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What are penal colonies, where Putin critic Navalny has been sentenced to for nearly 3 years

Penal colonies, a unique feature in Russia, date back to the Russian Empire. They were later used by the Soviet Union when prison labour was used to accelerate industrialisation. 

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New Delhi: A Moscow court Tuesday sentenced Russian opposition leader and Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny to nearly three years of jail-time by overturning a 2014 suspended sentence over fraud charges. 

This comes amid a wave of protests in Navalny’s support and international condemnation of his arrest, including from US President Joe Biden who pressed on the topic during his first phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week.

The 44-year-old was detained on 17 January upon returning to Moscow from Berlin, where he had spent months recovering from a poison attack that he blamed on Putin. 

Though Navalny served over four months of imprisonment from early 2017 to September 2018 for organising and participating in protests, this will be his first lengthy jail-term. 

Navalny will serve time in a penal colony.  

ThePrint takes a look at penal colonies in Russia, its history and how they have been criticised for creating inhuman conditions for inmates.


Also read: Poisoning, arrest and a ‘billion-dollar palace’ fire up Russians


What is a penal colony? 

The term ‘penal colony’ historically refers to a place used to exile prisoners and use them for labour in a remote location such as an island or a territory overseas. These were mainly developed by English and French empires. 

While England shipped ‘criminals’ to the Americas and Australia, France established penal colonies in Africa, New Caledonia and French Guyana. Most countries disbanded penal countries as they turned to alternative forms of crime control and imprisonment.

Such colonies were initially set up by the Russian empire to enforce a system of penal labour known as katorga and were employed again during the Soviet Union — first during Vladimir Lenin’s time as “gulag camps”, and then during Joseph Stalin’s time.  

They were exposed for what they were in the novel Gulag Archipelago’ by Nobel Prize winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn. 

Penal colonies in today’s Russia

A penal colony in Russia today refers to a type of correctional facility that involves forced labour and physical isolation. 

Unlike closed prisons in the US and other Western nations, inmates in penal colonies live together in barracks. In most, the required standard of two square metres per inmate as prescribed in Russian law is not upheld, according to a 2019 report by a Polish state analytical centre called Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW). As of 2019, there are 869 such colonies across Russia and 315 remand centres, where suspects are held prior to the courts sentencing them.

Penal colonies are a common feature in Russia and usually located in sparsely populated parts of the country such as Mordovia, Sverdlovsk Oblast, Krasnoyarsk Krai and Perm Krai, where inmates receive wages for compulsory work and follow working hours. 

According to OSW, during Stalin’s tenure, prison labour was used to accelerate industrialisation and achieve the country’s five-year plans. The construction of large-scale investments in Soviet Russia like the White Sea-Baltic Canal and the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) were the works of prison labour, notes OSW.

Penal colonies today are located in remote regions rich in natural resources like forests or  highly industrialised areas. 

Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN), which runs the penal system under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice, receives revenue from manufacturing plants operating in penal colonies.

Other convicts in penal colonies include Soviet physicist Yury Orlov, who was sentenced to a Gulag camp in 1977 for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda”, and former US marine Paul Whelan, who was put behind bars for 16 years last June after a Russian court found him guilty of espionage.


Also read: Poisoning, arrest and a ‘billion-dollar palace’ fire up Russians


Types of penal colonies 

There are various types of penal colonies. 

There are ‘colonies-settlements’ where inmates can freely move around, wear civilian clothing, reside in large barracks, can leave the colony with a pass and meet with their relatives. 

There are also ‘ordinary regime’ penal colonies where guards are stricter, inmates can’t move around freely and are housed in barracks that are larger and more crowded. 

In ‘strict’ and ‘special’ colonies, inmates face more restrictions and live in locked cells, normally with 20-50 other prisoners. 

Due to overcrowding and poor infrastructure, there is poor hygiene, regular outbreaks of epidemics and common problems with running water and heating in colonies.

Issues with transporting prisoners, discipline at hands of guards

Accusations of beatings and torture due to prisoner-discipline brigades are common in penal colonies. It is also common for prisoners to commit self-harm as an act of protest. 

In October 2013, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a member of the Russian band Pussy Riot who was imprisoned in a penal colony in Mordovia for a protest concert in an Orthodox church criticising Putin, wrote an open letter on how “prison managers break a person’s will, bully them, and turn them into silent slaves”. 

She also spoke about violations in the sewing shop where she worked in the penal colony, alleging 17-hour shifts and physical and psychological trauma. 

In November 2019, Russian human rights activist Sergey Mokhnatkin died due to a complication of a spinal injury he suffered in 2016 while serving his sentence in a penal colony. He had blamed his injury on prison staff. 

The transfer of prisoners from one colony to the next has also been a point of criticism. Transfers are done in cases of illness, for personal security, reorganisation or liquidation of the prison, or exceptional circumstances. 

In a 2017 report, Amnesty International raised concerns about “enforced disappearance” of prisoners during transportation, that families are usually not informed about their whereabouts during the journeys and how sometimes prisoners spend weeks in transit cells at various destinations, also called “etap”, until they reach their destination. 

Amnesty International also noted that in one colony, found to be unfit for young children, women were told to put their children in the care of relatives or to submit them into a children’s home until the end of their sentence. 


Also read: Navalny stands alone in his epic battle with Putin


 

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