Crimeans are dying in Russian prisons
After Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the life of prisoners on the peninsula changed drastically. The penitentiary system fell under Russian jurisdiction and many were transferred to different regions of Russia—including some of the most remote regions. Those with serious illnesses, such as AIDS, suffered the worst. Some have even died because they were not given treatment. Ukrainian news source Zaborona reports on the situation with Ukrainian prisoners in Russian prisons.
At the end of 2019, 33-year-old Crimean resident Andrei Titkov died in a colony in the Russian republic of Adygea in the North Caucasus. Two years earlier, a Crimean court had convicted him of theft and illegal possession of weapons. From Crimea, Titkov was transferred to a Russian colony. Those who served time with him say that he “withered away in just two months”.
Titkov had HIV and complained to his lawyers that he had not received antiretroviral therapy in the colony. “The administration of the colony deliberately dragged the process out and did not issue a medical card to the lawyers”, says Rustam Matsev, lawyer from the Russian Justice Initiative. “He [the lawyer] sent a request and was denied. He tried to appeal it while there was still time. While they were still drudging through the process, the man simply died”.
The medical care in the Russian colonies is one of the main problems for prisoners. Rustam Matsev says that most of the complaints are mainly related to untimely and inappropriate medical care.
Annexing the prisons
Ivan Fedirko, a 37-year-old Ukrainian man, has a rich criminal past—five convictions (for theft and bodily harm). In 2014, at the time when Crimea was annexed, Fedirko was serving his sentence in a Crimean prison.
Fedirko was released early, but then arrested again in Simferopol in 2015. He says that he “did what he needed to in order to survive”. They detained him for robbery and sentenced him to five years. In the same year, Fedirko was transferred to a colony in Adygea. At about the same time, he learned that he had suddenly become a Russian citizen. This is a standard situation for Crimean prisoners: the majority were forcibly awarded Russian citizenship if they did not write a written refusal.
Ukrainian human rights activists said that at the time that Crimea was annexed, three were 3,400 prisoners being held in prisons, most of whom forcibly obtained Russian passports. After the annexation, they were gradually transferred to Russia—4,700 people in total. These were people who had already served their sentences and who were detained after 2014.
This practice is prohibited by international law, since Crimea is considered a temporarily occupied territory.
In Adygeya, Fedirko met three more Crimeans—Andrey Titkov, Roman Zhurabovich and Valery Makarov. Everyone except Titkov was transferred to Adygea at about the same time. All, except Fedirko, were HIV positive. Moreover, Makarov, says Rustam Matsev, found out about his HIV status by chance in 2017. For another six months, he was not prescribed antiretroviral therapy, because there was no infectious disease doctor in the colony.
Roman Zhurabovich is a drug addict. Russian legislation on drugs is quite repressive—Article 282 (illegal acquisition and distribution of drugs) of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation is one of the most popular, and every fourth prisoner is charged under this article. It is mainly drug users that are punished, not major drug dealers. Russia also prohibits methadone therapy, during which a heroin addict is switched to methadone to reduce dependence on opiates.
“They wrote on his [Zhurabovich’s] paperwork that he was a healthy person”, added Fedirko. “They also said Titkov was in good health. We took him to the hospital. He could not get there on his own, the man had lost thirty kilograms in weight. And they say to him, ‘Why did you come? Yesterday you were absolutely healthy’”.
A diagnosis of doom
At the beginning of 2019, there were 61,500 HIV-positive prisoners held in Russian prisons, and less than half of them were receiving antiretroviral therapy. This is because most Russian prisons use old treatment regimens.
The Russian Federal Penitentiary Service argued that the number of HIV-positive prisoners in colonies is decreasing, and that the mortality rate is also decreasing. However, back in March 2016, Russia was the leader among European countries in prison mortality. There is no more recent data on the specific number of prisoner deaths in Russian colonies.
Official data from the Federal Penitentiary Service states that 696 people have died from HIV in Russian prisons in five years. Most prisoners die from concomitant diseases, not from HIV, explains human rights activist German Urykov. And the reason is often that prisoners do not receive proper medical care.
At the same time, treatment is, in general, widely available, explains German Urykov, and prisons are often sufficiently provided with drugs. The problems begin at the first appointment. “Treatment regimens change frequently, and this is most likely related to the drug supply and purchase rather than [the prisoner’s] health,” explains Urykov. “The-trial-and-error process for changing drugs, for example, is often not carried out in a timely manner, and they do not conduct additional compatibility tests. As a result, prisoners often stop taking therapy because of side effects”.
Roman Zhurabovich and Valery Makarov continue to serve their sentences in the Adyghe prison. Lawyers from the Justice Initiative filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights due to the fact that their clients did not receive adequate medical care. Most likely, Matsev says, the court will rule in favor of the claimant.
Since his release, Ivan Fedirko has not kept in touch with them. He lives near Kharkov, works and says that he does not want to return to his old life. He remembers that he was unable to achieve fair treatment for prisoners with serious illnesses in the Adyghe prison.
With support from the Russian Language News Exchange