A group of well-known Russian human rights activists recently issued a public statement protesting the arrest of Alexei Sokolov, a civic activist in the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg. As a vocal defender of prisoner rights in Russia, Sokolov has exposed inhuman beatings and harsh living conditions in the country's detention facilities. Recently, Sokolov was arrested on charges of armed robbery and faces 15 years in the prison system he has sought to reform. But the charges against the activist may be false.
Alexei Sokolov has been asking questions: Why do some inmates leave Russian prisons as invalids? Why do mothers bury sons who die in custody? Why do prison death certificates list the cause of death as pneumonia, but bodies of the deceased sometimes have severe hemorrhages and broken bones?
Sokolov posed such questions in his 2007 video entitled Torture Factory, or An Educational Experience. The 45-minute documentary features brutal beatings that have allegedly taken place in Russian prisons. Sokolov, who headed a civic group monitoring Russian prison conditions, had been sharing his findings with the human rights organization, Amnesty International.
Sokolov was arrested on May 13th on charges of participating in an armed robbery five years ago based on testimony of another man imprisoned for the crime. His wife, Gula Sokolova, says the arrest took place while he was out walking with their two-year-old daughter.
Frederike Behr of Amnesty International's Moscow office says it has received reports from inmates throughout Russia who claim they have been tortured or promised better prison conditions in exchange for false testimony.
"It's justified in our view to investigate whether these statements made against him are actually true; also to consider the many statements which have been made by people independently, saying they have been asked to incriminate Alexei Sokolov," she said.
The spokesman for the Sverdlovsk Region Interior Ministry, Valeriy Gorelykh, told VOA there is no connection between Sokolov's human rights activity and the charge of armed robbery against him. Gorelykh says Sokolov is being kept in custody by court order. No trial date has been set.
Sokolov's wife, Gula, tells VOA he had received constant threats since release of Torture Factory two years ago.
"For attempts to establish rule of law, which our President Dmitri Medvedev talks about, my husband could be deprived of freedom for 15 years," she said.
Sokolova adds that authorities recently warned her husband he would leave prison as an invalid.
Appearing in his own documentary, Sokolov denounced the system at the IK-2 detention facility near Yekaterinburg.
ALEXEY SOKOLOV: "Most of the numerous complaints and statements arrive at our organization through unofficial channels, because inmates are afraid to write officially. Anyone who mentions the truth in an official complaint or statement is beaten so severely or is subjected to such immense psychological pressure that he breaks down and denies everything."
Frederike Behr says Sokolov is likely to have enemies in the prison establishment, including several who lost their jobs because of the beatings he exposed in his video.
Behr notes while such violence is common in Russia, it is not sanctioned by any legislature or the courts.
"The judge made a decision that ten years of sentence are enough to punish someone for a crime," she added. "The judge doesn't add beatings, denial of visits by relatives, and other inhuman and degrading treatment."
Behr says Sokolov has worked with Amnesty International for the past two years and is known as a serious contributor. Noted Russian human rights activists have issued a statement expressing outrage over what they describe as trumped up charges against Sokolov. Signatories include the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Ludmilla Alexeyeva, and the director of Russia's For Human Rights organization, Lev Ponomarev.