Russian protesters are being held in filthy conditions at a severely overcrowded immigration deportation centre outside Moscow, as jails are overwhelmed by a sweeping government crackdown on pro-Navalny demonstrations.
Pictures tweeted from the account of detained journalist Sergei Smirnov Thursday showed the dire conditions in Sakharovo detention centre, which is about 70 kilometres from central Moscow and ordinarily used to house foreign nationals before they’re deported.
More than 10,000 protesters have been detained across Russia in recent weeks in a wave of protests inspired by Alexei Navalny, the country’s most prominent critic of President Vladimir Putin. The 44-year-old opposition leader, who was nearly killed in a poisoning he says was ordered by Putin, was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in a penal colony last week following his return to the country after recovering from the nerve agent attack.
According to Smirnov’s Twitter account – which is temporarily being run by staff at his independent news website, Mediazona – 28 men from a group of detained protesters were held in a cell designed for eight people at one point on Thursday.
“Smirnov and many others simply have nowhere to lie down after all these hours in departments, courts and paddy wagons,” read a tweet from the account. “Actually, it's just a kind of torture.”
Pyotr Verzilov, the Pussy Riot-affiliated cofounder of Mediazona, tweeted a video taken inside the crowded cell, showing exhausted protesters crowded around four bunk beds without mattresses, near a filthy squat toilet and sink.
Another picture showed the protesters lying three to a bunk in a foetal position as they tried to sleep, while another clip showed similar conditions in women’s cells at the same facility.
Rights groups say that as Russian authorities have carried out a sweeping crackdown on protesters inspired by the treatment of Navalny, the number of detainees has exceeded the capacity of the country’s detention facilities.
The Kremlin acknowledges the overcrowding issue, but has blamed protesters for overwhelming the jail system.
“The number of detainees is larger than detention facilities can handle, the number of detainees is larger than what could be rapidly processed,” said Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov. “This situation wasn’t provoked by law enforcement, it was provoked by participants in unsanctioned demonstrations.”
According to estimates by independent monitoring group OVD-Info, more than 5,000 protesters were detained across the country on January the 31st alone, on top of more than 3,000 sentenced to “administrative arrest” after protests on January the 23rd.
“All [this] is quite new to Russia,” Alexander Artemyev, a Moscow-based spokesman for Amnesty International, told VICE World News.
“We have never witnessed so many detentions and arrests. The scale of repressions is extraordinary.”
Artemyev verified that the photos were from the Sakharovo detention centre, which on Thursday announced it could accept no more detainees, he said. Amnesty considers peaceful protesters arrested in the recent wave of demonstrations to be prisoners of conscience, and has called for their release.
Rights groups say the dire conditions being documented inside the ad hoc facilities amounts to unlawful ill-treatment.
“This undoubtedly amounts to inhumane treatment, cruel and unusual punishment that is banned under international law,” Damelya Aitkhozhina, a Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch, told VICE World News.
She said there were consistent reports that the detainees had been kept for prolonged periods inside cramped police buses before even being brought to the detention centre, with limited or no access to food, water or toilets.
She said it was “particularly cynical” that Russian authorities were charging protesters for breaching coronavirus restrictions by attending rallies, then holding them in cramped and unventilated cells.
The jailing of Smirnov, Mediazona’s editor-in-chief, for retweeting a joke about himself, has triggered an outcry in Russia, with Russian media outlets, Reporters Without Borders, and other rights groups calling for his release.
Smirnov was sentenced by a Moscow court to 25 days in detention on Wednesday for “repeated violation” of the public assemblies’ rules. His crime, according to prosecutors, was “inciting participation in an unauthorized rally” by retweeting a joke tweet that referenced Smirnov’s resemblance to punk singer Dmitry Spirin. The tweet included a picture of Spirin, along with the date and the time of the protest on January the 23rd.
Police had earlier tried to charge Smirnov with traffic interference relating to the protest on January the 23rd, but had to drop it when it was established he hadn’t actually attended the rally.
Smirnov’s account tweeted later on Thursday that he had been relocated to a four-person cell where conditions were “normal,” but that his phone had been taken away. The account later said that officials at the detention centre had told him that the severe overcrowding had been a temporary situation, as it was a better alternative than keeping the detainees in buses.
Navalny, who was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in a penal colony last week, in a move his supporters say is entirely politically-motivated, posted a message to Instagram Thursday urging protesters not to be intimidated by the Kremlin’s crackdown.
“The demonstrative lawlessness that has been happening to me since I stepped off the plane is Putin's revenge on me personally. For surviving, for daring to return,” he wrote.
“But to an even greater extent it is a message from Putin and his friends to the whole country… ‘We are the law’.”
He said Putin and his allies relied on instilling fear to hold on to power. “But we, overcoming our fear, can free our homeland from a bunch of thieving occupiers. And we will do it.”