Brutal beating of prisoners in the Izyaslav Penal Colony №31 (Preliminary analysis)

This case has held me in its grip for more than six months.  A brief account would be as follows. On 14 January 2007, virtually all prisoners at the Izyaslav Penal Colony No 31 (more than 1,200 men) declared a hunger strike. They were protesting against arbitrary punishments, beatings and degrading treatment by staff, as well as the bad quality of food and medical care. One of the prisoners’ demands was the removal of the head of the colony, his deputy and another member of management. On the same day a commission from the State Department for the Execution of Sentences [hereafter the Department] arrived at the colony, and by evening the hunger strike had been abandoned.

Then on 22 January 2007 a special unit was brought into the colony, with men in masks and military gear. They brutally beat around 40 prisoners who had been specially brought to the headquarters for this – those who had told the commission about the prisoners’ demands. By the time the beating was over, the prisoners had broken ribs, bones, noses, other bodily injuries, teeth knocked out, etc.  Immediately following this they were divided into two groups and taken to the Rivne and Khmelnytsky SIZO [pre-trial detention centres], literally in the clothes they had on, with all their things left in the penal colony. In the SIZO they were again brutally beaten. They were later taken to other penal colonies to continue serving their sentences.

Representatives of the Department deny both the hunger strike and beatings and say that 40 prisoners were moved to other penal colonies because No. 31 was overcrowded. Complaints from the prisoners themselves or their parents to the Prosecutor and other bodies have elicited the response that the actions of the Department’s personnel were legitimate. The following is an attempt to establish what did in fact happen in Colony №31 last January and how the authorities reacted to it.

Coverage of events and sources of information

We should point out that information about the events in the Izyaslav Colony spread through the mass media immediately. The urgent arrival on Sunday, 14 January (the day after the Old New Year) of the First Deputy to the Head of the Department General Mykola Iltyai with several subordinates also suggests that the Department knew that the protest action was being planned. The Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group [KHPG] also knew of the hunger strike having received several calls from parents of the prisoners worried about the events.  The same parents approached journalists from TV Channel 5 and Channel “1 + 1”.  The same thing happened after the prisoners were beaten. The news spread within a day to the media, while KHPG sent a letter to both the Prosecutor General and to international organizations. Similar appeals were sent by our colleagues from other human rights organizations. Nonetheless, Department personnel tried to give the impression that the hunger strike hadn’t taken place, that there had been no beatings, that the spetsnaz [special purpose unit] had not been deployed in the colony.  This was precisely the line taken on 16 and 29 January during live broadcasts on TSN and “1 + 1” by the Head of the Colony Andriy Bozhko. Over the entirely period which followed, there was a real battle to ensure that the truth did not come out about the events. Since the penal system remains closed to public scrutiny, it was impossible to directly verify the information – it needed to be collected, in smatterings, from various sources. I sent information requests on this subject to the Human Rights Ombudsperson and the Prosecutor General. Together with staff from the Prosecutor General’s office and the Department for the Execution of Sentences I met with five of the forty prisoners moved from the colony on 22 January. I collected videos of all television broadcasts covering the events, from Channel 5, “1 + 1”, ICTV; and was kindly permitted by “1 + 1” to have a copy of a full interview with three men released from No. 31. I received written testimony about the events from four prisoners moved on 22 January from Izyaslav; copies of the complaints which parents of some of the prisoners sent to the Khmelnytsky Regional Prosecutor, the Prosecutor General, the Human Rights Ombudsperson, the Department for the Execution of Sentences, the Ministry of Justice, the President of Ukraine and the Cabinet of Ministers, as well as replies they received. I spoke a lot with the parents of the men who had already had visits to their sons at the new colonies. Putting all of this together, it is possible to reconstruct the events.

The Hunger Strike

Colony No. 31 has a minimum security regime. There are approximately 1,200 prisoners, in the main young men from 18 to 22, divided into 8 units. All are imprisoned for the first time, and for most it is their first conviction.

