MOSCOW — Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition politician, is going to serve his prison sentence in a penal colony notorious for disciplinary measures considered harsh even by Russian standards, Russian news outlets reported Monday.
Russia’s decision to transfer Navalny to a prison known for abusive treatment of inmates came even as the Kremlin faced mounting foreign criticism for the sentencing as well as an assassination attempt on Navalny last summer.
Navalny returned to Russia in January despite the government’s threats of arrest, after spending months in a Berlin hospital recuperating from being poisoned. He was subsequently convicted in a show trial of violating the terms of his parole during his stay in Germany and sentenced to more than two years in prison.
On Monday, the European Union placed sanctions on four senior Russian officials considered responsible for his prosecution, the first time the EU has exercised that power under a new law to punish human rights violators worldwide. The officials are: Igor Krasnov, the prosecutor general; Alexander I. Bastrykin, head of the Investigative Committee, a law enforcement agency; Victor V. Zolotov, head of the National Guard; and Alexander Kalashnikov, head of Russia’s prison service.
The EU had already sanctioned six Russians and a state scientific research center in response to the poisoning.
Russia was hit with another round of criticism Monday with the release of a United Nations report on Navalny’s poisoning with the military-grade nerve agent Novichok.
“We believe that poisoning Mr. Navalny with Novichok might have been deliberately carried out to send a clear, sinister warning that this would be the fate of anyone who would criticize and oppose the government,” two U.N. researchers, Agnès Callamard, a specialist on extrajudicial killing, and Irene Khan, an expert on freedom of expression, said in a statement.
The Russian government had been provided a copy of the report two months ago but allowed a period for response to expire without offering any, the statement said.
Russia’s prison service has not officially disclosed Navalny’s whereabouts, following the customary Russian practice of keeping inmates incommunicado while in transit and in the first days or weeks at a new prison.
Nevertheless, the news reports on state-run outlets offered an early glimpse of the likely conditions of his imprisonment. The site, Penal Colony No. 2 and also known by its initials IK2, is in the Vladimir Region in European Russia east of Moscow, indicating Navalny will not serve his sentence in the country’s harshest prisons in Siberia or the Arctic.
But the colony is known for strict enforcement of rules and for making extensive use of a separate, harsher punishment facility within its walls where inmates are not allowed to mingle or even talk among themselves, according to former inmates and lawyers.
The site is typical for Russia’s colony-type prisons that evolved, with a few improvements, from the gulag camps established in the 1930s. Inmates live collectively in groups of several dozen called brigades in low slung, two-story buildings surrounded by walls and barbed wire.
While guards oversee the prison, fellow prisoners maintain discipline within the brigades, either in cooperation with guards, a group known as “activists,” or as criminal gang leaders, known as “thieves in law.”
Penal Colony No. 2 is controlled by “activists” in cahoots with the warden, according to former inmates, an arrangement that will allow the prison administration to strictly control Navalny’s life at all times. Activist-controlled prisons are called “red zone” facilities, in Russian prison parlance.
Penal Colony No. 2 is, “the reddest of red” prisons, a lawyer, Maria Eismont, who represented a former convict at the site, told Open Media, an opposition news site.
“Everything is done so a person feels his total dependence” on the warden, she said. Inmates are even denied prompt visits from lawyers, which is technically illegal, she said. “Everything is done to isolate political prisoners.”
Navalny’s organization released a description of the colony Monday underscoring the role of the co-opted prisoners in managing the population.
Upon arrival, for example, guards force inmates to renounce on video the code of honor governing prisons run by the criminal thieves in law, by saying, “I do not support the prisoners’ way of life.” It is in essence an acquiescence to the authority of the activists, according to this description, but this fealty cannot be stated openly because, formally speaking, the activist groups were outlawed a decade ago.
All the same, at Penal Colony No. 2, activists command fellow prisoners to perform meaningless tasks such as making beds multiple times a day, or undressing and then dressing again, according to accounts of former convicts.
Dmitry Dyomushkin, a nationalist politician who served time in the colony, described conditions in the separate punishment brigade, where Navalny could wind up for infractions as minor as failing to button his jacket, as psychologically harrowing.
Inmates, for example, must shave every morning but are not allowed to do so themselves because they are not allowed to hold razors; instead, “activists” wield the razors and cuts and nicks are common, he said.
Inmates spend hours standing with their hands clasped behind their backs, looking at their feet, forbidden from making eye contact with the guards, Dyomushkin said in an interview on the Echo of Moscow radio station. Inmates use toilets without partitions and are obliged to do so in the presence of an activist, he said.
“They will find many ways to pressure him,” Dyomushkin said of Navalny’s term in Penal Colony No. 2. In these conditions, he said, “your personality deforms.”