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The penal colony where Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny may be sent to serve his two-year sentence is "one of the worst" in Russia, former inmates and prisoners rights groups have said.
Former inmates of colony No 2 in the town of Pokrov, three hours outside Moscow, told the Telegraph that if Mr Navalny stays at the prison he will be subjected to a combination of intense isolation and gruelling psychological and physical pressure designed to mentally destroy him.
“It’s one of the worst colonies in Russia. Former inmates are afraid to speak out about the conditions because they risk repercussions after they leave the prison,” said Ruslan Vakhapov, a human rights activist who specialises in defending prisoners for local NGO Jailed Russia.
“Navalny will probably be isolated from the outside world and other prisoners will be prevented from talking to him,” Mr Vakhapov said.
Prisoners face abuse by prison guards if they violate a strict schedule, he said, while the colony administration encourages prisoners to control and monitor other inmates.
“There are no rights for prisoners in Russia,” Mr Vakhapov said.
“Navalny faces immense pressure that can psychologically weaken him, but I think the administration will be afraid of using physical force on him. It could damage their reputation completely,'' he added.
Mr Navalny was reported to have arrived at penal colony No. 2 on Sunday.
But later, his lawyers said they had met with him in the nearby detention facility no. 3 "Kolchugino", tweeting that he was "in a great mood and says hello to everyone".
Transfers of inmates within Russia's penitentiary system can take days or weeks and relatives often only discover the whereabouts of a prisoner after he or she has arrived at a prison. He could well be moved again in the coming days.
Konstantiv Kotov, who was a high-profile figure in the so-called Moscow Case, a controversial set of trials of activists who participated in protests called by Navalny in 2019, described a harsh disciplinary regime at colony No 2 designed to maximise psychological pressure.
“Every day - from 06:00 until 22:00 in the evening - I spent on foot with my hands tied behind my back. Either I walked or stood, it was forbidden to sit or rest during the day,” he told The Telegraph.
"It all follows a strict regime. Convicts cannot speak freely, they are under supervision and control all day. Contact with the outside world is very limited: calls are not allowed, only written letters but unclear if they ever get delivered. It can take months. It is very unpleasant and humiliating."
Mr Kotov recalls that another convict was constantly watching him - even while he was in the toilet. "It was forbidden to talk to each other. At the same time, the administration of the colony forbade all convicts to talk to me. The psychological pressure causes serious damage," he said.
"Other prisoners got paid to try to provoke me. It was a way to discipline me, orchestrated by the administration. They expected me to react to the provocations. If you do react, they can isolate you - you are only able to sit with your hands held behind your back.”
“I want to voice it now because Alexei will be harassed even more than I was, we have to tell the entire world,” he added.
His account was echoed by Dmitry Demushkin, a nationalist activist who spent two years in the colony for inciting hatred
Speaking to TV Rain, an independent Russian news channel he said the prison "psychologically breaks you" by cutting you off from outside contact.
“My relatives found out where I was only three weeks after my arrival,” Mr Demushkin said. He claimed that he never received any of the letters that were sent to him while he was in prison.
Mr Navalny was jailed on his return to Russia in January after recovering from a poison-induced coma.
A Moscow court last month sentenced him to two and a half years in prison for violating the terms of his probation, putting an end to a five-week-long saga of his return to Russia, arrest and massive nationwide protests.
He will be quarantined as a precaution against the spread of coronavirus before joining other prisoners in the colony, a public monitoring commission said, according to the state-run RIA news agency.
Mr Navalny, Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critic, suffered a near-fatal poisoning in Siberia last August with what has since been identified as Novichok.
He accuses Putin of ordering his attempted murder. Mr Putin has denied that, dismissing the incident as part of a Western disinformation campaign to discredit him.
UN human rights experts said on Monday that Russia bears responsibility under international law for his poisoning last summer.
"It is our conclusion that Russia is responsible for the attempted poisoning of Mr Navalny," Agnes Callamard, UN special rapporteur on summary executions, told a news briefing.