Russia's criminal underworld takes action amid torture row
Russia's notorious criminal collective, the "thieves in law," have reportedly declared that they won't expel members who have been raped or tortured by prison guards, after claims of horrific abuse inside correctional facilities.
In a letter distributed on Wednesday, a group calling itself the “Mass of Thieves” announced that those who had suffered such abuse would not be shunned for having undergone the ordeal, as has previously been the case under strict laws governing the shady underworld. Instead, victims can continue to live normally within the society’s structures, it went on. The authors of the note called on other “thieves” to accept the victims back into their company, writing, “mocking and humiliating them is inhuman, because a person can only have sympathy for them.”
The decision was apparently made at a “thieves’ gathering,” and the document, a type of collective criminal letter known as a “progon,” stated that the rule will apply to all prisons and camps inside Russia. Yeva Merkachyova, a prisoners’ rights activist, told local media that the document was authentic, as did a man who had been abused in a prison in Saratov Oblast.
The “thieves in law” arose in the prisons and camps of the Soviet Union, where they cultivated an elaborate code dictating behavior inside correctional facilities, which also extended to the world outside. To become a thief in law, a Vor, one must have been jailed repeatedly and proven mastery of the culture. The title of Vor grants a formal status inside the criminal underworld of Russia and other post-Soviet countries. Types of homosexual activity and interacting with bodily fluids can be enough for high-ranking inmates to lose their status.
A Vor is also prohibited from assisting his jailers when in prison, and after WWII, the Vor system was shaken by the so-called “Bitch Wars,” when the thieves in law fought with the “suki,” or “bitches,” who had broken the code by cooperating with prison administrators – often by agreeing to join penal battalions in the fight against Nazi Germany. The “thieves” who had refused to cooperate sometimes gave themselves Swastika tattoos as an additional show of defiance.
In October, leaked footage revealed horrific abuse, including torture and rape, taking place inside Russian correctional facilities. The clips, which were shared by the group Gulagu.net, showed groups of staff members in the prison service of Saratov, in southwestern Russia, abusing inmates together.
The revelations led to widespread calls for prison reform, with Vladimir Osechkin, leader of Gulagu.net, saying that this was just one example of widespread mistreatment taking place in facilities across the country. Following the scandal, Alexander Kalashnikov, director of the federal prison service, fired four officers, including the head of the Saratov prison hospital, where some of the worst abuses were documented. Kalashnikov has himself since been dismissed from his post by President Vladimir Putin.