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Grigory Pasko: The Chita SIZO

The Chita SIZO By Grigory Pasko, journalist REPORTING FROM CHITA While in Chita, I made it a point to buy the local newspapers every day. I noticed that there were no more than five of them published in the city. By comparison, there are over 20 in Vladivostok. I also looked through old copies of the local papers, but rarely did I find in them reports about how the prisoners Platon Lebedev and Mikhail Khodorkovsky are being held in Chita, in the investigative isolator. I asked many Chitans what they thought about these people. The majority said: we don’t care whether they’re in jail or not and what the power is doing with them. Many spoke thus: the power is dividing up property, and that is why it locked up Khodorkovsky, having taken this property away from him. Still others added: Putin is never going to release Khodorkovsky until he himself falls from power. It is known that Lebedev and Khodorkovsky were moved from the places of confinement where they had been to Chita for the conducting of some kind of mysterious investigative actions. But why to Chita of all places? Probably because it is more convenient to accomplish the perverted justice of today’s power far away from Moscow. And also: journalists are not going to come to Chita en masse, nor will foreign observers. In the event that the prisoners are bruised and battered, you can always write it off to the wild manners of the descendants of the Trans-Baikal hard labor katorga prisoner-exiles of old (which has already happened with Khodorkovsky in the Krasnokamensk prison colony). It goes without saying that I decided to get as close as I could to the Chita SIZO [investigative isolator prison—Trans.]. I recalled that in December of last year, an ITAR-TASS photojournalist had been detained near the SIZO for attempting to photograph the building. They demanded that he destroy the photos he had made. He had no choice but to submit to the demands of the SIZO employees. The last thing I wanted was to have to deal with people who don’t known the law on the mass media or that there is not and can not be a prohibition on photographing any building. But I nevertheless decided to photograph the “prohibited” structure. I won’t tell you exactly how I did it, but I succeeded. The SIZO of Chita is the same as hundreds of others throughout all of Russia. A standard brick building, faceless and dull in its architecture. sizo1.jpg SIZO-1 isolator – Chita (Photo taken at great personal risk by Grigory Pasko) On November 30, 2005, at a roundtable session on questions of the application of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the governor of Chita Oblast, Ravil Geniatulin, declared that the Chita temporary holding isolator does not meet modern requirements and that the construction of a new wing is taking place. In January 2007, the new security wing no. 3, capable of holding 330 suspects, accuseds, and convicts, was finally put into operation. As reported on the Chita SIZO’s website, the floorspace norm per person is “maximally proximated to established state standards”. It is difficult to say what this flowery phrase actually means if we consider that the norm per person is 4 meters. “Maximally proximated to state standards” could just as easily mean two meters, or three… By the way, Khodorkovsky and Lebedev are currently being held in this new wing of the SIZO. According to their lawyers, they are being guarded by spetsnaz troops specially brought in from elsewhere for the purpose. These troops are not under the SIZO’s chain of command, and do not take their orders from the SIZO chief. Under the pretext of providing security for the procuracy-general’s investigative group working in Chita, more than 150 MVD special unit (spetsnaz) troops were pulled into the city from Irkutsk Oblast and the Republic of Buryatia at the end of January. In the word’s of Platon Lebedev’s lawyer Elena Liptser, there were fighters “in masks and with weaponry” present when investigators met with Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev in the Oblast procuracy. It is obvious that this is being done to intimidate the convicts and to lend the “YUKOS case” an aura of super-importance and to show how seriously the state is taking its responsibility. And indeed, you can’t expect the power to admit that it fears being unmasked, that it fears the people actually might learn about the crime it has perpetrated with respect to people it knows are innocent. Another thing Elena Liptser told me was how the lawyers are searched before they are permitted to meet with their clients: everything is dumped out of their bags, right on down to lipstick. In order to get to Lebedev and Khodorkovsky, the lawyers have to pass through around thirty locked doors and barred gates. As of December 2006, SIZO-1 of the city of Chita held around 2000 suspects, accuseds, and convicts, which is three times more than the established limit of places. In order to change the situation, the Chita Oblast Administration of the Federal Service for the Execution of Punishments leadership adopted a decision about the organization of a SIZO-2 in the city of Krasnokamensk, as well as “facilities functioning in the regime of an investigative isolator” in 4 correctional colonies of Chita Oblast. To this should be added that in the past few years of Vladimir Putin’s rule, the number of prisoners in Russia has been constantly on the increase. Thus, if in 2003 the number of persons in places of deprivation of liberty was 847 thousand, then as of January 2007 there are more than 872 thousand of them. We know that new charges were filed against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev on February 5. This means that they can expect to spend a long time yet in the Chita SIZO. There are grounds to assume that the upcoming court sessions with respect to the new criminal case will also take place in Chita. In fact, it has already been announced that the trial itself will take place inside the isolator – an unprecedented move clearly designed to ensure that a nominally “open” trial will in fact be closed to the public, which will not be able to gain access into the high security facility.