MOSCOW — Russia’s penitentiary system has come under scrutiny after a Kremlin critic said he was tortured at a prison camp and forced to shout, “Putin is our president!”
Ildar Dadin, 34, made the claims in letters that his attorney and his wife in November smuggled out of the prison camp in Karelia, a remote region in northwestern Russia. He also said he was severely beaten on numerous occasions, hung up by his cuffed hands and threatened with rape. He said the head of the prison camp, a Maj. Sergey Kossiev, personally oversaw the torture sessions.
Mr. Dadin said that when he complained to prison staff that Russia’s constitution forbids torture, he was told: “Don’t you understand where you are? The constitution doesn’t operate here.”
Mr. Dadin was sentenced to 2 years in prison in December 2015 after he was found guilty of taking part in illegal protests. A law approved in 2014 by Russian President Vladimir Putin bars any form of public dissent not approved by authorities.
Amnesty International has designated Mr. Dadin a prisoner of conscience.
The European Parliament has called for Mr. Dadin’s “immediate and unconditional release” and urged Russia to carry out “deep reform” of its penitentiary system. It also wants asset freezes and visa bans against officials accused of torturing Mr. Dadin and other inmates.
“Dadin was convicted for nothing more than peacefully exercising his right to free expression, and that in turn has led to further serious physical abuse against him and even death threats,” said Yulia Gorbunova, a Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Russia’s prison service has rejected Mr. Dadin’s accusations and called him “a talented imitator.” The Investigative Committee, an FBI-style organization that answers only to Mr. Putin, also said it found no evidence of torture at the camp.
However, other inmates questioned independently by human rights workers at the penal colony corroborated Mr. Dadin’s claims. Pavel Chikov, a member of the Kremlin’s human rights council, said some prisoners claimed they were tortured to the sounds of Lyube, one of Mr. Putin’s favorite rock groups. Muslim prisoners said they were beaten for attempting to practice their religion.
Mr. Dadin was transferred out of the Karelia prison camp in early December. His family has not been notified of his whereabouts.
Mr. Dadin’s claims were publicized by his wife, Anastasia Zotova, a 25-year-old journalist. Ms. Zotova, who married Mr. Dadin while he was in a Moscow holding cell in February, used her contacts among media outlets and human rights organizations to draw attention to her husband’s accusations of torture.
“I might be able to save Ildar,” Ms. Zotova told The Washington Times. “But without a direct order from above, the torture of other prisoners at the camp isn’t going to stop. Only the man in the Kremlin can make those kinds of decisions in Russia.”
More than 700,000 Russians are behind bars. Human rights organizations say torture and other forms of physiological and physical abuse are common at prison camps throughout the country.
“Russia’s penitentiary system has very much in common with the Soviet system of gulags labor camps,” said Vladimir Osechkin, an anti-torture activist. “Often, they are even based in the same locations as the Soviet gulags. Torture is widespread, as is rape and blackmail. The system has nothing to do with reforming prisoners.”
Tatiana Moskalkova, a former police general who was appointed this year as Russia’s human rights commissioner, denies that torture is a systemic problem in the country’s prison camps. Ms. Moskalkova’s appointment was widely criticized by human rights activists, who said her background in law enforcement makes her unsuitable for the post.
Seventeen prisoners who took part in a rooftop protest against torture at a penal colony in Russia’s Chelyabinsk region are standing trial on charges of “mass riots.” They could face an additional 10 years behind bars. A member of the Kremlin’s human rights council once compared conditions at the penal colony to a “concentration camp.”
Mr. Dadin is not the first Kremlin critic to report torture.
Leonid Razvozzhayev, a leftist political activist who is serving 4 years in prison after being convicted of planning mass riots in 2014, said police investigators tortured him into confessing.
Daniil Konstantinov, a nationalist politician with ties to the pro-democracy opposition, told a Moscow court in December 2013 that police officers attacked him with electroshock devices — a tactic reportedly known in police slang as “a phone call to Putin.” Mr. Konstantinov fled Russia in 2014 and now lives in Lithuania.
Almost 200 people died in police holding cells across Russia in 2015. The majority of them had not even been charged with a crime, said Maria Berezina, a journalist who tracks deaths in police custody. Ms. Berezina said the true number of deaths is likely to be much higher.
Reports of torture and other mistreatment in Russia’s prison camps rarely spark widespread discussion or protest.
“Ordinary people don’t care about torture in prison,” said Ms. Zotova. “When I started looking for relatives of other prisoners who had been tortured, I got lots of messages from people saying, ‘It’s right that they torture inmates — they are criminals.’”