Russia’s “Sadists’ Law” threatens to legitimize torture and violence of prisoners

President of the Kremlin's human rights group, Lyudmila Alekseyeva, holding a sign that reads

President of the Kremlin’s human rights group, Lyudmila Alekseyeva, holding a sign that reads “I oppose sadists’ law.” © AFP

In an alarming reminder of how closely some industrialized countries teeter on the edge of Draconian, the State Duma of Russia has introduced a law which effectively sanctions the abuse and killing of inmates. The “sadists’ law,” as it’s come to be known, has passed the preliminary stage, and would “allow prison guards to ‘use physical force, including combat methods of fighting, if non-forceful means cannot ensure that duties are fulfilled.’” While on the surface, this wording may not seem all that concerning, its application is, and the context in which it will be operating, is deeply concerning to observers of the Russian penal system. Further, “The bill lists weapons and other means that guards can use — including ‘special batons’, ‘special gas means,’ electric and flashlight shockers, water cannons and dogs. In the absence of weapons, guards may use ‘any available means,’” 

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW):

“Bill #802242-6 would amend the Federal Act on Institutions of Forced Confinement to allow prison staff to use force against inmates not only to put a stop to attempted escapes, crimes, and other offenses, as detailed in the current law, but also in response to violations of a “confinement regime.” Such violations would include sitting on a bed during the day, failing to greet a guard, and other insignificant deviations from prison routine.” 

In addition, for some unfathomable reason—except to reinforce that prison officials are now above the law—guards do not have to inform police of the death of a prisoner due to such violence for 24 hours, obviously seriously hampering any investigations into suspicious deaths.

Clearly, those observing Russian politics in the Putin age are unlikely to be surprised by the brutality of this law. But the fact remains that we are talking about an industrialized democracy, a G8 country with a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Neither is the timing of the law’s introduction surprising when placed in the context of a legislative panel’s recent recommendation that NGOs be banned from observing prison conditions in the country.

The Russian prison system has never been held aloft as a bastion for humanitarianism or rehabilitation. While inside information on conditions have be notoriously difficult to garner, with prisoners fearing for their lives were they to speak up, a steady stream of reports from a variety of sources have painted a terrifying picture. Those who have survived Russia’s penal colonies describe conditions difficult to imagine in any country, let alone an industrialized “democracy.”  Conditions in prisons have been so bad, that in 2012 it was reported that 20 inmates committed mass suicide in response to the alleged torture. It’s why these new developments are even more frightening. When we know that abuse, torture, rape, and more are commonplace, without government legitimization, one can only imagine what prisoners may be forced to endure now that guards have state support for these actions.

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