‘You might think no prisons are worse than Russian ones, but you’d be wrong’ Pussy Riot activist Aisoltan Niyazova and the 20-year-old arrest warrant that won’t leave her alone
In late May, Russian activist Aisoltan Niyazova was arrested in Slovenia; a few days later, it happened again in Croatia. She had come to both countries to take part in Pussy Riot’s charity concert tour. Niyazova began her career working at a bank, but in 2011, she was sent to prison for allegedly committing fraud; there, she met Maria Alyokhina and became an advocate for prisoners’ rights. Niyazova spoke to Meduza about her recent arrests, her introduction to Pussy Riot, and how her time in prison turned her into an activist.
In the past month, Russian activist Aisoltan Niyazova has been arrested twice — once in Slovenia and once in Croatia — in response to a single international warrant filed through Interpol in 2002 by the government of Turkmenistan, where she has dual citizenship. Both times, Niyazova was bewildered: not only were the allegations, she says, bogus (the Turkmenistani government claims she embezzled $20 million from the country’s Central Bank), but she had also already served a six-year sentence in a Russian prison on the same charges.
Fortunately for her, she was traveling with the feminist protest group Pussy Riot, whose members have an extensive network of human rights contacts. And in Slovenia, the lawyers her producer found for her didn’t even end up being necessary — a quick online search by the prosecutor confirmed Niyazova’s story.
“I called my nephew, because he still has the documents from my Russian sentence, and I asked him to take a photo of them and send it to me. The whole time, the prosecutor is Googling the things I’ve told them and saying, ‘It looks like she’s telling the truth. I see all the information about her right here.’”
When Niyazova’s nephew sent her the documents, she forwarded them to the court’s email address. Her interpreter started translating the verdict from the Russian court to the Slovenian judge: “‘Over a time period not determined by investigators, at a location not determined by investigators, Niyazova entered into a criminal conspiracy with people not determined by investigators.’”
The judge was shocked: “You spent six months in prison under this sentence?”
“Yep,” said Niyazova.
The judge closed the case and gave Niyazova a hug.
The Croatian judicial system was not as understanding. When the Pussy Riot tour van reached the Croatian border after a 14-hour drive from Germany and Niyazova gave the border guard her passport, a police officer quickly appeared and took her away. After a strip search, she was taken to a remand prison in Zagreb.
Though her friends found a lawyer for her almost immediately, they didn’t know where she was, and the police wouldn’t let her make any calls. The officers initially told Niyazova that they couldn’t hold a trial because it was Croatian Statehood Day, a state holiday; soon after, though, they brought her to a court and began taking her fingerprints and other personal information.
When she sat before the judge, Niyazova tried to explain the situation. “Look how many times I’ve crossed borders,” she said. “This same thing happened in Slovenia, but they sorted it out.”
“Slovenia is a different country,” the judge told her.
When Niyazova asked to use a phone to contact her friends, who she was certain had found a lawyer for her, the judge told her that she couldn’t have a lawyer because of the holiday. He then said that he was arresting her for 40 days, and that that’s how long she would have to “provide her documents,” presumably to prove that she had already done time for the charges. She was taken to Zagreb’s central prison.
“You’d think nothing could be worse than a Russian prison, but I can officially confirm that Croatian prisons are a hundred times worse,” Niyazova told Meduza. She was put in a small cell with seven other women. The institution had originally been a men’s prison, but a single floor had later been designated for women, so while men were given access to a large courtyard with a volleyball field, ping-pong tables, and badminton courts, the women had to spend their legally-mandated two-hour recreation time in a small, dark area between two prison buildings.
Niyazova arrived at the prison on a Monday. By the end of the week, Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina had organized a press conference about her arrest, and on Friday morning, human rights lawyer Lina Budak arrived with a stack of papers for Niyazova’s appeal.
“She told me, ‘We’ll contact the European Parliament. We’ll contact everybody,’” said Niyazova.
Immediately after the meeting with Budak, the prison head called Niyazova to his office, where six ombudsmen were waiting to speak to her. They had heard from Alyokhina about the differential treatment men and women were receiving at the prison, and they wanted to hear from Niyazova herself about prison conditions.
After that, she returned to her cell. Within a few minutes, however, prison officials came and opened the cell door.
“All the other women in the cell start clapping, saying something in Croatian, and then they try to explain to me in English that I’m free. Everyone in the cell is clapping and saying, ‘Bravo! You can go home!’ I walked out and was shocked — there were about 40 journalists with TV cameras.”
The court, she learned later, had decided to annul the arrest order without even waiting for Niyazova’s appeal hearing, no doubt due to public pressure. After her release, the Pussy Riot team and the lawyers went to a cafe to celebrate. Soon after, Lina Budak received a call from the mayor of Zagreb, who invited Niyazova to be his personal guest at the Zagreb pride parade the following day.
