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Ukrainian "Spies And Traitors" Dumped In Russia's Already Crowded Prison System

Russian jails were already struggling thanks to long investigations and an arrest bias. But the conflict in Ukraine has made a bad situation worse in detention centers around the country, with so-called Ukrainian "spies and traitors" locked up without trial.

​Russian officer at St Petersburg's pre-trial detention facility

Officer of the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service at St Petersburg's pre-trial detention facility

Anna Akage

MOSCOW — From 2006, since the middle of Vladimir Putin's second term in office, the hunt for traitors, spies, and enemies has enveloped the entire Russian Federation.

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From peaceful protesters to journalists, from human rights activists to foreigners suspected of espionage and terrorist activities, thousands of people are being held in detention centers where they spend weeks and sometimes months without charge or awaiting trial.

The situation has worsened since the beginning of the invasion in Ukraine and now, in almost every region of Russia, the pretrial detention facilities are overcrowded, so prisoners have to sleep in the corridors, without the possibility of going for walks, showers, or using the toilet. Medical care is provided irregularly, if at all.

Arrest bias

Such is the growing numbers of prisoners that it’s been impossible to conceal, even under Russia’s strict media censorship. Russian daily the Kommersantreports that Russian officials from the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) admit that a quarter of Russian prisons are overcrowded. Some experts note that in many regions, the oversupply may be related to the war and the arrival of a large number of Ukrainian citizens in Russian pre-trial detention facilities. But this is probably just one of the factors.

Lawyers and regional ombudsman described the problem as chronic and attributed it to delayed investigative actions and the "arrest bias" of justice when the penitentiary system hesitates to bring charges and delays pre-trial investigations.

Last week, Eva Merkacheva, a member of the Presidential Human Rights Council, stated that pre-trial detention facilities in Moscow faced unconscionable overcrowding: Moscow’s detention centers are designed to hold 9,000 detainees, but now there are 2,786 more.

Long investigations

"People sleep on the floor. There are a lot of sick and disabled people who sleep half-awake," Merkacheva said. "The whole system is crumbling because of the overcrowding: censors have no time to read letters, employees do not have time to pick up packages from the mail, deliver packages to the cells, and take prisoners to the showers and on walks.”

Earlier Igor Vedinyapin, head of the department of execution of sentences and special registration of the Federal Penitentiary Service, pointed out that 44% of all detainees held in pre-detention centers are accused of crimes of small or medium gravity, and only every fourth detainee is sentenced to a penalty not involving actual imprisonment.

The problem of overcrowding in pre-trial detention facilities has always existed, according to lawyer Alyona Savelieva of the Sitting Russia Foundation (which is registered in Russia as “a foreign agent” under Putin’s crackdown on free speech). Long investigations are one of the main reasons for the overcrowding of Moscow detention facilities.

As an example, she cites the case of Ivan Safronov, a journalist and advisor to the head of Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, who has been in jail for almost two years on charges of treason. Another reason, in her opinion, is that investigators prefer to ask the court to impose arrest rather than a milder preventive measure.

\u200bDetainees held at St Petersburg's pre-trial detention facility

Detainees held at St Petersburg's pre-trial detention facility

Peter Kovalev/TASS/ZUMA

The fate of Ukrainian suspects

Merkacheva also believes that in some regions overcrowding in pre-trial detention facilities may be related to the war in Ukraine. According to her data, Ukrainian citizens who were captured during the hostilities and then became suspects are brought to such facilities. "I know for sure that some Ukrainian citizens were taken to the Rostov pre-trial detention center," she said. "There is a large number of ordinary detainees there, and they are howling that there is nowhere to settle these people and not enough places in the cells.”

Ukrainian citizens were taken to the Rostov pre-trial detention center.

In addition, she said, human rights activists have registered an increase in the number of people arrested under "economic" articles, as well as cases of discrediting the army and spreading fakes.

The head of the Rostov Oblast pre-trial detention facility, which is in southern Russia close to the Ukrainian border, Igor Omelchenko, confirmed that almost every pre-trial detention facility in the region is overcrowded by 100-300 people. "Many people are unreasonably detained in pre-trial detention facilities — old people, sick people, young girls, suspects not under any violent and serious articles.

These are people who can be placed under house arrest, they are not going anywhere. Sending them to pre-trial detention centers is done thoughtlessly, they habitually put everyone in jail with phrases like ‘may abscond’ or ‘may put pressure on witnesses’." Omelchenko also suspects that prisoners of war from Ukraine are detained en masse in this and other regions.

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