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Hard Time: Navalny Not The Only Russian Dissident For Whom A Prison Term Could Be A Death Sentence

Russian anti-corruption blogger Aleksei Navalny looks out of the window of his cell in a detention center in Moscow in December 2011.
Russian anti-corruption blogger Aleksei Navalny looks out of the window of his cell in a detention center in Moscow in December 2011.

When prison authorities in the Russian Arctic announced the sudden death of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny on February 16, they said the preliminary cause of death was "sudden death syndrome." The next day, state-run RT television quoted an unnamed source as saying the 47-year-old Navalny died of thrombosis.

For medical personnel in Russian prisons, thrombosis is "a universal diagnosis used to explain everything," Anna Karetnikova, a rights activist who is a former analyst with the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN), said on Telegram.

Navalny's death came after years of confinement during which he spent more than 300 days in solitary punishment cells, was denied medical care, complained that he was subjected to sleep deprivation, and more. Russian courts rejected more than 40 complaints he filed over the alleged mistreatment.

As the number of Russians being held over their political stances or religious beliefs grows, activists say the Russian state is increasingly subjecting them to a wide array of abusive treatment.

"The practice of disciplinary punishment is extremely diverse," Sergei Babinets, head of the Teams Against Torture rights group, told RFE/RL in comments published on February 18. "Thanks to the constant attention the media have paid to the case of Viktor Filinkov," a man sentenced in 2020 to seven years in prison for allegedly belonging to a "terrorist" group, "we have learned that if the authorities want to, they can punish you for smiling while working."

A replica of Navalny's jail cell was installed on a square near the Louvre Museum in Paris.
A replica of Navalny's jail cell was installed on a square near the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Although outright physical violence has increasingly been reported in the treatment of dissident prisoners, Babinets says, the use of such disciplinary rules to erode their health and well-being is much more common. "Why should they beat them if they can just strictly follow the law and the prisoner suffers?" he said.

Punishment Cells

Opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison in April on treason and other charges, is being held in solitary confinement in a prison in Omsk, his wife, Yevgenia Kara-Murza, told Current Time on February 22. In January, Kara-Murza was placed in solitary confinement for at least four months after being deemed a "habitual offender."

Wife Of Jailed Russian Politician Kara-Murza Says She Fears For His Life
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"These are the conditions other political prisoners are kept in if they refuse to stay silent," Yevgenia Kara-Murza said. "He is now in the hands of those who tried to kill him twice," she continued, referring to two suspicious incidents of apparent poisoning that Kara-Murza believes were orchestrated by the Russian government. "Of course, I fear for his life."

Solitary confinement in inhumane punishment cells (ShIZO) is increasingly becoming the norm for dissident prisoners, Karetnikova told RFE/RL's Siberia.Realities in comments published on February 18.

"Of course, constantly being in a punishment cell doesn't do any good for anyone's health," she said, "because the conditions there are quite difficult. It is constantly cold. In these cells, you have to change into special punishment clothing, and you are only allowed to wear a jacket during exercise time. There is no real opportunity for physical activity. You cannot use food or anything sent to you in parcels because you are not allowed to receive anything when you are in a ShIZO."

In a Telegram post from December 2023, another of Russia's most prominent imprisoned dissidents -- opposition politician Ilya Yashin, who is serving an 8 1/2-year term for allegedly distributing fake information about the military -- described the ShIZO in detail. The 3-by-4-meter cells makes you feel as if you "were walled up in a stone sack," he wrote. The bunk is fastened to the wall from 5 a.m. until 9 p.m. and it forbidden to lie on the floor. The cell is cold, but you are not allowed a sweater or jacket. It smells constantly of sewage.

"From cracks behind the toilet frequently emerge impudent rats the size of an average cat," Yashin continued. Prisoners are allowed to read or write for half an hour each day, after which all books, paper, and writing utensils are removed. Radio broadcasts are played continually during waking hours. The "exercise yard" is even smaller than the cell -- 2.5 by 3 meters. One is only allowed to use it from 6 a.m. until 7 a.m. The only good thing about being in a punishment cell, Yashin wrote, is that you don't have to worry about being sent to a punishment cell.

"Obviously, ShIZO is de facto legalized torture," he wrote. "The point of such confinement is to torment people until you get what you want from them. That is why almost all political prisoners are passed through these torture cells."

In Jail With Navalny: Mock-Up Shows Conditions In Russian Prison
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Aleksei Gorinov, a former district lawmaker in Moscow who is serving seven years for purportedly making false statements about the military, had part of one lung removed after he was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 2016. Nonetheless, the 62-year-old has been repeatedly sent to ShIZO, which he described as "damp and cold as the grave."

Deprivation Of Care

Another increasingly common form of prisoner mistreatment is withholding necessary medical care. Artist Aleksandra Skochilenko, who was sentenced to seven years in prison in November 2023 under the law on spreading false information about the military, was denied medical care during the nearly 20 months she spent in pretrial detention, although she suffers from a congenital heart condition, celiac disease, and other serious conditions. A member of President Vladimir Putin's advisory human rights council, Eva Merkacheva, called Skochilenko's imprisonment "mortally dangerous." During her trial, she complained that she was being "starved to death" because she constantly missed meals while being transported to and from court hearings.

Igor Baryshnikov, a 64-year-old cancer patient in the Kaliningrad region who is serving 7 1/2 years under the same law on spreading supposedly false information about the military, has been denied early release on grounds of his deteriorating health, despite being in near constant pain that often prevents him from sitting or lying down. He is unable to keep his cystostomy catheter sterile, running the constant risk of infection.

"To be honest, we broke down crying after we left him," one of his lawyers told RFE/RL in December 2023, saying that Baryshnikov required an additional operation. "In fact, our client has been sentenced to a slow and torturous death."

Igor Baryshnikov
Igor Baryshnikov

The Memorial human rights group, which has been banned in Russia, currently lists 255 designated political prisoners in Russia and 424 prisoners of conscience being held for their religious convictions.

"Our list of political prisoners is certainly incomplete," the organization's website explains. "Collecting materials on a case often takes considerable time, especially in cases where the investigation and trial are classified."

Activist Karetnikova notes that dissident prisoners in Russia have become a focus of attention on the part of the international community, the Russian opposition in exile, and "the remnants of civil society in Russia."

"And the Russian authorities, using the [Federal Penitentiary Service], decided to respond asymmetrically by treating such prisoners brutally" she said. "They began to subject them to endless punishments and new criminal cases."

In his first social-media post after learning about Navalny's death, Yashin said he felt "a dark emptiness inside."

"Of course, I understand that I am at risk," he wrote on February 20. "I am behind bars, and my life is in Putin's hands. It is in danger. But I will stick to my path."

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL's Siberia.Realities and Idel.Realities

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