Raw fight for justice in Russia

A mother struggles to save her son from prison and despair

November 29, 1999|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- The path to the Butyrka pre-trial prison is littered with hundreds of cigarette butts, small monuments to despair scattered in the dirty melting snow.

The air weighs heavy with fear and resignation. Hope dissipates, like the smoke from the cigarettes of the relatives who stand listlessly, waiting to make their monthly deliveries of food, clothes, blankets and medicine, trying to keep the men inside alive until trial.

Life inside a Russian pre-trial prison is hell, a place where innocent and guilty alike are doomed to brutal punishment, if not for eternity then for the years they spend awaiting their day in court.

The U.S. State Department, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch give deeply disturbing descriptions of the legal system here: Police arrest easy targets, with little investigation; they routinely torture suspects until they extract a confession; the accused wait years for trial, and while they do, they are kept in dangerous, inhumane conditions, where thousands die every year.

Anatoly Ivanov began his descent into that underworld the evening of Oct. 29, 1998.

At age 21, Anatoly was a college student, stopping on his way home to buy some potato chips, when his life changed completely and forever. He had called his mother, Tamara Ivanova, telling her to expect him shortly. He never arrived. He didn't call back.

"I thought I would lose my mind," Ivanova said. "The next day, a man who had been detained and released called and told me where my son was."

The police had picked him up that Thursday night. They said they had found him with a submachine gun. When Ivanova got to the police station, she caught sight of Anatoly in the corridor. His face was badly beaten, she said.

More than a year after his arrest, Anatoly is still alive, though in his frequent bouts of despair he wishes he weren't. What happened to him is typical, say his lawyers and human rights activists.

Anatoly told his mother he had seen a bag -- "a big, beautiful new plastic bag" -- on the sidewalk outside a grocery store. He picked it up, he said, walked a short distance holding it, saw a gun inside and put the bag down before going into the store.

"When he got into the store, four policemen came in, hit him and threw him down on the floor," Ivanova said. "They put him into their car and kept beating him. And they put the bag with the gun and ammunition on his knees and said, `This is yours.' "

They beat him repeatedly, his mother said, and said they would take him to the forest and kill him. No one would find his body until spring, they said. They hit and shouted and threatened. Finally, he said, when they told him he would get a six-month term if he confessed, and three years if he refused, he signed a confession.

Butyrka prison

The police then sent Anatoly to the notorious Butyrka, a pre-trial prison built in 1879 within a castle dating at least as far back as Peter the Great, who ruled until 1825. Peter the Great kept prisoners in the castle towers; so did Catherine the Great. Later czars put revolutionaries there. It has been a pre-trial prison since 1917.

The prison was intended to hold about 3,000 people. It holds 5,700. Anatoly was put into a 30-man cell that was overflowing with 120 prisoners. The men sleep in four shifts. The prison spends 4 cents a day on food for each one. Tears well in Ivanova's eyes when she tries to imagine what kind of food could possibly be bought with so little money.

"The police are rated by the number of people they arrest," Ivanova said. "My son was a victim of this kind of work. They probably needed another arrest that day."

Ivanova, a 57-year-old retired engineer who lives on a pension of $18 a month, paid a lawyer $2,000 to represent her son. He told her the only way to free Anatoly was to have him declared mentally incompetent, she said. The lawyer arranged to have Anatoly sent to the Serbsky Center for Forensic Psychiatry for testing. Then, in February, the lawyer told her that was only the beginning. It would cost a great deal more to proceed further.

"I realized with this lawyer I would have to sell my apartment and everything I owned," Ivanova said.

By this time, Ivanova had appealed to prosecutors, judges and police supervisors to free her son on bail. Bail is extremely rare, and everyone told her the charge was too serious.

"I was in despair," she said. "I realized there was no use to fight the police."

She worried that her son might die in prison. "Most detainees face extremely harsh and even life-threatening conditions," the U.S. State Department's report on human rights in Russia says.

About 280,000 of Russia's 1 million prisoners are being held for trial, the report says. The law requires 9 square feet per person; the actual average is 1.4 square feet. Cells are sweltering in summer and dangerously cold in winter.

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