Russia scrambles to defuse Urals prison protest
The Russian authorities Monday said they had quelled a rare uprising at a prison in the Urals region that saw inmates climb on the roof and bloody clashes between police and supporters outside.
Hundreds of prisoners at Prison Number 6 in the small town of Kopeisk in the Chelyabinsk region had since Saturday staged a protest which the authorities said was aimed at obtaining the release of convicts from solitary confinement and the easing of conditions.
In an image widely broadcast on Russian television, a large group of inmates climbed onto the roof of the prison and unfurled a banner reading: "People, Help!"
Activists said the real reason for the protest was beatings and other abuses by wardens.
However by Monday morning "all the convicts returned to their sections" in the prison and the situation was "stable and fully under the control of the prison administration", said the local directorate of Russia's Federal Service for the Execution of Punishment (FSIN).
Hundreds of people including relatives had also gathered outside the Kopeisk prison to support the convicts, and on Saturday night they were involved in bloody clashes with OMON riot police who sought to disperse them.
The local interior ministry said 38 people were arrested and eight OMON officers were injured. Images published by local media showed some of the participants with bloodied heads.
Aides for the Kremlin's human rights envoy Vladimir Lukin arrived in Kopeisk to help mediate the conflict between the inmates and the prison, said the local rights ombudsman, Alexei Sevastyanov.
"We need to fully and exhaustively verify all the facts provided by the inmates about the beatings and extortions at the penal colony," he wrote in his official blog.
The Russian general prosecutors opened a review into the events but said in a statement that initial findings showed there was no evidence that the prisoners had been beaten.
It also rejected rumours on the Internet that prisoners had mutilated themselves or had even escaped from the institution.
The local FSIN attacked the "negative information on the Internet" about the protest which was "aimed at destabilising the situation in the penal institution."
Oksana Trufanova, a campaigner for prisoners' rights, told AFP she was outside the prison but officials were not letting her inside, adding however that Lukin's aide had won access to the inmates.
"People are no longer on the roof," she said. But "the relatives are not going away, they are planning to remain here to the bitter end, they are expecting a provocation."
Valery Borshchev, a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a non-governmental organisation, said he had personally handed a written complaint about the Kopeisk prison to Prosecutor General Yury Chaika this past August, notifying him of the death of one of the prisoners.
"After the petition no serious investigation followed, the prosecutor's office did not react to it and did not move to strengthen oversight there," he said, speaking on Echo of Moscow radio.
Local prison commission watchdog member Valeria Prikhodkina also said the Kopeisk prison had long been considered "problematic" with a reputation for beatings and fatal incidents.
"We have a raft of evidence from prisoners and their relatives about torture, humiliations and the theft of money from relatives," she told AFP, also saying that prosecutors had refused to take the documents.
Rights activists have long criticised conditions in Russia's vast network of prisons, complaining the situation recalls the Soviet era and its brutal Gulag system of prison camps.
"The troubles in Kopeisk and other prisons show that the Gulag has been preserved in Russia," the Vedomosti daily wrote in a commentary.
© 2012 AFP