“Do you know that we can beat you so hard that you will be urinating blood? And there won’t be any traces – you won’t be able to prove anything,” Peter Sokovykh recalls a police officer screaming into his face as he found himself in a tiny room with six security officers in a St. Petersburg police station.
Just a few hours before this scene, in Russia’s second-largest city, Sokovykh was detained on January 31 for taking part in a demonstration in support of jailed Russian opposition figure Alexey Navalny.
Sokovykh says the detention was sudden and harsh: he was checking his phone as someone he believed to be a plainclothes officer pushed him onto the road. Sokovykh said he was then grabbed by his hair and coat by men in protective equipment and dragged into a police van.
What followed, said Sokovykh, was “an eternity” of questioning. He says the police were trying to make him “crack,” to falsely confess to being paid by a foreign agent to attend the rally. Russia has repeatedly blamed the United States for fueling the protests.
“We will lock you up for 5 years. We’ll put you in a cell where inmates will rape you again and again. Is this what you want? No? Then tell us!” Sokovykh said the officer demanded.
Alena Kitaeva, a volunteer for Navalny’s key ally Lyubov Sobol, ended up in a room with four police officers in Moscow, one of whom put a plastic bag over her head and threatened to choke her unless she gives up a password for her phone, her colleague and Sobol’s representative Olga Klyuchinikova told CNN. After the interrogation, Alena was sentenced to 12 days in jail.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said when asked about Kitaeva’s case in a daily conference call with journalists, if what she described really happened, then she should have filed a lawsuit. Kitaeva is currently still in jail.
Sokovykh and several other protesters who spoke with CNN alleged mistreatment by security forces, including violence, threats, intimidation and being crammed in vans or cells. CNN has reached out to the Russian Interior Ministry for comment on allegations of violence and overcrowding. The interior ministry, which oversees police forces in the country, did not respond.
In recent weeks, Russian authorities have detained around 11,000 people at demonstrations to support Navalny, according to OVD-Info, an independent site that monitors arrests.
Some were let go after a few hours. But in Moscow and St. Petersburg, detention centers quickly ran out of space, forcing detainees to wait inside buses for hours on end, without basic necessities.
Sokovykh was finally released but worries that charges can be drawn up against him later.
Ivan Klementyev was out on assignment as a news photographer covering demonstrations in Moscow on January 31 when riot police detained, electro-shocked and clubbed him with batons, splitting his temple open, his wife told CNN. He was then put in a police van and had to wait hours to get medical help, his wife said.
Philipp Kuznetsov, an entrepreneur, felt compelled to take part when Navalny’s team called to protest for the first time and was detained on January 23 in Moscow.
Kuznetsov said he then spent over 19 sleepless hours in a crowded police van waiting for an available space in a detention center. It was cold and the van was so packed that at any given moment someone had to be standing up, so they took turns, he told CNN. Throughout, none of his van-mates slept, and food and water was supplied by a human rights group, he said.
Both Kuznetsov and Klementyev appeared in court after two days of detention. Judges sentenced them each to 10 days in jail for taking part in unauthorized rallies.
Both ended up at the Sakharovo facility on the outskirts of Moscow, normally used as a detention centre for foreign nationals.
“You look at those white concrete walls [in Sakharovo] and that’s when you get really scared,” Kuznetsov said. “You think to yourself: ‘That’s it. The regime has shown its teeth.’ You understand that you have been thrust into a place like this after which you will definitely not go to the rally again. This is full-on hell.”
Footage from Sakharovo detention facility show bleak conditions inside: metal framed bed bunks with no mattresses, an open latrine. There was also no social distancing and few masks – despite the fact members of Navalny’s team have been placed under house arrest for allegedly violating sanitation rules during the coronavirus pandemic for calling for protests.
Russian journalists pressed the Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov in a conference call with reporters to comment on what one journalist called “probably the biggest repressions modern Russia has seen,” citing mass detentions and mistreatment of journalists covering the protests.
“I don’t agree with you. There are no repressions in Russia,” Peskov said. “There are only measures taken by the police against the violators of law – against participants of unauthorized rallies,” Peskov added.
Peskov admitted that there are more detainees than can be processed, but that “harsh police steps are justified in accordance with the law.”
Conditions at Sakharovo caused a public outrage after Sergey Smirnov, the editor-in-chief of an independent news outlet Mediazona that covers the justice system and human rights violations in Russia, shared pictures showing how he was crammed into a cell with 27 other people after being sentenced to jail in Sakharovo for 25 days.
Smirnov’s crime was retweeting a joke about himself which the court ruled as having “incited participation in an unauthorized rally.” He maintains he is innocent and did not even attend the demonstration.
In a video message to CNN provided by his cellmate Dmitry Shelomentsev, Smirnov described the conditions he and his fellow inmates were in. After photos and videos were posted onto social media illustrating the poor conditions, Smirnov and Shelomentsev were moved into a cell with fewer people.
Outside Sakharovo, friends and family of detainees have been lining up in freezing temperatures hoping to pass water and food to their loved ones.
Telegram chats have been set up by volunteers to connect people with detained relatives and to coordinate the effort to supply them with essentials.
Aleksander Golovach, a lawyer with Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation who spent three days in a tiny cell at a police station before getting to Sakharovo, said the help was essential: “The first day we were there they didn’t give us any food because it was just not there, and what we had the next day assured us we can’t rely on this, it was a mockery – huge bowls containing the thinnest layer of porridge.”
Sokovykh said the intimidation and treatment he faced by the police captures why so many people have been taking to the streets in protest.
“People protest for basic human rights, the right to a fair trial. Navalny has come to personify the absence of such rights and the fact that everything happens in violation of all norms and rules. It is already happening so blatantly that it’s just a spit in our faces. People cannot put up with it.”