Ildar Dadin and other opposition supporters hold flares and a poster reading "Yesterday — Kiev, Tomorrow - Moscow!" | Dmitry Serebryakov/AFP via Getty Images
MOSCOW — Ildar Dadin and Anastasia Zotova fell in love in Moscow in August 2014 and married the next year. By the time they tied the knot, however, Dadin, a 34-year-old opposition activist, was behind bars for staging “unsanctioned” protests against the Kremlin. Zotova, a 25-year-old former journalist, wore white to the wedding ceremony, and their friends toasted the newlyweds with champagne on the street outside. The couple planned to have two, or better three, children, and hoped the eldest would be a boy. Zotova imagined taking them to the seaside to eat ice-cream and buy silly souvenirs.
Now, their life together seems little more than an elusive dream. In September 2016, Dadin was transferred to a notorious penal colony in Karelia, a remote region in northwest Russia, where prison staff reportedly torture inmates to the deafening accompaniment of songs by Lyube, one of President Vladimir Putin’s favorite rock groups.
In December 2015, Dadin became the first person to be jailed under a controversial law that stipulates prison time for anyone repeatedly detained at illegal protests. The law, approved by Putin in July 2014, effectively outlaws any form of public dissent that has not been sanctioned by the authorities, including the peaceful, one-person protests for which Dadin was arrested.
Amid angry scenes at a central Moscow courthouse, Dadin was sentenced to three years in jail, later reduced by six months on appeal. “Fascists!” his supporters screamed at the judge and court security, as he was led away in handcuffs. Amnesty International publicly recognized him as a prisoner of conscience.
Over the next few months, Zotova would lose track of her husband’s whereabouts, as he disappeared into Russia’s sprawling, brutal penitentiary system.
Then, in early November, nearly two months after Dadin’s transfer to penal colony No. 7 in Karelia, Zotova received a letter from her husband, smuggled out of the prison camp by his lawyer. Dadin had been thrown into solitary confinement upon arrival, ostensibly for hiding two razor blades among his possessions. The blades were planted on him by prison guards, Dadin wrote, and he had gone on a hunger strike in protest.
His defiance was met with violence. The day after his arrival, he said, he was beaten “a total of four times, by 10-12 people at once. After the third beating, they stuck my head into a toilet bowl right there in the punishment cell.” Dadin also alleged the beatings were overseen by the penal colony boss, one Major Sergey Kossiev.
Worse was to come.
“On September 12, [penal colony] staff cuffed my hands behind my back and hung me up,” Dadin wrote in the letter. “Being suspended in this way caused a terrible pain in the wrists, twisted out my elbows, and brought about savage back pains. I was hung up like that for half an hour. Then they pulled off my underwear and said they would bring another prisoner in to rape me if I didn’t call off my hunger strike.”
After that torture session, Kossiev allegedly warned Dadin that if he did not accept food, he would be killed, his body buried “under the fence.” Dadin refused, and the violence continued. He has since abandoned his hunger strike.
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Zotova was faced with a terrible dilemma.
“I realized there were three possible scenarios,” she told me, when I met her in central Moscow in late November.
“One: I wouldn’t make the letter public, and then they wouldn’t find out that Ildar had complained, but they would go on beating him. Two: I wouldn’t make the letter public, but the prison camp authorities would somehow find out that Ildar had complained, and beat him even worse. Three, I would make the letter public and then they would either stop beating him or beat him until he was half-dead. I decided to risk it.”
A man holds a placard reading “Stop torture, Freedom for Dadin” as he pickets Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service headquarters in Moscow | Vasily Maximov/AFP via Getty Images
Zotova circulated Dadin’s letter among opposition-friendly media, which whipped up a storm of outrage among government critics and human rights activists. Dadin’s letter also drew the attention of European politicians. A European Parliament resolution in November called for his “immediate and unconditional release,” and urged Russia to “carry out a thorough review of its penitentiary system with a view to undertaking a deep reform.” It also called for Europe to enforce asset freezes and visa bans against those alleged to have been involved in the torture of Dadin and other prisoners.
Among Russian officials, there was no outrage. Russia’s prison service rejected his claims outright, and called Dadin “a talented imitator.” State media accused him of lying in order to draw attention to himself. The Investigative Committee, an FBI-style organization that answers only to Putin, also said it found no evidence of wrongdoing at the camp.
Dadin’s accusations have been backed up by his fellow inmates, including during interviews with Pavel Chikov, a leading Russian human rights lawyer who visited the prison camp in early November. According to Chikov, prisoners who were kept in cells in different parts of the penal colony and had never met each other related almost identical stories of torture, including the rock music played by prison staff. Some spoke of being left almost naked for days on end in freezing punishment cells. Muslim prisoners claimed they were tortured for refusing to eat pork or for praying.
“If you didn’t get beaten more than twice in a day, then you were living excellently,” Zamir Broev, who was released from the penal colony in June, told the opposition-friendly Meduza website after the publication of Dadin’s letter.
Zotova began documenting the numerous allegations of torture at the penal colony in Karelia. In late November, she helped organize a news conference in Moscow, where relatives and former inmates testified to widespread beatings and other physical and psychological abuse at the camp.
“My son arrived at penal colony No. 7 on crutches, but he was immediately sent to the punishment cell,” said Zhenat Gabzayeva, whose 25-year-old son, Khasbulat, is serving time at the camp. “They beat him there with a hammer until he lost consciousness. They hung him up by his legs, beat his feet, stuck his head down the toilet, and poured cold water on him.