“[At the post-parade concert,] they invited me to the stage, and the hosts told me, ‘We’re all responsible for what happened, but let’s apologize to Aisoltan.’ And everyone started chanting, ‘Sorry, sorry!’”
A tale of two (more) prisons
Her calling attention to the gender disparity at the Zagreb prison wasn’t the first time Niyazova had used a jail stint to improve conditions for everyone. Her acquaintances like to joke that she’s left multiple prisons better than she found them, and in every case, it's been thanks to the same 2002 allegation from the Turkmenistani government.
The first time Niyazova found herself behind bars was in 2011, when Swiss authorities arrested her in response to Turkmenistan's Interpol request. While Switzerland ultimately refused the request and sent her to Russia rather than Turkmenistan, Niyazova spent eight months in a Swiss prison while the allegations were being evaluated
“I can guarantee you that 90 percent of Russians would be happy to live in a Swiss prison, because they’ve never lived that well in their lives,” Niyazova told Meduza. “There [in the prison], you can choose a language course (English, French, or German), there’s an accounting class, and there’s a class where they teach you to bake buns and croissants, even to make the dough. I was amazed when I learned about it — after all, it’s funded by Swiss taxpayers, and none of the inmates were Swiss citizens.”
When Niyazova was eventually told one Thursday that she would be sent to Russia the following day, her heart sank: she wouldn’t be able to say goodbye to her son, who had been sent to a Swiss boarding school, because visitors were only allowed on Wednesdays and Sundays. She pleaded with the prison officials, but they said there was nothing they could do.
The next morning, however, when she was in the shower, somebody knocked on the door. They told her she had a visitor.
“I quickly got dressed and ran out. I enter the room and see my son and my best friend crying. They gave us an hour, we said goodbye, and when I left, my only desire was to throw myself at the feet of everyone who let us meet one last time,” Niyazova said.
When she arrived in Moscow, she was initially placed in a quarantine cell.
“There was an awful stench — so bad it made my eyes tear up," said Niyazova. "Then I looked around. It turned out that there were 11 women there, and they were all vomiting into a bed. I started knocking on the iron door, explaining that they were all sick and that someone needed to call the doctor. But then I’m told, ‘Go to sleep. Those are all drug addicts. They’re going through withdrawal.’”
The next day, she was transferred to a regular, 45-person unit. Later that day, though, after lawyers from the Swiss Embassy came to see her, prison officials decided leaving her with such a large group was too risky; if she revealed something she saw to the Swiss Embassy, it could create a scandal. As a result, they moved her to a four-person cell. Swiss Embassy representatives continued to visit her regularly.
In March 2012, Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina was arrested for her part in the band’s Punk Prayer performance in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior; she and Niyazova met for the first time when they were placed in a two-person cell together. Soon after, one of the prison officials called Niyazova into her office.
“There’s a reason we put you in the special cell,” she told Niyazova, “We’ve got a girl from Pussy Riot. You’re a smart lady; now, there were five of them on the pulpit, and only two of them got arrested, so why don’t you get her to tell you who the others are.”
Niyazova started screaming and cursing at her, threatening to tell the Swiss Embassy and the wider world what she had asked her to do. “[The prison official] started threatening me, saying she’d move me from cell to cell until I ‘forgot where I slept.’ And I tell her, ‘Listen, I’m already in prison. I’m at rock bottom. Do you really think I’m searching for a comfortable spot in the shit? I absolutely couldn’t care less where you put my little temporal body. My mind and soul are far away from here, with my son.”
Fortunately, Niyazova was allowed to remain in the cell with Alyokhina until the end of Alyokhina’s sentence: 10 months in all. 22-year-old Alyokhina, who by that time had established a strong network of volunteers and a reputation for action, helped Niyazova advocate for better conditions in the prison — and their work paid off.
“Niyazova, we need to hang up your portrait so that future generations of inmates will know who’s responsible for improving conditions here,” the head of the prison once told Niyazova.
Meanwhile, Niyazova would help Alyokhina respond to the fan letters that never stopped coming.
“The censor would bring her letters twice a week, and Maria physically didn’t have time to answer them all — we would work together to write back. I would write that I wasn’t Maria but that I was with her, and thanks for the support,” said Niyazova.
Even years later, Niyazova and Alyokhina still talk almost every day, and they've recently teamed up to raise money for Ukrainian refugees. “I really love [Alyokhina],” Niyazova told Meduza. “There are a lot of people who I love and respect, but that special kind of reverent love is something I probably only have for my son and for Maria. [...] If the Pussy Riot guys ever need my help, I’m always prepared to give it.”
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale