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COLUMN ONE : Jailed but Not Proven Guilty : Nearly a quarter million Russians languish in miserable pretrial prisons. Officials admit the nightmarish conditions are the broadest human rights abuses in post-Soviet era.

May 11, 1994|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — In the jail known as Sailor's Rest, every detainee looks exhausted.

Every dim cell is a dormitory crammed with bunk beds, each bed shared by up to four men. They sleep fitfully, in shifts, while others must stand. Cigarette smoke and clotheslines full of graying underwear add to the dank, unbearable closeness. The toilet, behind the curtain in the corner and nothing but a hole in the floor, fuels the stench. Only the cockroaches thrive.

"I see everything as through a fog. Most of the time I am not sure whether I am asleep or awake," says Vladimir A. Kopylov, on trial after 4 1/2 years in Sailor's Rest for alleged default on a Soviet bank loan. "We breathe like fish out of water. For lack of oxygen it's sometimes hard to light a match.

"My reserves of endurance are gone," the frail, 47-year-old businessman adds in a courtroom interview. "I cannot imagine I will ever leave this hell."

Kopylov is one of nearly a quarter million people in Russia who are imprisoned but not proven guilty, and their ranks are swelling as overworked police and judges wage a crude, uphill battle against crime. Officials acknowledge that the long wait for trial and the nightmarish conditions behind bars are the most widespread human rights abuses of Russia's post-Soviet era.

Visits to two pretrial prisons, in Moscow and Tula, offered a look at the overcrowding and its effects--spreading disease, shortages of food and medicine, the suffocating stink. Officials in both prisons said they feel powerless to improve things and fear a summer of unrest.

In interviews elsewhere, former inmates and prisoner rights advocates described frequent, if not systematic, beatings by guards. They said many inmates are disciplined by being stripped to their underwear in cold isolation cells, where there is even less food and no bedding.

Physical punishment is also reported in Russia's labor camps, which hold about 650,000 sentenced convicts. Labor is still compulsory, but camp conditions have improved since Soviet times; they are less crowded and more humane than pretrial prisons--so much so that some detainees confess to crimes they didn't commit just to move from hell to purgatory.

Russia's treatment of prisoners is not exceptional on a global scale. It cannot be compared to the terrors of Stalin or the abuses in many countries run by dictators or brutalized by war. Some jurisdictions in the United States and Western Europe also impose harsher conditions on arrested suspects than on convicted criminals.

But Russia has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, and the lot of its prisoners is a volatile, if hidden, indicator of progress from Soviet dictatorship to the rule of law. By its own measure, President Boris N. Yeltsin's government is faltering.

"To be quite frank, the conditions of our pretrial detention centers, by international standards, may be classified as torture," Maj. Gen. Yuri I. Kalinin, the Interior Ministry official who oversees most of Russia's prisons, admitted in an interview. "It is deprivation of sleep, air, space.

"In fact," he added, "there isn't a single detention center in the country with the elementary conditions required by our law."

"Prisons are a cursed thing," Czar Peter the Great said of Russia's 18th-Century forerunners of the Soviet gulag. Today's reformers have let in Russian Orthodox priests to set up chapels and sprinkle holy water. Yeltsin's 1993 constitution proclaims that a person is innocent until proven guilty.

But post-Soviet legal reform has barely touched the country's 164 pretrial prisons. The simplest of cases can drag up to 18 months before trial and a year or more in court. The prosecutor or judge during that time may deny visitation rights to a suspect's lawyer or family.

Few suspects go free before trial. The collapse of the omnipresent Soviet state has made judges reluctant to release prisoners to the custody of an employer or social organization. A bail system exists, but capitalist ownership rights are not entrenched, so the use of private property for bail is limited.

As a result, pretrial prison populations are growing. By law, a cell must have at least three square yards of space for each inmate; by that measure, the limit for all 164 prisons is 165,000 inmates. As of March 1, they held 240,657. Sailor's Rest, with a limit of 3,050, holds about 6,200 inmates, 2,000 more than it did a year ago. The place has 510 officers and guards, and 140 other employees.

"This is not a hotel," said Nikolai S. Barinov, the director of Sailor's Rest, named for the street it once shared with a naval barracks. "We cannot hang out a no-vacancies sign."

It's not a restaurant either. The standard meal is soup with a thick layer of grease. The average food budget for each of Russia's prisoners is 40 cents a day, Kalinin said, but Russia's financial crunch cut it to about 30 cents a day last year. Prisoners at Sailor's Rest have gone four months without sugar.

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