Staunton, February 18 – In the past, Russian prison administrators routinely played Russians and Muslims against each other as a means of ensuring official dominance of the situation in places of detention, but in recent months, Lev Ponomaryev says, Russian and Muslim prisoners faced with repression are supporting one another.
Ever more Muslims are being imprisoned not for criminal acts but as “extremists” even though the evidence for this charge is non-existence, the rights activist says; but the way that such believers are treated can radicalize or perhaps even criminalize them over time (ng.ru/ng_religii/2020-02-18/13_481_rights.html).
“The situation with regard to the rights of Muslims in penal institutions elicits serious concern,” Ponomaryev continues. “Muslim convicts re not allowed to pray five times a day [as their faith requires]. Their prayer rugs, Korans [and other religious items] are confiscated and perhaps worst of all “they are forced to eat foods prohibited by Islam.”
It is no surprise that Muslim prisoners are angry about this and have protested, he says. What is surprising is that they are being supported in this by other prisoners. “In Vologda oblast, one colony was ‘red’ [that is, controlled by the police], then after the replace of the boss it became ‘black,’” that is controlled by the criminals.
“In ‘black’ zones,” Ponomaryev says, “the rights of Muslims are violated to a much lesser extent than in ‘red’ ones. In ‘black’ colonies, ethnic and cultural differences are minimized: people are judged according to their personal qualities. Both ‘Slavs’ and Muslims support one another in the event of jail excesses.”
And this works both ways: “At the end of January in Vologda colony number 12, jailers beat an ethnic Russian prisoner. In response, the remaining prisoners, including a large group of Chechens, Daghestanis and other ethnic Muslims declared a hunger strike” in support of their fellow prisoner.
That came after the Slavic prisoners supported the hunger strike of an Azerbaijani prisoner who was protesting the fact that he had been held for several years without any charges being brought against him. “It is indicative,” Ponomaryev says, that the unity of Muslims doesn’t generate hostility but rather respect among Russian prisoners.
Such solidarity across ethnic or religious lines occasionally surfaced in Soviet times. In his GULAG Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn refers to the enormous respect many Russian “zeks” had for Chechens who almost alone stood up to the powers that be; and the great prison revolts of 1953 were led by Ukrainians, Balts and Caucasians.
If the Russian government continues to incarcerate Muslims at an increasing rate, the rise of solidarity between them and ethnic Russian prisoners is likely to increase rather than decrease, if Ponomaryev’s observations are correct. And if that happens, Moscow may face more difficulties controlling those in its penal institutions.