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Zoya Svetova on the death on remand of Valery Pshenichny: Russian prisons are a threat to life [Radio Svoboda]

posted 8 May 2018, 12:24 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 8 May 2018, 12:30 ]
27 April 2018

By Zoya Svetova, journalist, human rights activist, laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group’s human rights award, former member of the Moscow Public Monitoring Commission

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Radio Svoboda]

I learned a long time ago, when my father was imprisoned, that prison is frightening because of the uncertainty, because you never know what is happening to the person who remains one on one with the “surrounding reality.” In Soviet pre-trial detention centres in the mid-1980s, there were no cell phone connections, they did not allow visits from relatives or lawyers until the end of the preliminary investigation, no letters came from behind bars, so there was absolutely no information. I remember well my fear for my father. When, thirty years later, I began to visit Moscow pre-trial detention centres and saw with my own eyes what exactly a Russian prison is, my fear for those whose stories I personally knew, and who I believed should not be locked up, became more concrete. Because I learned what can happen to those people.

The case of Sergei Magnitsky was a shock for me on top of everything because we never learned the truth. We didn’t learn how he died. And that is another piece of the reality—a prison can keep its secrets. And what is very frightening is that Russian prisons don’t want to reform. That was shown in the latest (for the time being) horrible death in a Petersburg detention centre. The story alone is monstrous. But it is also frightening because this death was just another piece of news on the newswire. No one in power got upset, public opinion didn’t get upset. The Federal Penitentiary Service did not fire anyone. The Human Rights Ombudsman didn’t make any public announcements. The Ombudsman for Businessmen’s Rights stayed quiet. There was no reaction from the General Prosecutor’s Office. All this together confirms one thing: the horrible death of an accused person in prison is nothing out of the ordinary.

The 54 year-old former general director and co-owner of the company “NovIT-PRO,” Valery Pshenichny, was found hanged in a cell in St. Petersburg Detention Centre No. 4 on 5 February. He had been in custody for only three weeks, having been accused of embezzlement of 100m roubles under a contract with the Defence Ministry. In a photograph from the family archives of Pshenichny that was published by Novaya gazeta, a handsome, smiling man is squinting in the sunlight. He is standing on the bank of either a lake or a large river, and it is impossible to imagine that such a horrible death was in store for him. When I read the news that a well-known St. Petersburg businessman killed himself in jail, suicide seemed to be a strange explanation. I remembered the story of the suicide of the executive director of Roskosmos, Vladimir Evdokimov, in Moscow Detention Centre No. 5 in March 2017.

His body was found, with two stab wounds in the region of the chest and neck, in the toilet of a cell. The toilet was locked from inside, therefore the investigation was inclined toward a conclusion of suicide, so no one is looking for murderers of Evdokimov. You’ll agree, it’s a rather strange method of suicide—stabbing yourself in the chest and the neck. I don’t know what the autopsy of Evdokimov’s body showed, the results were not published in the press. But I do know, from his relatives, that Vladimir Evdokimov was being shaken down for money in the detention centre to provide comfortable conditions for his incarceration, and that for 50 million rubles they promised to “take care of” closing the criminal case against him. After Evdokimov’s death, the head of the detention center—and, it seems, the head of the operating unit - resigned, but of course no one was jailed. The prisoner himself is normally guilty of his own death.

Perhaps no suspicions that Valery Pshenichny had been killed would have arisen had not a fair medical examination, by some miracle, been carried out. For example, for me the big question is: why did the St Petersburg Federal Penitentiary Service not take any measures to ensure that the examination confirmed the story about suicide, as often happens when they “tie up loose ends”? Experts established unequivocally that Pshenichny was raped and tortured before his death. The cause of death was found to be blunt force trauma to the neck, and asphyxiation. From the reconstruction of the chronology of events in the jail, it turns out that on 5 February the businessman was taken out of his cell, and when he returned, his cellmates were gone, and he spent several hours alone. One of the video camera recordings shows a human shadow. It is entirely possible that someone was in the cell with Pshenichny at some point. This should be confirmed or refuted by a conscientious investigation. But will there be one? As Novaya gazeta has written, next to Pshenichny’s body in the cell were found two three-meter lengths of wire, black and white, with bare ends. There were metal plates with edges as sharp as blades, a wooden stick three centimetres thick, wrapped in black insulating tape, and a black synthetic string (a cord) like the ones you find in jackets.

According to the forensic medical examination, “the body of Valery Pshenichny shows signs of sexual violence. On his temples and face were bruises and dozens of cuts of different lengths and depths, running from left to right and right to left. There were long cuts on both forearms, in one direction. There were a huge number of abrasions, lacerations and bruises in his mouth: on his lips, tongue and mucous membranes. Some were “a result of a single traumatic blow to the teeth”. His clothes were stained with “dried-up brownish matter”. On his chest, back, ribs and shoulders, under his shoulder blades, on his arms and legs were dozens of cuts. There were numerous “rounded lesions” located “in pairs, 0.5-1 cm from one another”. It was as if he had been struck with a pair of bare electrical wires. The experts concluded that “from the action of electricity, many (no less than 19) electrical burns were formed in the mucus membranes of the mouth, on the tongue, on each finger of the right and left hands”.

In addition, the experts found that before his death, Valery Pshenichny was raped. To establish who might have done this, they took sperm from almost all the staff of the jail. Of course they didn’t find the culprit. Not long before his death, Pshenichny gave his wife a note with the request to “pay nobody”. We may recall how much the wife of the late Vladimir Yevdokimov managed to pay out before his death. The extortioners did not have time to turn their attention to Pshenichny’s wife.

The European Convention on Human Rights contains an article about the “Right to life.” This should, of course, apply in prison. For example, it’s obvious to me that when a person ends up there, the prison staff become responsible for his or her life. Yes, of course in the majority of cases they can’t prevent suicide, as in the majority of cases it can’t be prevented in the life of a free person, but they should destroy the vicious system of extortion, torture and murder that continues to reap its dreadful harvest. And don’t tell me that the head of this jail, or of the head of the operations at any Russian jail, is unaware of how this happens in his “domain.” If they don’t know, they need to be dismissed at once. And be thankful they’re not in jail themselves yet.

Translated by Anna Bowles and John Tokolish