All the prisoners who gave information about the events cite the following reasons for the hunger strike:

1. Beatings, humiliation. Most of the prisoners were positive about the former Head of the Institution Oleksandr Povoroznyuk, saying that under him there had been no unjustified punishments and prisoners had not been beaten. They said that he had been just and demanded the same from his staff. However when he was removed for some reason, Andriy Bozhko had become Acting Head. That was when the beatings, insults and unwarranted punishments started. For example, Prisoner M. received 7 days in the punishment cell simply for lying down in a different place.  Each person who gave accounts, cited glaring examples of arbitrary and violent behaviour towards them from the management of the colony, middle-level and junior personnel. Many mentioned, for example, having been hit on the backside every day with rubber batons. . 

Infringements of working conditions

All the prisoners complained that only a few had received “otovarka”, i.e. these prisoners, no more than 10% had wages calculated and could buy things in the colony’s shop. The overwhelming majority were not paid anything. The explanation given was that the money earned was being used to pay for food and living expenses. However, as one of the prisoners correctly said, that effectively means that each person who in fact worked but didn’t receive “otavarka”, according to the documents had not worked, and there were all grounds for punishment.

Everyday conditions

On average, each barrack holds around 150 prisoners although the prisoners maintain that the norm is 60-70 places. In the eighth unit barrack for 160 prisoners there were two wash basins in working order, and at dinner there was nowhere to wash your hands. The shop has food items beyond their sell-by date. There were even glass jars with preserves from 1979. The medical unit has out-of-date medicine and medical care was not given promptly. The prisoners remembered one prisoner who lost his eyesight because he got some metal shavings in one eye which got infected. The Inflammation spread to the other eye and they didn’t treat it in time. Another prisoner got frostbite and ended up with both feet amputated because he didn’t get medical help quickly enough. It is difficult to verify these stories since the people themselves were then moved to other institutions.

There was one telephone for all the prisoners, and you had to earn the right to a call.

All the prisoners complained about the bad drinking water.

No possibility of complaining against the behaviour of the administration

The prisoners assert that they tried to send complaints to the Khmelnytsky Regional Division of the Department for the Execution of Sentences, to the Department in Kyiv, to prosecutor’s offices at different levels and other authorities, but that their complaints never left the colony. For example, one prisoner spoke of the following.

In April 2006 we found out that a Department commission was coming to the colony. We wrote a collective complaint and I personally handed it to the head of the commission.  A bit later I got put in a punishment cell [DIZO], supposedly for infringements of the colony regulations. I got beaten up there, and then taken to the office of the First Deputy Head of the Colony Pysak who was holding our complaint, and told me that I’d been put in DIZO not for infringements, but for my complaint, and that nobody would help me. After that, they banned me from telephoning home and my letters didn’t get to my parents. And when they rang the special unit, they were told, see, what an uncaring son you’ve got.

The mounting grievances finally led the prisoners to call a wide-scale hunger strike. On 14 January the entire colony (barring one prisoner) refused to go to the canteen for their breakfast. The prisoners put forward the following demands: dismiss the Acting Head of the Colony Bozhko, the First Deputy Head Bondarchuk, the Deputy on issues related to the regime rules, Yatskov and some other members of staff; put an end to the beating of prisoners; make the conditions meet human standards; bring in normal food items and medicines, etc.

At the same time a commission from the Department arrived at the colony, headed by the Deputy Head of the Department Major-General Iltyai.  The commission found the out-of-date medicines and jars of food (the prisoners allege that the personnel had hidden the food, but that one of the prisoners told the commission where to find it, and for that he hasn’t been out of different punishment cells [SHIZO – isolation unit, or PKT – cell-like conditions – translator] ever since. Iltyai met with the prisoners (around 30 prisoners were brought to the meeting from each unit), listened to their grievances and promised to rectify the situation. The prisoners abandoned their hunger strike and went to the evening meal. On 15-16 January fresh food and new medicines were brought to the colony. However the insults and threats from the administration staff continued despite the presence of people from central Department headquarters, including the head of the supervisory unit Major Oleksandr Kislov. The Acting Head of the Colony Andriy Bozhko stated in a direct broadcast that there had been no hunger strike, and that some prisoners had simply received good parcels before the holidays (from New Year to after Christmas on 7 January – translator), and hadn’t bothered to go to breakfast. Therefore on 17 January some of the prisoners again declared a hunger strike. They called it off two days later after talking with a representative of the Human Rights Ombudsperson’s Secretariat Serhiy Kudruk who promises to deal with the problems at the colony.