“How can I live with this? I can’t be sure that he will get out of there alive,” Gabzayeva said, tears rolling down her face. “If we live in a country with a rule of law, how can this happen?”
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Torture is not only a regular occurrence in penal colony No. 7 in Karelia, according to human rights lawyers and activists. As Zotova admitted, the treatment meted out to her husband was less severe than the abuse many prisoners face on a daily basis.
“Modern Russian prison camps are a direct continuation of the Soviet-era gulag system,” said Vladimir Osechkin, the founder of the human rights website, gulagu.net, which translates as “No to the Gulag.” “Often, they are even located in the very same camps where prisoners were executed.”
Osechkin spent four years in Russia’s penitentiary system on fraud charges that he said were revenge for his attempt to expose corrupt police officials.
“Torture takes place in all prisons and all prison camps in Russia,” he said. “Any person who tries to stand up for his own honor and sense of self-worth will be tortured.”
Rape is commonly used to both punish and blackmail male prisoners, he says: “Prison staff film the raping of inmates, and then threaten to send the recordings to their wives, or show it to other prisoners, if they do not do what they want.”
Osechkin’s claims were echoed by other anti-torture activists. In late November, Alexei Kuznetsov, a human rights worker, posted an online video that showed prisoners being urinated on and sexually abused at three prison camps in Russia’s Urals region. According to Kuznetsov, the videos were used by penal colony officials to blackmail wealthy prisoners, forcing them to hand over their businesses and property. Russia’s prison service has yet to comment on the video.
Osechkin, who fled to France last year with his family after pressure from the Russian security services, has had some success in achieving justice for the victims of Russia’s 21st century gulags.
In 2012, he and his colleagues at gulagu.net helped bring the case of Vitaly Buntov to the European Court of Human Rights. The Strasbourg-based court ordered Russia to pay Buntov €55,000 in compensation after ruling he had been tortured at a penal colony in Tula, in central Russia. The court heard how prison staff tore out Buntov’s fingernails after he refused to join a punishment squad run by the penal colony’s administration. But it was a Pyrrhic victory. After the court’s ruling, Buntov was transferred to another penal colony, where he was once again tortured — this time as revenge for having the audacity to complain to Strasbourg about his mistreatment.
After the assault, his wife, Irina, posted photographs of his lacerated chest, back, and buttocks online. Despite the evidence, his allegations of torture were dismissed by Russia’s prison service. Investigators accused Buntov, serving 25 years on what he says are trumped-up murder charges, of filing a false report, an offense punishable by up to six years in jail. His case will be heard in December.
Other inmates have also faced retribution for attempting to draw attention to torture. Seventeen prisoners who took part in a protest against mistreatment at a penal colony in Russia’s Chelyabinsk region are currently standing trial on charges of “mass riots” and could face an additional 10 years behind bars.
The Kremlin’s own human rights council reported hundreds of cases of violence against prisoners at the penal colony, but was unable to sway the trial.
“In November alone, Russian investigators charged 31 prison service employees across the country with torture.”
“There was one man who could only crawl,” said Mikhail Fedotov, the head of the council. “His legs didn’t work anymore after being kept in a punishment isolation cell for months.” Another member of the Kremlin’s human rights council described the penal colony as a “concentration camp.”
Although Russia has undertaken a much-vaunted campaign to “humanize” its penal system in recent years, statistics paint a picture of deeply-entrenched violence.
In November alone, Russian investigators charged 31 prison service employees across the country with torture, including the heads of three penal colonies. But punishments are often symbolic, and courts frequently hand down suspended sentences to prison staff.
“There is no intentional policy to fight torture,” said Chikov, the human rights lawyer. “Violence is so widely practiced in some prisons and regions that only its overuse leads to an investigation, and that’s usually when prisoners rebel.”
Under a government-proposed law that could be approved by parliament next year, prison staff will have even fewer grounds to fear prosecution. If passed, the new legislation, dubbed the “sadists’ law” by human rights activists, will permit prison guards to use harsher methods on inmates, including electroshock weapons and attack dogs. Prison staff would also be granted immunity in the case of injuries to inmates that result from “justifiable” violence. They would also have up to 24 hours to report a prisoner’s death.
“I’ve come to terms with the fact that things are never going to be good” — Anastasia Zotova
As for Dadin, the media spotlight has halted the violence against him, for now at least. In early December, prison authorities announced he had been transferred to a different prison camp, although they have yet to specify which.
For his family, the future is still uncertain. Zotova takes prescription-strength tranquilizers to deal with the stress. “Other people think ‘yes, I know they beat people in prisons, that they hang them up by handcuffs, and tear their fingernails out, but, well, I’m going to go and make some borscht. Or go to the cinema.’ But I just can’t do that. I can’t forget about it,” she said.
“I’ve come to terms with the fact that things are never going to be good. That I might never see my husband again. That they could kill or cripple him in prison. When all the human rights workers leave, and everything quietens down, they will just start beating people again — and this time those who complained will receive even more brutal treatment.”
What if her husband makes it out, I ask. Zotova thinks about this for a while. “I’m going to put him in a car, drive him off somewhere, and then hide him for a very long time.”
After all, the gulag is going nowhere.
“The gulag system is much stronger than Putin,” said Osechkin, the human rights activist. “When Putin is long gone, the gulag will still be with us.”
Marc Bennetts is a Moscow-based journalist and author of “Kicking the Kremlin: Russia’s New Dissidents and the Battle to Topple Putin” (Oneworld, 2014).