Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Prison Trains and Black Marias in Azerbaijan

Defendants spend a lot of time shuttling between court hearings and detention centres.
By Yadigar Sadiqov
  • Yadigar Sadiqov before his arrest. (Photo courtesy of Y. Sadiqov)
    Yadigar Sadiqov before his arrest. (Photo courtesy of Y. Sadiqov)

On June 27, 2013 a court in Lenkoran issued a formal arrest warrant, two days after the police had detained me. When I left the courtroom, I was bundled into a police Fiat and taken to the pre-trial detention centre at Kurdakhane in Baku. The investigation phase finished on August 29, and eight days beforehand, I was transferred to Lenkoran [to await a court hearing]. That was the day I first got to know the railway carriages used to transport prisoners, known as “Stolypins”.

Petr Stolypin was prime minister of Tsarist Russia at the beginning of the 20th century. He came to power during the first Russian revolution of 1905-07, and carried out mass arrests of revolutionaries and sent them into exile in Sibera. Because of the huge numbers, special carriages were used to transport the convicts. Hence the name "Stolypin carriages".

The modern ones are not the same as those 100 years ago, of course, but the name has stuck from generation to the next. There are also prisoners in Azerbaijan who have never heard of Stolypin. Some call them after Stalin instead.

The kind of carriage we were transported in has nine compartments, not including a section set aside for the security detail. Five of the compartments are larger than the rest and designed to hold more prisoners. They have six bunks, three on each side.

The other four compartments are smaller in area and only have three bunks arranged on one wall. They are mostly assigned to women, juvenile offenders and “problem prisoners” (although not “problem” in the sense of prisoners of conscience), so as to keep them separate from the rest. If there is no one falling into those categories, ordinary prisoners are put in these compartments.

On my prison train journeys to Lenkoran and Shirvan, there were women but none of the other special categories eligible for the smaller compartments. The women were put in the last compartment, the only one with lighting. The rest had to make do with whatever light came in from the corridor. The other small compartments were mostly used to hold elderly or sick convicts, and only after that were the remaining places assigned to others.

After my first two trips to Lenkoran, the head of the guard detail saw that the other prisoners treated me with respect and asked who I was. On subsequent trips I was always placed in a small compartment, which afforded relative comfort, and I stress the word relative. Depending on total numbers, the larger compartment had 12 to 15 people in them and the smaller ones only three to five.

Unlike passenger carriages, prison coaches have no windows. Nor is there a table, naturally enough. Instead of having a solid door, they have a grill, which gives the guard detail a full view of the inside. There are windows on the corridor side, although they too are covered in grills. The guard detail is based at the end of the carriage, where there would be a giant samovar in a normal coach. The soldiers take their meals here and rest between shifts. While on duty, they have to stand in the corridor and watch the prisoners.

The Stolypin carriage is hitched to a normal passenger train and makes one return trip every ten days. They run on two routes – Baku to Astara [stopping at Lenkoran], and Baku to Goradiz [via Shirvan]. A prison coach does the former trip on the first, 11th and 21st of each month, and the latter – which we went on to go to the appeals court in Shirvan on the fifth, 15th and 25th of the month.

In each case, the prisoner will go back to Baku on the next day assigned for a transport, meaning that someone who is brought to attend a regional court will go back to the detention centre in Baku ten days afterwards. They await the next transport in a cell at a local police station. There are rules saying that a detained person cannot be held in a police cell for more than ten days.

Sometimes a prisoner is taken back to Baku the same day, on the same train. It depends on the progress of the investigation or the court hearing. It happened to me once. On November 22 I went to Lenkoran and attended a court hearing at which the next hearing date was set for December 4. That meant I was able to return the same day, returning to Lenkoran on December 1.

For “problem” prisoners, hearings are arranged so as to allow them to return the same day. They include the suicidal, the mentally unbalanced (or those faking it), and those who have committed grave crimes of a sexual nature that would make them outcasts among professional criminals. Local police stations are reluctant to have custody of prisoners like this.

Making a round trip in an uncomfortable Stolypin carriage within 24 hours is not an exercise to be relished. I will describe the hardships in greater detail in a future article.

Prisoners can also be transported in special vehicles which still bear the Soviet-era slang name of “voronok” [equivalent to Black Maria]. All eight trips I made to Lenkoran for court hearings were by rail, but on three of those occasions I returned in a Black Maria. I noted earlier that sometimes there are more prisoners than allowed, and then it gets cramped. Once there were more prisoners to be brought back from Lenkoran than expected – on top of those who had been brought from Baku there were a few more who had recently been detained. Among them were five football hooligans arrested after an August 25 [2013] game between Khazar-Lenkoran and Neftchi. Four days later, four people had been arrested for drug dealing. There were others detained individually on various charges. Instead of four, there were five or six to a cell. So on August 31, they sent 16 of us to Baku in a Black Maria.

On December 24 [2013], when the prosecutor requested a seven-year sentence for me, and then on January 14 [2014], the day after I was sentenced , I was again taken back to Kurdakhane in a Black Maria. This was arranged to avoid the risk of public protests.

The main advantage of a Black Maria over a Stolypin carriage is that the journey only takes five hours, although that is not for those of a nervous disposition. The section of road from Lenkoran to Salyan is in particularly poor shape. Add to that the heat and the number of prisoners, and being transported becomes an unbearable experience.

Each time I travelled to the appeals court in Shirvan – where I went on five occasions – I came back in a Black Maria. This often happens in Shirvan. The trip from Shirvan to Shuvelan [in Baku] is a lot more comfortable than the one from Lenkoran. For a start, the journey only takes two-and-a-half hours at most, and once you leave Shirvan, you are on a motorway, which makes the trip relatively comfortable. Of course, that is only relative to a Black Maria from Lenkoran, or to a Stolypin coach.

Prisoners will recall how when they were at liberty wanted a taxi in Baku, they would shun Zhiguli cars and only get into a Mercedes. Now we dream of a Black Maria – anything but a Stolypin carriage. That just about sums up how relative things are.

Yadigar Sadiqov, a leading figure in the opposition Musavat party, is serving a six-year sentence in Azerbaijan.