The Department explains the events at No. 31 differently. They say that the young head of the institution Andriy Bozkho was unable to cope with the problems of the colony, and “the informal management of the colony” got out of hand and wanted to determine themselves who would manage the institution and what the rules of behaviour would be. They therefore organized the protest action. Supposedly it was no hunger strike since none of the prisoners wrote a personal statement refusing to eat.  The prisoners had received very good parcels from home coming up to New Year, and could afford to put such pressure on the administration. Such behaviour was a threat to order in the colony and the organizers of the action needed to be punished

The punishment was not long in coming 

22 January

A special anti-terrorist unit was brought into the colony, with men in masks and military gear. They brutally beat more than 40 prisoners and took them away, half-dressed, some of them without even house shoes (all their things were left in the colony), beaten and covered in blood, with broken noses, ribs and bones, and with teeth knocked out, to the Rivne and Khmelnytsky SIZO [pre-trial detention centres] where they were again brutally beaten by SIZO staff.  Here is a fragment from the statement given by Prisoner K:

I was in the medical unit getting treatment, together with three other prisoners. At 9.00 a car arrived. Around 20 people came into the unit, including a representative from Kyiv Kislov, the First Deputy Head of the Khmelnytsky Regional Division of the Department Shutyak, the Head of the operations unit of the Division Shatsky, the Acting Head of No. 31 Bozhko and his First Deputy Bondarchuk. All four of us were called into the office of the head of the medical unit where all those people were.

About 1 or 2 minutes later around 10 people burst into the office in masks. They knocked us to the ground, pulled our hands behind our backs and handcuffed us and began hitting our faces against the floor. Then they dragged us through a line of those people from the Division and the colony who kicked us. The people in masks shoved us into a car on top of each other with our heads down, and for around 20 minutes kicked us on our heads and bodies. When the car arrived at the checkpoint from the work zone to the barracks, they flung us out of it. There was a “live” corridor of ensigns and officers of the colony with batons. When we were flung out, they immediately knocked us to the ground and started beating us with their batons and kicking us.

I lost consciousness (following the beatings, I have a scar on my chin).

I came to in another building during the search. The search was carried out with beating. After that they put handcuffs on behind our backs and dragged us passed the row with batons. I again lost consciousness. I came to in the van. There were already about 20 prisoners there. They were all beaten, covered in blood, a lot without shoes and not dressed. I was in a ripped jersey and lace-up boots.

The car drove up to the exit from the colony and then returned. We were thrown out of the car and pushed past the row (the same people beat us with the same batons). Then they shoved us into a van and took us to the Khmelnytsky SIZO. We were met there by the head in charge of the colony regime regulations of the Khmelnytsky Division of the Department Zlotenko and a swift response unit.

We were pushed down a row several times, getting brutally beaten with batons and then thrown into a transit cell. For a week they took us out individually 3-4 times a day to a SIZO office where the swift response unit brutally beat us. All of this was under the control of Zlotenko. They put wet towels onto our faces so that we couldn’t breathe; they beat us with batons on the heels, palms, buttocks, back, legs and head. I fainted from the beating. Zlotenko threatened that when our parents came for visits, they’d plant drugs on them and that they’d also be complaining from behind bars.

They used physical and moral pressure to get me to make a statement that I had no grievances against the administration of Colony No. 31 or the Khmelnytsky Division of the Department, that nobody had used physical means to influence me.

I ask that the statement I signed during that time is not considered valid.

Another piece of testimony, this time from Prisoner A:

On 22 January around 10 o’clock in the morning I was called to headquarters with one other prisoner.

