MOSCOW (BLOOMBERG) – Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who survived a chemical poisoning last year that he called a Kremlin attempt to kill him, has begun serving his two-and-a-half-year sentence at a notorious penal camp.
Navalny, who was removed from his Moscow jail cell Thursday (Feb 25), is being held at a detention facility in the prison in the Vladimir region, about 100km east of the Russian capital, Alexey Melnikov, secretary of the civil oversight commission of Moscow, told Bloomberg.
President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critic lost an appeal Feb 20 over a court decision to convert a 2014 suspended sentence into incarceration for breaking his probation terms. That was the last obstacle keeping the 44-year-old from being sent to a prison outside Moscow.
The jail, where inmates are housed in barracks and typically do manual labour, is classified as a “red zone” where the administration controls every aspect of life. “It’s a tough penal camp with very strict rules, to put it mildly,” said Eva Merkacheva, a member of a civic-oversight group for the prison system.
Konstantin Kotov, an opposition activist who was freed in December after 1 1/2 years at the same prison, said he was subjected to constant intimidation.
This included repeated punishment for so-called infringements such as not saluting a prison guard or borrowing someone’s gloves – with those that his relatives sent him not being delivered – as well as isolating him from other inmates.
“Alexey is going to have a very difficult time,” Kotov said. “The administration keeps tabs on your every move.”
While his case was so high-profile that no violence was used against him, “from the very first day I came under extreme psychological pressure,” he said.
The activist’s lawyer, Maria Eismont, got access to Kotov within a day and a half of his arrival at the jail but he’d already agreed to give up his right to confidential conversations with her, she said.
“If I was the prison service and I wanted to make Navalny’s life as hellish as possible, I’d send him precisely to this camp,” Eismont added.
The head of the Russian Prison Service, Alexander Kalashnikov, said there’s “no threat” to Navalny’s “health or life” in prison, state-run Tass reported Friday.
Navalny received the sentence for failing to check in with the authorities while recovering in Germany from the near-fatal nerve agent attack in August. Western governments have also blamed the Kremlin for the poisoning, while Russian authorities deny any role.
Citing concerns about his safety in prison, the European Court of Human Rights in mid-February called on Russia to release Navalny before his case was considered. Russian officials rejected that request.
The Kremlin critic said he’s been classified as a flight risk. That would prevent him from getting early release and mean he falls under special supervision.
An American, Paul Whelan, who’s been imprisoned for espionage, late last year complained prison guards were waking him up every two hours during the night to check on his whereabouts.
Navalny suffered a symbolic setback recently when Amnesty International rescinded his status as a “prisoner of conscience,” saying anti-immigrant statements he made early in his career qualified as “advocacy of hatred.”
His allies denounced the move, saying Amnesty had fallen victim to a campaign by pro-Kremlin forces. The international rights group denied that.
Navalny’s arrest in mid-January when he returned to Russia provoked the biggest anti-Kremlin protests in years and was condemned by the European Union and the US, which are both considering new sanctions to punish Putin for his imprisonment. Authorities cracked down on the demonstrations last month, detaining more than 11,000 people and prosecuting key Navalny allies.
"We have 100 per cent information that Navalny arrived in the Vladimir region to serve his sentence. At first, he will be in quarantine, then he will be transferred to his colony," Alexei Melnikov, a member of Moscow's public commission that monitors detainees' human rights, told the Interfax news agency.