Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
IWPR Probes Shushi Prison Concerns
For over a century, criminals in Nagorny Karabakh have feared the Shushi fortress, a prison considered one of the toughest in the Caucasus.
Now, following allegations of mistreatment by ex-prisoners and human rights groups, the prison administration has allowed this IWPR reporter behind its walls to see the conditions at first hand.
“The little black cat hasn’t committed a crime, but it’s in prison too,” said one of the prisoners in a rare joke. They were only allowed to speak in the presence of a warder, and normally confined themselves to praising prison conditions.
Administrators of the fortress, which was established in the 1860s and was an infamous detention centre for Armenian dissidents in the Soviet years, refused to say how many men were locked behind its walls, revealing only that its capacity was 250 and that the inmates were treated well.
Facilities were basic. In the cell I was allowed to visit there was a metal bed, covered with a thin bedspread, along with a small cupboard. An aluminium plate and cup sat on the cupboard, with some fried potatoes, vegetables and chicken. Judging by the bits of tin foil, and the fact that inmates are supposed to eat in the cafeteria, this food appeared to have been provided by relatives.
The cell was decorated with icons, and its floor was of concrete. Administrators said the prison was always warm, however, despite its antiquated appearance.
They say the Shushi (which Azeris call Shusha) institution was known, in Soviet times, as “The Red Zone”, because inmates were forced to behave well, without any of the tolerated hierarchies and violence of other prisoners in the Soviet Union.
Samvel Petrosian, governor of the prison, says the reputation was deserved and to this day the prisoners were forced to obey only the regulations.
Human rights groups and former inmates, however, say he was not telling the whole truth, and that Shushi was as violent a place as other prisons.
“In this prison, a criminal is not rehabilitated, he is just made more aggressive and suppressed,” said Hamo, who spent five years in Shushi for assault, and asked not to be identified by his surname.
“There the prisoners have to obey the governor’s collaborators. I am opposed to this, since there is supposed to be law, and normally the demands of the law and the collaborators were different.”
The state ombudsman of Nagorny Karabakh, which governs itself as an independent state but is internationally considered a part of Azerbaijan, confirmed that inmates were not treated as they should be.
“There are definitely violations in the prison,” Ombudsman Yuri Hayrapetian said. He wrote in the summer that regulations had been changed to give prisoners the right to use a telephone, but there is still no way for them to talk to the outside world.
Prisoners are also obliged to work for the jail – this journalist saw one working in the garden, some making furniture, one fetching tea and one cleaning the courtyard – despite a law stating that they cannot be employed without payment.
Other facilities laid on for the prisoners also seemed minimal. A computer class had just two dusty computers, which did not appear to have been used for some time. A library also looked abandoned and had few books.
Petrosian, the prisoner governor, said IWPR could talk to an inmate but only in his presence and in his office. He chose Raphael Tadevosian, a 21-year-old from the Armenian town of Hrazdan, as a suitable interviewee.
“The administration helps us, and I am very grateful for this,” he said, but required prompting from Petrosian to say anything else.
“Tell about the food, and about how you don’t go hungry,” ordered the governor.
“We eat meat as a starter and main course six days a week. For breakfast, we are given porridge, fish, bread. They feed us well,” the young man said quickly, in words echoed by two other prisoners.
“We will not return here,” said one of them, who did not want to give his name. “But we approve of the demands made on us. I shave, I eat well, I am not oppressed.”
According to Karabakh law, prisoners’ food should cost 1,000 dram (about three US dollars) a day, which is sufficient to buy bread, buckwheat, pasta, oil, sugar, vegetables, meat, fish, tea and juice.
The administrators say they receive all of this, but also said some inmates had become so accustomed to prison life that they could not survive on the outside and would commit crimes so as to return when let out.
Lusine Musayelyan is a reporter for Radio Liberty in Stepanakert, and a member of IWPR’s Cross Caucasus Journalism Network.
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