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Russian opponent Alexei Navalny was transferred at the end of February to penal colony No. 2, also known as IK-2. A choice that is not trivial: it is one of the most feared prisons in Russia.
Upon arrival, Alexeï Navalny was not beaten. “For those who have served a sentence in this prison, it is a surprise,” said Open Media, one of the first Russian media to discover that the famous Russian opponent had been transferred at the end of February to the infamous Prison Colony No. 2 in Proskov, a small town of 17,000 inhabitants 100 km east of Moscow.
Officially, Russian authorities have not disclosed the location of Alexei Navalny, who was sentenced to two and a half years in prison on February 21, for breach of a suspended sentence. But several Russian media, including the Tass news agency, confirmed that the first opponent of Vladimir Putin was in prison colony No. 2, also known as IK-2.
Constant psychological “torture”
These colonies are the distant cousins of the gulags of the Soviet era. If the conditions of detention there are less severe today than in the days of Stalin’s USSR, the IK-2 colony has the reputation of being the toughest of nearly 700 similar establishments in Russia.
It belongs to the category of prisons known as “red zone”, where the guards maintain strict discipline. In the so-called “black zone” establishments, the administration leaves more freedom to inmates to organize life inside the penitentiary. And IK-2 “the reddest of the red zone prisons,” says Maria Eismont, a lawyer who has defended several former prisoners of this penal colony, interviewed by Open Media.
IK-2 is not so feared for the physical ill-treatment inflicted on prisoners – less frequent than before according to the accounts of former detainees – but for the constant “psychological torture” practiced there. “They completely break the will of individuals,” said Piotr Kuryanov, a lawyer for the Russian Foundation for the Defense of Prisoners, interviewed by the Moscow Times.
Alexeï Navalny must “expect to be deprived of his humanity,” warns Konstantin Kotov, a Russian anti-Putin activist, who spent more than a year at IK-2, interviewed by the British daily The Independent.
This process of dehumanization begins shortly after arriving at penal colony No. 2, according to numerous testimonies from former detainees. The new prisoners are first placed for two weeks in quarantine during which “they are subjected to maximum pressure made of intimidation and humiliation throughout the day”, summarizes the official site of support for Alexeï Navalny.
Feeling of absolute isolation
“It is a succession of rules and orders whose sole purpose is to break the mind of the person”, assures Konstantin Kotov, interviewed by the British channel Sky News. Prisoners are ordered to make and unmake their beds – in a maximum of three minutes – several times a day, to stand for several hours at a time, without having the right to look away from the ground, while answering several times to the same questions about their identity and the reasons for which they were incarcerated.
“But the hardest part is the feeling of absolute loneliness,” says Konstantin Kotov. It is forbidden to communicate with other prisoners, even prohibited to look at them, and all movements must be made at a run. “Any breach of these rules can earn you a stay in solitary confinement,” Dimitri Demouchkin, a far-right activist who was imprisoned at IK-2, told the Moscow Times.
After this period, the prisoners are mixed with the rest of the prison population. Unlike traditional prisons, penal colonies do not have cells, but are divided into large dormitories that can accommodate up to 60 people. There are about 700 prisoners distributed in a dozen barracks.
They are then “activist” prisoners, that is to say, who collaborate with the guards in exchange for some advantages, such as the right to take more than one shower per week, which enforce the many rules.
The prisoners have little free time and everything is done to limit the moments of intimacy as much as possible. Impossible to go to the bathroom alone, to answer mail without being watched by an “activist”. Meals should be “eaten in about five minutes,” Konstantin Kotov recalls.
The moments of “relaxation” often boil down to long joint television sessions, during which pro-Putin propaganda programs are shown. It is then necessary “to stand permanently upright in your chair, without having the right to look elsewhere than the screen”, recalls Dimitri Demouchkin.
The slightest deviation, “such as having badly buttoned his shirt”, can lead to a detainee being sent to a zone of “reinforced surveillance”, underlines the far-right activist, who himself spent several months there. Freedom of movement is even more restricted and the days can be reduced to waiting, standing and head down, for the orders of the guards.
Asked by the Interfax news agency about the treatment awaiting Alexeï Navalny at penal colony n ° 2, Alexandre Kalashnikov, the federal head of Russian prisons, replied “that he would be detained in absolutely normal conditions”. Which, in view of what is “normal” at IK-2, is not necessarily reassuring.