The 10-minute video shows Yevgeny Makarov writhing and screaming in pain as a group of uniformed prison guards takes turns beating his legs and the soles of his feet with a rubber truncheon. Four minutes into the video, his torturers complain that beating Makarov is hard work.
“Even my hands are going numb!” one man in a blue camouflage uniform says to another in the video. They then drag Makarov to the floor and push him to his knees. They punch his face repeatedly. Makarov begs for mercy.
The video, recorded at a prison in Yaroslavl about 170 miles northeast of Moscow, was leaked to Makarov’s lawyer and then published online by an independent Russian newspaper on June 20, sparking public outrage against what human rights activists say is systemic abuse in Russian prisons.
What followed was a nationwide crackdown by authorities on prison guards accused of torture and abuse of power.
Russia's Federal Penitentiary Service announced on Tuesday that it would set up commissions across the country to investigate all complaints from the past year of violence by prison authorities, an unusual move for a government that has previously remained silent on issues of prisoner abuse.
This week, a court in Yaroslavl arrested six of the prison guards in Makarov’s case. Three of the guards pleaded guilty, and 17 other officials at the prison were dismissed.
“In Russian prisons, beatings, torture and humiliation are an ordinary state of affairs,” said Olga Romanova, the head of Russia Behind Bars, a nongovernmental organization that advocates for prisoners’ rights. Yet before the Yaroslavl case, prison authorities were rarely found guilty in court.
But the convictions this week show that Russian authorities may finally be forced to address the issue of torture and abuse in prisons.
“We can say it is a victory, even a big victory,” Romanova said. “For the civil society it is already a victory and a very important issue.”
The extent of that victory remains to be seen, she said.
Makarov’s beating was recorded a year ago in Yaroslavl Prison Colony No. 1 by a prison employee outfitted with a body cam, a uniform requirement. The video shows at least 17 other men present in the room during the abuse of Makarov.
The recording was leaked to Makarov’s lawyer, Irina Biryukova, who passed it to the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which posted it online with a warning that its contents were “only for those with strong nerves.”
Within days, the video went viral, and an outpouring of more accusations of torture in Russia’s notorious penal colonies and prisons emerged. In some cases, they have already been followed by investigations or court action.
In Bryansk, a city 235 miles southwest of Moscow, a prisoner died of suffocation after allegedly being tortured by prison staff on July 22, 2018. A prison employee was charged with murder and abuse of power on July 25, according to officials.
In Voronezh, an industrial city about 330 miles south of Moscow, police launched an internal investigation into two police officers accused of torturing students who were suspected of stealing a mobile phone at a party. According to the students’ complaints, on May 26, an officer put a plastic bag filled with ammonia over the head of one of the suspects, while the other officer stepped on the chain attached to the suspect’s hand cuffs. The students’ screams could be heard throughout the building, but apparently no other employees paid attention.
Other arrests and prosecutions of police and prison officers followed in other cities this week. Seven police officers were convicted of torturing 13 suspects at a police station in the North Caucasus region of Ingushetia. Two police officers were convicted in Siberia of using electric shock to torture three suspects during an interrogation.
Meanwhile, Biryukova, Markov’s lawyer with the nonprofit legal assistance group Public Verdict Foundation, has fled Russia amid death threats and fears that the government would not protect her and her family.
Biryukova told Novaya Gazeta that she was investigating at least 50 claims of abuse at the Yaroslavl prison, including a previous incident in which prison guards beat Makarov and two other prisoners in April 2017, two months before the beating in the video.
Biryukova said she filed complaints with Russian authorities and the European Court of Human Rights. Russian law enforcement said there was not enough evidence to open an investigation. The European court asked the Russian authorities for more information.
Some prison reform advocates said Russian authorities’ willingness to launch an investigation into the Yaroslavl incident and the emergence of other prison abuse accusations may prove to be a turning point, and perhaps a small victory for human rights defenders in Russia fighting prison abuse and torture.
“So far, what the politicians are saying … talking about setting up a civil penitentiary institution, which is what has been done in Europe, that is very good,” Romanova said. “If we manage to pull it off, it will be Russia’s greatest victory in the 21st century.”
Jens Modvig, head of the United Nations Committee Against Torture, told a hearing on June 25 in Geneva that “torture is practiced widely" in Russia. The country had "one of the highest rates" of prisoner deaths from torture among countries belonging to the Council of Europe, Reuters quoted Modvig as saying. Modvig demanded that the Russian representative share how Moscow planned to deal with those accused of torture.
“The conclusion here is that the Russian Federation is unable to explain how it prosecutes torture,” he said in the hearing, news agencies reported.
Amnesty International, which monitors human rights globally, said it welcomed Russia’s promise to investigate alleged abuse cases, but also cautioned that it must be followed by more substantial changes in Russia’s penal system.
“In the absence of a national mechanism which systematically works to prevent torture, the criminal case against Makarov’s torturers will be an exception to the rule,” the group said in a statement this week.
Makarov has since been moved to another prison. But even as the arrests and prosecutions mounted, reports emerged that there was an ongoing internal hunt for the torture video’s leaker.