‘Polar Wolf’: The Harsh Prison Where Navalny Was Sent And How His Team Found Him – Analysis


By Siberia.Realities

(RFE/RL) — Known as “Polar Wolf,” the strict-regime prison to which opposition politician Aleksei Navalny has been sent is a place where a water cannon is an instrument of torture.

“In the winter, prisoners would be hastily assembled in the courtyard in light clothing,” said prisoners’ rights activist Olga Romanova, relating the testimony given by a man who was released from Polar Wolf, more formally known as IK-3, in 2018. “They were held in formation and not allowed to clap or rub their hands together. They had to stand for 30 or 40 minutes without moving when it was -45 degrees Celsius or colder. If one person moved, the whole group was doused with water.”

“In the spring, there was a new torture,” she added. “Mosquitoes and biting flies. If you moved a hand, the water came. They would just douse the whole group with a water cannon.”

After spending 19 days incommunicado during transit from a prison in the Vladimir region, Navalny confirmed his arrival at IK-3 — in the settlement of Kharp in the Yamalo-Nenets district above the Arctic Circle in north-central Siberia — on December 26, one day after his lawyer was able to visit him there.

Navalny is serving a 19-year prison term on extremism charges that he and his supporters maintain are part of a campaign of persecution aimed at stymying his political activity. Amnesty International, the banned Russian human rights group Memorial, and others have recognized him as a political prisoner.

Navalny’s long absence, while routine in Russia during prisoner transfers, raised global alarm because the last information about him on December 5 was that he had fallen ill in his cell after being subjected to harsh conditions, including limited food, a lack of ventilation, and minimal exercise time. Several court hearings into Navalny’s complaints about his treatment were postponed until the courts could establish his whereabouts, judges said.

Lawyers and supporters launched a major effort to locate Navalny, requesting information about him from prisons and pretrial detention centers (SIZOs) across Russia.

“We carried out massive legal work,” said Ivan Zhdanov, the director of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, which was declared extremist by the state and banned in Russia. “We wrote inquiries, visited various SIZOs and eliminated them one by one. Only now do I understand what a huge amount of work that was. But in the end, we achieved our result.”

In a December 26 social-media post, Navalny wrote that he arrived at Polar Wolf, which is renowned as one of the most remote and inaccessible prisons in Russia, during the evening of December 23 and was shocked when guards came to him on December 25 to tell him that a lawyer had arrived to see him.

‘You Are In Purgatory’

“As soon as you cross the threshold, they let you know that you are in purgatory where you have no rights and there is no one to complain to,” said Ukrainian filmmaker Oleh Sentsov, who spent five years on a terrorism conviction at the IK-8 prison (“Polar Bear”), also in the Yamalo-Nenets region. “Beatings, humiliation, electric shocks, being kept in a cold cell naked or in wet clothes — but that is still not the worst…. You can be sealed in the fetal position in an iron box where you can hardly breathe and have to urinate on yourself…. They routinely threaten to rape you when they are bullying you.”

Some 2,000 kilometers northeast of Moscow, IK-3 holds about 1,050 of Russia’s most incorrigible prisoners. Human rights activists say the prison holds serial killers, rapists, pedophiles, repeat offenders, and others convicted of the most serious crimes and serving sentences of 20 years or more. In some cases, like Navalny’s, the government sends convicts who are widely considered to be political prisoners there as well. Platon Lebedev, a former business partner of Mikhail Khodorkovsky who was convicted of tax evasion and other charges during the dismantling of the Yukos oil giant, spent about two years at IK-3 in the mid-2000s.

The prison was founded in 1961 at a former camp of dictator Josef Stalin’s Gulag network. The settlement of Kharp, with about 5,000 people, mostly provides housing and services for prison workers and administrators.

“All you need to do is look at a map and you can see that this is the northernmost, harshest prison,” Zhdanov told RFE/RL. “The very location means the conditions there are the most severe. And Navalny will be held for at least a year in a cell with a tiny exercise area from which you cannot even see the sky.”

For most of the year, there are no flights to the area, and access by train is difficult and limited. The Federal Penitentiary Service’s (FSIN) postal service — FSIN-pismo — does not service IK-3. The only communication with the prison is by the normal Russian postal service, Zhdanov said.

“You never know if you your letter arrived or not,” he said. “Or whether there was any opportunity for the recipient to respond. Of course, that was the point of sending Aleksei so far away.”

In addition, the prison system’s cell-phone service, Zonatelekom, was shut down at IK-3 around the time Navalny arrived.

“Until today, Zonatelekom worked fine at IK-3,” Romanova said on December 25. “As far as we can tell, they just shut it off today. I hope it is just a technical problem, but it definitely looks like a strange coincidence.”

While Navalny’s team was searching for him, they learned that FSIN Director Arkady Gostev visited the remote prison earlier this year. He also visited the nearby strict-regime prison IK-18 (“Polar Owl”).

“It was a very unusual visit for the head of the agency,” Zhdanov said. “It is not normal for him to visit prisons, especially ones so remote, north of the Arctic Circle. It is very likely that this trip was in preparation for sending Aleksei Navalny there in the near future. And they concealed the information about his transfer from us so thoroughly that it seems obvious they wanted to keep him hidden for as long as possible.”

In a post on X, formerly Twitter, human rights activist Sergei Davidis wrote on December 25 that “there should be no prisons in Kharp.”

“There is no point in their existence except to make convicts suffer and to waste budgetary funds,” he wrote.

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Siberia.Realities


RFE/RL journalists report the news in 21 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established.

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