- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 2, 2011

RUSSIA’S BRUTAL PRISONS

The Russian government routinely brutalizes prisoners, jails them in harsh climates, confines them to tiny isolation cells and allows infectious disease to spread through the incarcerated population, according to a confidential memo from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

The diplomatic cable from 2008 emerged on the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks last week, as the West was learning the outcome of the show trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a major critic of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin who already was locked up on charges from an earlier court case.

“The Russian prison system combines the country’s emblematic features — vast distances, harsh climate and an uncaring bureaucracy — and fuses them into a massive instrument of punishment,”William J. Burns, U.S. ambassador in Moscow at the time, said in the cable.

“Recent prison riots, new prisoner shock tactics and smuggled videos of prison mistreatment have highlighted the cruelties and corruption in the system.”

Mr. Burns also noted the poor health conditions in the prisons, where the rates of tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS are higher than in the general population but the mortality rate is about one-third lower.

The ambassador said the survival rate is a “statistic that says much more about the dangers of alcoholism and road safety [outside prison] than about healthy living behind bars.”

Guards routinely beat prisoners, and some inmates are confined to isolation cells that are too small for them to lie down. Russian prison officials also devised a unique way of keeping order.

They “elevate select prisoners to act as internal enforcers among the other prisoners,” Mr. Burns wrote. “These elite prisoners receive privileges and protections in return for enforcing a brutal form of order within the prisons.”

The ambassador also noted that Russia uses its vast territories and frigid temperatures to add even more punishment to prisoners.

“Many prisoners are located in isolated regions with harsh climates and use buildings that are not adequately heated, cooled or ventilated,” he said, adding that Moscow often sends “troublesome” convicts far from home to increase their seclusion.

Mr. Burns noted that Khodorkovsky, a former oil tycoon who supported Mr. Putin’s opponents, was imprisoned 3,000 miles away from his home in Moscow.

The United States and European Union last week criticized a Moscow judge who imposed six more years to an eight-year term Khodorkovsky and his business partner, Platon Lebedev, already were serving on a tax fraud conviction.

‘NEED YOUR HELP’

President Ricardo Martinelli of Panama pleaded for U.S. help in wiretapping political opponents, but the U.S. ambassador at the time rebuffed his requests and warned Washington that he risked destabilizing his center-right government.

In July 2009, Mr. Martinelli sent a BlackBerry message to Ambassador Barbara J. Stephenson saying, “I need your help with tapping phones,” according to a secret diplomatic cable from Ms. Stephenson to the State Department that was released by WikiLeaks last week.

The ambassador passed on the message to her deputy and to the head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration operation in Panama, where the United States is helping fight the drug war. However, the U.S. officials quickly learned that Mr. Martinelli had more than suspected drug smugglers in mind for wiretaps.

The ambassador said she later told the Panamanian president that the United States “will not be party to any effort to expand wiretaps to domestic political targets.”

“Martinelli’s near-obsession with wiretaps betrays a simplistic and naive attitude toward the criminal investigative process,” the ambassador said.

Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297 or e-mail jmorrison@washingtontimes.com.