S HUSBAND (Translation): Vladimir Putin… has decided… to send people to prison… so as a way to control Russia’s malcontents. It sets the limits. Cross them and you’ll be brutally persecuted.

JOURNALIST (Translation): My question is: three years ago on this program you carefully answered a question about your position on Stalin.

VLADIMIR PUTIN (Translation): On who?

JOURNALIST (Translation): Stalin. So we noticed certain Stalinist overtones we’d like a comment on. Do you really think that in the 21st century, by using the methods of such an “efficient manager” as Stalin, Russia can become an advanced country?

VLADIMIR PUTIN (Translation): I don’t think there are any elements of Stalinism here. Stalinism means a cult of personality and massive violations of law, repression and prison camps...

There’s nothing like that in Russia now and I hope it never happens again. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have order and discipline.

It's the way law and order is being enforced in prison that has people worried. Valentin Bogdan campaigns for the rights of inmates. He has collated hundreds of videos of abuses in Russian prisons, including this one he recently received from Siberia.

VALENTIN BOGDAN (Translation): They bring the convict in, openly, they hit him from the shoulder and all of them believe it’s their duty to give him one.

The idea is to make it clear that dissent will not be tolerated. In this video a prisoner, known only as Chamil, has literally just stepped foot in the jail.

VALENTIN BOGDAN (Translation): It’s their preventive strategy: this man must know that if he offers them any opposition by word or deed or anything else…that’s how the rest of his life is going to look.

Valentin's organisation, the Fund for Protecting Prisoners' Rights, has identified around 50 penal colonies where it says torture has taken place.

VALENTIN BOGDAN (Translation): In every region, there’s at least one such prison colony that’s called a torture colony. Any inmate who is kept in that region can be sent there so that his will can be completely broken.

The prison authorities deny all accusations of extortion and torture. They also refuse to be interviewed, saying the topic is too sensitive. But former Prison Director, Sergei Vetoshkine, who retired 7 years ago, has no qualms about giving his views.

SERGEI VETOSHKINE, FORMER PRISON DIRECTOR (Translation): They say it’s a legacy of the Gulag and concentration camps. And it’s true. This system is still a Gulag by its nature. The way people are kept there is like in concentration camps.

Sergei is shown a video, filmed by guards when he was a prison director. It shows a newly-arrived prisoner who refused to clean the toilets. In the next scene the same prisoner is covered with severe bruises.

JOURNALIST (Translation): Is this an example of using “special methods”?

SERGEI VETOSHKINE (Translation): Yes, it’s an RP73 rubber truncheon.

JOURNALIST (Translation): Is that legal?

SERGEI VETOSHKINE (Translation): Yes. The limit is defined by the man using those special methods and him alone. It’s up to him to decide, given the situation, how far he has to go applying these methods so the inmate understands it’s better to start doing what is demanded of him.

Barely able to walk, the prisoner needs to be supported by other inmates.

GUARD (Translation): That’s the last time you that you failed to understand, right?

INMATE (Translation): Yes.

GUARD (Translation): You offered us malicious disobedience, right?

INMATE (Translation): Yes.

GUARD (Translation): That’s it.

SERGEI VETOSHKINE (Translation): You film something like this once and show it to others. That’s better this than having to subject 10 more people to those special methods.

In Chelyabinsk, Daniil is visiting the grave of a fellow prisoner who died the previous year in Colony 6. He's one of the last people to have seen Nikolai Korovkin alive, inside the Head of Security's office.

DANIIL ABAKUMOV (Translation): He turned away from him and the guy said “Are you going to resist or what?” He grabbed him by the arm, turned him around and began to beat him. Nikolai first fell onto his knees and then he bent over, that’s when the guy apparently miscalculated and struck him on the head. He hit his head with the stick and Nikolay lost consciousness and fell down.

AUDIO RECORDING (Translation): Hello. C6. Want to speak to inmate Korovkin?

In an audio recording made a month before his death, Nikolai Korovkin tells his father he's the victim of extortion.

NIKOLAI KOROVKIN (Translation): At the very least we need a cement mixer. Do you hear me?


NIKOLAI KOROVKIN (Translation): I need that so as to transfer to a normal detachment in the industrial section and to get proper visits.

ALEXANDER KOROVKIN (Translation): And what address do we send it to?

NIKOLAI KOROVKIN (Translation): To Colony 6. What address should there be? We’ve got one address.

Nikolai's grieving parents, Alexander and Liubov, say they paid prison guards the equivalent of $3,500 over two months to keep their son safe.

ALEXANDER KOROVKIN (Translation): The money? You scrape up your last and give it to them. You want to help your own, that’s how it works. You want to make it better but you make it worse… and those guys are in the fucking clover.

The prison authorities claim Nikolai died of AIDS. An investigation has been carried out but a year on his parents are still waiting for answers.

ALEXANDER KOROVKIN (Translation): It went all the way to Moscow, to no avail. Who should I turn to? They all know each other, why bother?

LIUBOV KOROVKIN, MOTHER (Translation): Everything will go on as before except our son will never come back.

The very same day Daniil and human rights activist Oksana are picked up by police. They're accused of consuming and dealing in drugs.

OKSANA TRUFANOVA (Translation): I don’t know what he accuses me of, he said I was transporting narcotics and therefore I had to show my ID and undergo a search. They want me to stop and not press the matter further. They want to stop those working with me. To scare them off, perhaps.

After a few hours, the tests prove negative. Daniil and Oksana are allowed to leave.

OKSANA TRUFANOVA (Translation): Every day here is interesting, there is always something happening.

The next day Daniil has a hearing before the tribunal investigating the death of Nikolai Korovkin. Also present is the director of Colony 6, with Mekhanov, with his head of security, Konstatin Schegol. It is Daniil who finds himself in the dock.

JUDGE (Translation): Will the accused stand up to hear his rights?

For giving evidence on the death of Nikolai Korovkin, Daniil is charged with libel.

DANIIL ABAKUMOV (Translation): I have no wish to look at them, I don’t like being here with them, especially Shchegol. And Mekhanov threatened that I would be hanged in solitary, that they will make my death look like suicide.

Charges against the two prison managers are dropped.

MEKHANOV (Translation): Don’t film us. I’m warning you again, stop!

But not Daniil. On the day of his 30th birthday, he's facing another 6 year stretch in jail.

ANJALI RAO: That seems incredible a man called to give evidence over a death - even a former prisoner - ends up being charged over his testimony. If convicted it will no doubt be 6 years of very hard labour. Follow the links on our website for more about the campaign against Russian prison conditions and tell us what you think.




Original Music Composed by


A Ligne de Mire Production

29th October 2013