The Head of the Colony Bozhko ordered us to into a room where there were around 20 other prisoners, sit down and wait.

Later Major Kislov came in and said that all the requests made by prisoners after the hunger strike to the head of the regional department would be carried out.

Straight after that a lieutenant (I don’t know his name) came in and over the telephone gave the order: “Do your work”.

Some special soldiers in masks burst in, put handcuffs on us, flung us on the floor and began beating us with batons and kicking us. After that everybody was shoved into a “voronok” [a closed van for transporting prisoners – translator], when S.P. Tymoshchuk did a name call and then five minutes later, they began pulling us out of the van and people in masks dragged the prisoners into the shower sections of the work zone.

In the shower rooms they took off the handcuffs and ripped off our clothes to search us, then they spread us naked on rope and began beating us with batons and kicking us around the kidneys and liver. Those who screamed from the pain had their mouths covered with sticky tape. Later, not even letting us get dressed properly, they put the handcuffs on again and again dragged us past the special force unit row to the van.

Half an hour later we were again thrown out of the van and they did the name call again and also warned us that if we talk on the way they’ll shoot us and put their dogs on us, and that the President had given them the right to do this.

All of this barbarism continued until 17.00 after which they took us to the Khmelnytsky SIZO.

More than 20 of those beaten were taken to the Rivne SIZO. Prisoner V. talks about events there.

The van arrived at the Rivne SIZO. The van doors opened, and there was a command – 4 men come out. You could hear how they were taken out, one at a time, you could hear them being hit. It came to my turn: I jump out of the van onto the ground, get a couple of prophylactic beats, 2 people in civilian clothes grab me and pull me into the building. Already at the entrance I understood – “masks” and not such bad guys. There was a barrage of kicks to the face, the stomach, the groin. Then they drag me further. They fling me on the floor of some office where there are six – eight men. There’s a series of kicks and they let me stand up. They take off my handcuffs, and I see my wrists and panic – they’re all swollen and bruised. The left was like a boxing glove, so swollen, probably broken. Back in No. 31 when they were doing their “personal check”, I used my hands to protect my face against their boots. Then I didn’t realize that they’d broken it. And so, there’s a medical assistant, pushing a piece of paper at me, for my signature that I’m physically healthy and have no complaints against the convoy, the administration of No. 31  or the Rivne SIZO . You sign it, otherwise they’ll kill you. They check your name again, and against the papers on the table and then it starts. A barrage of blows, with everybody in the room hitting you. When they get tired of hitting and kicking, they put you stomach down on the ground, stretch you out in starfish position with one person on each end and two people at the sides, take up batons (with the hands forward), and begin pummelling you on the back, bottom, legs. You lose consciousness;  they give you some water and begin again. And they ask you questions at the same time. Seemingly this procedure is called “gathering investigation information”. Where the skin’s exposed on the legs and buttocks, they also use water. At that moment you want only one thing – to die as quickly as possible. They asked the questions you know the answers to. And they knew that you know. And they got them out of you very conscientiously. They beat and beat and then stop. Well, have you remembered? – No! In that office I understood that no Zhytomyr “Titan” can compare with these officers of the Rivne SIZO.  

After this torture, all the prisoners were forced to sign a pre-prepared paper saying that they had no grievances against the administration of No. 31 or the SIZO. Then also under threat of torture (and if any refused, then with the use of torture), they forced them to write a statement backdated to 21 January asking to be moved to another colony to serve out their sentence The prisoners say that they were urinating blood for some time, and for more than a month, they couldn’t move their wrists properly because of the handcuffs used on them.

Reaction to the events

As already mentioned, KHPG approached both the Prosecutor General and the Human Rights Ombudsperson over these events. The prisoners’ parents and some prisoners themselves also made statements to various public authorities. The following is a summary of the responses.

