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‘His cell looks decent’ ‘Meduza’ talks to a human rights monitor who visited Navalny in prison

Source: Meduza
Natalya Kolesnikova / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Opposition figure Alexey Navalny was taken into custody immediately upon returning to Russia from Germany, and then placed under arrest for 30 days at Moscow’s Matrosskaya Tishina remand prison. Human rights activist Alexey Melnikov, the executive secretary of Moscow’s Public Monitoring Commission, was the first person to visit Navalny in his cell. In conversation with “Meduza,” Melnikov describes the conditions at the prison and the rules governing Navalny’s detention.

Why did Navalny end up alone in a cell, without other cellmates?

Right now he’s undergoing a so-called quarantine. Previously, quarantine at a SIZO [pre-trial detention center] meant 10 days of confinement in a cell for a newcomer, while his personal file was being study and his cellmates were selected so as not to violate article 33 of [federal law] No. 103-FZ on the separation of different categories of citizens [in custody]. Now, due to the pandemic, the quarantine period has been increased to 14 days in order to, among other things, identify signs of viral respiratory diseases, if there are any. Then the person is ready to be “lifted,” as the people say, into a cell for continued detention.

What does Navalny’s cell look like?

They renovated Matrosskaya Tishina recently. The cell looks decent. It’s a three-person [cell]; accordingly, it’s no less than 12 square meters [about 130 square feet]. He has a kettle, a television, and a fridge, he was given bedding, and supplies for washing. There is privacy in the toilet. The Moscow ONK [Public Monitoring Commission] has achieved this in almost all Moscow prisons. There’s a toilet, and not a hole in the floor. There’s hot water in the cell. We haven’t received any complaints or appeals about temperature violations against the backdrop of the cold weather. 

Did Navalny have any complaints, requests, or appeals for the public monitoring commission?

He thanked everyone for their support and said that he’s glad to return to his homeland. He asked us to inform his relatives about what things to bring to him in pre-trial detention. This is all from a list permitted by the internal regulations. It probably isn’t right to divulge the details. We have passed this information along. 

In particular, he asked [for them] to bring him books. This is quite difficult, since they have to go through the so-called censorship procedure. This isn’t about assessing the content of the texts, but about studying them for the transfer of prohibited information, and any erased letter might be regarded as an attempt to transfer such information. It’s easier to order books from the FSIN [Federal Penitentiary Service] store.

What are the particularities of the Matrosskaya Tishina pre-trial detention center?

This is a federally regulated remand prison. Inside, they follow internal regulations and FSIN regulations very strictly. There are violations there, but they are much less common than in other prisons and other regions.

There’s a wide variety of prisoners there, including notable and high-ranking ones: a former senator is locked up there, [former economy minister Alexey] Ulyukayev was there at one time. For Ulyukayev, as far as I remember, everything was quite modest and there wasn’t even a television.

Navalny has spent a lot of time in special detention centers, but he has never been in a pre-trial detention center with the exception of one night in Kirov. Can you explain the main differences in the conditions?

It is precisely the conditions of detention that are better in a pre-trial detention center. The internal regulations for special detention centers are very far from [those] of remand prisons. As it happens, the public monitoring commission advocated for bringing these rules in line with the internal regulations for pre-trial detention centers. 

In a pre-trial detention center, they can provide first aid, there’s a medical unit, but at special detention centers only paramedics are available. There are no televisions. At Matrosskaya Tishina there’s a gym. You can also play sports while on walks. Some courtyards have table tennis. I don’t recall any horizontal bars, but many do pull-ups on the bars. In terms of daily walks and the opportunity to go to the shower (once per week), everything is about the same. A prisoner can refuse to go to the exercise yard, but he has to be given the option.

Navalny isn’t included in the category of suspects who are usually held in pre-trial detention centers — those who are facing time in prison or have already been sentenced. He has a specific status: remanded in custody for 30 days pending at trial to change his sentence. Does this come with any additional restrictions or privileges?

Navaly isn’t at odds with the court, he’s not at odds with an investigation, he’s at odds with the FSIN. Permission to visit him can be obtained from the FSIN directly, but now meetings are impossible due to the pandemic-related restrictions. This also makes access for lawyers difficult now. In Moscow prisons, meetings with lawyers currently take place through glass. Otherwise, it’s hard for me to say, we rarely encounter situations like this. 

Interview by Maxim Solopov

Translation by Eilish Hart

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