Nearly 200 people died in police custody in Russia last year, according to a new journalism project, as Russian authorities continue to face accusations of abusing political prisoners and their own citizens.
Journalist Maria Berezina founded the project "Russian Ebola" to monitor alarming reports about deaths at police stations, using state data from the Ministry of Internal Affairs. She uncovered evidence of several Russian prisoners dying each month at police stations and detention centers, for a total of 197 in 2015.
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More than 100 of the prisoners were reported to have died after "sudden deterioration in health conditions" or "unknown circumstances," according to government reports. The state said 62 died from suicide. Additionally, there were reports of detainees dying from trauma suffered prior to reaching the police facilities, as well as at the hands of fellow prisoners and police officers.
One citizen, Vladimir Tskaev, was arrested after being accused of attacking a special forces police officer. He died at a hospital the day after his detention. While police claimed that he killed himself, his relatives protested and eventually persuaded authorities to arrest those who beat him to death. However, the details of most deaths in police custody remain murky.
Oleg Kashin, a Russian opposition blogger, wrote that the deaths of prisoners are a "strange epidemic" that deserves as much attention as the ongoing fight in Ukraine between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists.
"This is less interesting than [Ukraine], this won’t cause passionate discussions on social networks, and it’s boring to read mind numbingly similar, recurring stories—‘Dead, dead, dead,’" he said. "But are you sure it’s always going to be someone else dying, and not you? I'm not so sure about myself, and I'm afraid of this epidemic, and I want everyone to be afraid, because it is terrifying, and it must be stopped."
In addition to Russia’s own citizens, authorities have targeted Ukrainians protesting Moscow’s invasion of Crimea in February 2014 and its support for separatists in the country. In May 2014, Russian Federal Security Service agents were reported to have kidnapped four pro-Ukrainian demonstrators, brought them to Russia, and jailed them on charges of terrorism. One of the detainees, the Crimean photographer Gennadiy Afanasyev, was interrogated, beaten, tortured, and forced to provide false confessions against the other prisoners.
"Even in March 2014, investigations into pro-Ukrainian activism were already underway in Crimea," wrote journalist Maria Tomak for the Atlantic Council. "Activists were abducted, questioned, and tortured. Some of them disappeared without a trace. Reshat Ametov, famous for his one-man protests, was found dead."
In all, 20 Ukrainian political prisoners have been detained in Russia and Crimea. Some have already been sentenced to as many as 20 years in jail, and many have alleged that they were tortured with electric shocks, beatings, needles, and threats to their families.
Critics say the Obama administration has neglected Russia’s ongoing rights abuses in Ukraine and failed to provide adequate support to the Ukrainian military as it battles the pro-Russian separatists. The rebels seized a village near the strategic port city of Mariupol last month, from which they can target Ukrainian forces with mortars and light weaponry, according to the Institute for the Study of War.