Russia’s leading opposition politician has been reduced to a stamp-sized figure in a matter of months. Even in the small courtroom of Kovrov, a town 250 kilometers east of Moscow, onlookers have to squint to see Alexei Navalny properly on the small TV screen. Through the only window he is still allowed to see the outside world, the politician, who has been imprisoned since last year, looks gray and emaciated.
In this cramped room, Judge Kirill Nikiforov, a thin and pale young man, deals with the complaints that Navalny tirelessly files against the Russian prison system FSIN about the degrading treatment he receives at the IK-6 penal camp, which is notorious for its torture methods. There are four Russian and two foreign journalists in the room.
Walking for a few seconds without hands behind your back: five days of isolation. Unbutton: three days
The 46-year-old Navalny is not allowed to attend the hearing. He must remain in the penal camp in the neighboring village of Melechovo, where he was transferred this spring to serve a nine-year sentence for “fraud and contempt of court”. According to his supporters, the sentence was personally ordered by President Putin to silence his main domestic opponent.
The latter has not yet succeeded, as it turns out on this first day of December. After being transferred this summer from a camp in neighboring Pokrov, Navalny was put to work. Since then he has been sitting on a low stool behind a sewing machine for seven hours a day. That is not a position that his long body tolerates, nor what the FSIN’s safety regulations dictate. “A dressmaker’s workplace (sic) must be equipped with an office chair with reclining backrest,” Navalny’s defence.
Also read this report from last year: ‘Navalny penal camp is aimed at breaking prisoners‘
In order to improve not only his own working conditions, but also those of his fellow prisoners, the exasperated politician decided in August a trade union to set up for prisoners, which he Promzona mentioned. “The Kremlin wants its Gulag to be made up of silent slaves. And here I come! Instead of begging for a pardon, I demand compliance with the law,” he wrote on Twitter in mid-August. As expected, the daring initiative was immediately crushed by the prison management and a torture began for the politician that still continues.
Since his union initiative, Navalny has spent his days in ShIZO, the harshest form of isolation in the Russian penal system. Prisoners are not allowed to bring any food or personal items, only read or write for one hour a day and the bunk on the wall is collected during the day, so that rest is impossible. “It is an unventilated doghouse of 2.5 by 3 meters, where even the cobwebs never move. Usually it is humid and cold, but lately it has been very hot. At night you feel like a fish out of water, gasping for breath,” he described his cell on Instagram last month.
Instead of begging for a pardon, I demand compliance with the law
Due to the legal maximum length of stay in the ShIZO of fifteen days, the IK-6 custodians have come up with a trick. Once Navalny’s time in isolation is up, a new offense is devised to re-imprison him that same day.
On August 12, a day after he announced his union plan, an observant guard noticed that the buttons of his – too small – prison suit were not closed all the way to the top: three days of isolation. A week later he did not have his hands on his back for a few seconds while walking: five days of isolation. Quoting a judgment of the European Court of Human Rights: twenty-one days. Refusal to wash a fence (“painting, I still understand that, but washing is bullshit”): fourteen days. Not clearing the courtyard: seven days.
At the end of November, when the mercury dropped well below zero, he was the only one in the camp who was not given winter boots. In court it becomes clear that just before the start of the hearing, Navalny has to go to isolation again for eleven days, because a guard had seen him without an overcoat at five in the morning.
Although the endless taunts aim to break prisoners psychologically and physically, they only seem to make the stubborn Navalny more determined. “I am not going to hide it, solitary confinement is hell, there is really nothing pleasant about it. But there are more important things in life than comfort. I don’t care how long I have to sit here. I will not betray my ideals or my supporters,” the politician said.
This session also shows that for someone who has now been spending 78 days without interruption in a bare cell measuring 3.5 by 2 metres, the prisoner makes an exceptionally combative impression. With the same piercing sarcasm that brought him international fame, he throws one inconsistency in the course of justice before the judge through the screen.
“Your Honor! What kind of nonsense is this?! There are 322,000 prisoners in Russia, the vast majority of whom work. That’s more than worked on the pyramids in Egypt! I want to end this modern slavery, but since I raised this issue I can’t get out of the solitary cell!” he shouts, flipping through the papers on the table in front of him. “Everyone knows that a lot of money is made from prisoners in Russia. But I don’t even have the right to know anything!”
The young judge cringes. His words are barely audible, but he keeps his head down. It is not he who determines the course of events, but his superiors who in turn act on instructions from the Kremlin. They are far from tired of the legal sparring. Navalny faces another prison sentence 30 years for “inciting and financing terrorism and extremism” and “rehabilitating Nazism.” The latter because of a comment by his right-hand man Leonid Volkov, who fled the country in 2019, who appeared in Navalny’s YouTube program Popular Politics stated that “[generaal] Stauffenberg was right when he wanted to kill Hitler.”
Lonely as he is, Navalny is not alone. From abroad, his wife Yulia and his team of employees hold international attention. He is assisted in court by lawyers Vadim Kobzev and Olga Mikhailova. They are the only ones with whom contact – sporadic and behind glass – is allowed. But that right is also being increasingly restricted by the prison authorities. The exchange of documents is now prohibited. In September, the window of the visiting room was covered with thin foil, so that Navalny can no longer see his lawyers and documents become illegible. Now Navalny’s messages, which continue to fill his social media, must be conveyed verbally. Thus, the Kremlin increasingly cuts him off from the world, hoping that the world will forget him.
For the sake of their own safety, the two lawyers hardly speak to journalists about Navalny’s condition. Especially since the security service FSB last week a new set of censorship rules ratified, which makes information exchange with the press even more risky. Approached after the hearing, Mikhailova still wants to say something about Navalny’s strategy to file complaints on the assembly line. “No prisoner dares to do that, everyone knows that complaining only causes more problems,” she says. The politician has little choice. Staying alive and generating attention is the only opposition Navalny can face.
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