Kremlin critics missing when transferred to prison allies say.webp

Kremlin critics missing when transferred to prison, allies say

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) – Relatives and allies of an opposition politician jailed in Russia say they have not heard from him in a month and are worried about his well-being.

Andrei Pivovarov, who was sentenced to four years in prison last year, was transferred from a pre-trial detention center in southern Russia in December. In the weeks that followed, he occasionally wrote letters to his loved ones from detention centers in other Russian cities, stopovers en route to his unknown final destination.

Tatyana Usmanova, Pivovarov’s partner, received the last such letter on January 18. In it, the politician said he was in a detention center in his hometown of St. Petersburg and had been told he would soon be sent to a penal colony in the nearby region of Karelia.

“Quiet after that,” Usmanova told The Associated Press.

Letters and official inquiries sent to prisons in Karelia and around St. Petersburg, as well as to the Russian State Penitentiary Service, have yielded no results, and Pivovarov’s whereabouts are unknown, she said.

“We don’t know if he’s alive; if he is well; if he is tortured or abused in any way,” Usmanova said. “We don’t know anything. And it’s extremely hard.”

Amnesty International said in a statement on Friday that Pivovarov’s situation amounts to an enforced disappearance.

The group’s Russia director, Natalia Svyagina, called Russia’s prison transfer system “disastrous” and urged the authorities to disclose Pivovarov’s whereabouts and release him. She said he was serving “an unfair sentence on politically motivated charges of a ‘crime’ which does not exist under international law”.

The Russian State Prison Service did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the AP.

Russian prison renditions are notorious for being long, sometimes weeks, with no access to prisoners and limited information on their whereabouts. Usmanova said that convicts are transported in special wagons connected to regular trains and pass through detention centers in different, sometimes remote, regions.

Pivovarov was pulled from a flight to Warsaw shortly before takeoff at St. Petersburg Airport in May 2021 and taken to the southern city of Krasnodar.

A few days earlier, the opposition group Open Russia he led had disbanded to protect its members from prosecution after Russian authorities labeled it an “undesirable” organization. The government relied on a 2015 law criminalizing membership of such organizations.

In Krasnodar, Pivovarov was accused of supporting a local candidate on behalf of an “undesirable” organization. Charges against him were based on his social media posts, and he dismissed them as politically motivated and triggered by his plans to run for the Russian parliament in 2021.

He was found guilty and sentenced in July, as Russia’s war in Ukraine and the crackdown on dissenters were in full swing.

In a written interview he conducted behind bars in December before his transfer from Krasnodar, Pivovarov told the AP his arrest came as a surprise — “to put it mildly, it’s an incredible feeling when a plane is flipped on the spinner Runway because of you” – but his sentence didn’t do that.

“By the summer of 2022, the political field was completely purged. Those who didn’t go ended up behind bars just like me,” the 41-year-old wrote.

Despite his imprisonment, Pivovarov managed to run, albeit unsuccessfully, for the Russian Parliament in 2021. He was one of the few opposition politicians allowed to vote and his team campaigned while he was behind bars.

“By and large, opposition activism in Russia is the task of finding a way out of hopeless situations. They forbid you everything and watch what you do,” wrote Pivovarov. “They tried to silence me, but it had the opposite effect.”

His campaign, he said, became a platform for himself and his allies to speak out.

In prison, he learned that President Vladimir Putin had launched “a special military operation” in Ukraine.

Other inmates who had televisions in their cells initially followed the war in Ukraine “as a film, as a football game where you should cheer on ‘our boys,'” the politician said. But that attitude changed last summer when Russia’s Wagner Group, a private military contractor, began recruiting convicts to fight in Ukraine.

“The opportunity to go there was seen as a chance to avoid (serve) a lengthy sentence,” Pivovarov said, adding that the inmates were largely motivated by hopelessness.

About 150 men have enrolled at his facility, he said.

Asked if there was any point in opposition activism in recent years, given that the Kremlin has either imprisoned most activists or expelled them from Russia, Pivovarov said “it certainly was,” but he acknowledged that some things had been different can be made.

“Looking back, you realize that maybe we didn’t set all our priorities right. By focusing on corruption, authoritarianism and rights abuses, we overlooked the emerging militarism,” he said.

“But the fact that civil society, alternative information channels and (opposition) leaders are still there behind bars or in exile – that’s something.”