The State Department for the Execution of Sentences has still not admitted that the prisoners were beaten on 22 January and that their belongings disappeared. All their responses claim that the actions of the Department’s staff were lawful. The Secretariat of the parliamentary Human Rights Ombudsperson sent the complaints received from parents and the prisoners themselves to the prosecutor’s office and to the selfsame Department (!), although personnel from the Secretariat had themselves been in Colony No. 31. In response to my information request asking to see the results of their investigation, the Secretariat replied that the Human Rights Ombudsperson is not obliged to give explanations on the substance of cases which are concluded or presently under investigation. All prosecutor’s offices at different levels have refused to launch a criminal investigation for want of any elements of a crime in the actions of officials. . With regard to the loss of belongings, the prosecutor’s office in the Khmelnytsky region claimed that the belongings had been moved together with the prisoners, that the money in their personal accounts had been handed over and used for the needs of Izyaslav Penal Colony No. 31 on the written authorization of the prisoners themselves.

The Prosecutor General’s response warrants particular consideration. In contrast to the Department, the Prosecutor General’s Office has acknowledged that on 22 January methods of physical influence were applied to prisoners.  One of its investigators met with prisoners on 2 February, already after they had signed documents saying they had no complaints. According to the Prosecutor General’s letter on the same day there was a forensic medical examination of 8 prisoners, with 6 of them being found to have light bodily injuries. However all of these prisoners wrote that they physically resisted the search. And since  but says this was as the result of resistance from the prisoners to a search. The letter further maintains that since not one of the prisoners made a complaint at a personal meeting with their investigator against unlawful behaviour, there were no grounds for launching a criminal investigation.

At the same time, acts recording Prosecutor response to infringements of penal legislation were drawn up over the material and medical and sanitary provisions for prisoners at Izyaslav Colony No. 31. I was told verbally that an application has been submitted to have acting Head of the Colony Andriy Bozhko dismissed. However he is still working in his position.

The Prosecutor General’s letter states that “the need to bring in [special units] was dictated by difficulties in the operational circumstances, the incitement by some individuals with negative leanings of other prisoners to refuse to eat, to show resistance, insolent behaviour and resistance to members of the colony administration”. The motives listed acknowledge the purpose of the actions of these special units having been to intimidate the prisoners.

The events of 22 January were subjected to scrutiny by the UN Committee against Torture which reviewed Ukraine’s Fifth Periodic Report at its 38th session on 8 and 9 May. When asked by one of the Committee’s experts what had happened at Izyaslav, the Government Delegation responded that a special purpose unit had been brought in to quell a riot. This reason has not been given in Ukraine itself. In their “Conclusions and Recommendations” on 18 May, the Committee directly stated that it “is concerned with the reported use of the anti-terrorist unit inside prisons acting with masks (e.g. in the Izyaslav Correctional Colony, in January 2007), resulting in the intimidation and ill-treatment of inmates” and directly stated that the “State party should also ensure that the anti-terrorist unit is not used inside prisons and hence to prevent mistreat and intimidation of inmates.”

Yet on 7 June, according to our information, a special purpose unit of the Department was again deployed, this time at Buchansk Penal Colony No. 85 (Kyiv region) and for over an hour brutally tortured several inmates of the heightened security unit.

It is however impossible to verify this information due to the total secrecy of the Department. The Department’s Head Vasyl Koshchynets recently issued an Order restricting access by civic organizations to the weekends.

The Head of the Department Vasyl Koshchynets often repeats that the Department is a law enforcement body which is in the frontline of the fight against crime. Yet throughout the world the penal system is a civilian service. In Ukraine this system requires radical reform. Conditions must really be created which ensure respect for prisoners’ dignity, minimize the adverse effects of imprisonment, eliminate the enormous divide between life in penal institutions and at liberty, and support and consolidate those ties with relatives and with the outside world which best serve the interests of the prisoners and their families.

I believe that a shocking crime was committed. It remains however unpunished since there is effectively no system of investigating allegations of torture. After all the prosecutor’s office on the one hand only agrees to launch a criminal investigation where there are statements from victims of torture, while on the other, fails to take any effort to ensure those people’s safety. They are thus under the total control of their torturers which simply leaves no chance for complaints. Other mechanisms are therefore needed to prevent torture and to investigate these crimes.


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