Zara Murtazaliyeva was a 20-year old student of the Linguistic Faculty in Pyatigorsk, when she was arrested in 2004. The Second Russian military invasion of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria was going on with brutal methods of the Russian army being undertaken, and the Kremlin was hunting all Caucasian nationalities, especially the Chechens, as suspects of terrorism. In March 2004, she was arrested after a bombing in the Moscow metro where 39 people were killed. Zara was accused of trying to blow up a shopping mall. The Russian police claimed that they found the plans and 196 grams of explosives in her bag. The young woman rejected all the claims and insisted that all these objects were planted by the Russian police while she was in the bathroom. She was charged with the preparation of an explosion in the shopping center known as “Okhotny Ryad” in Manezhnaya Square in the city of Moscow. All well known rights defenders considered the decision unjust, but nothing has changed. She has spent 9 years in the prison and she was released on September 3, 2012. When Zara was released, she said that she would ask only one question to the Moscow City Court Judge Marina Komarova: “How do you sleep after the decision you made about me?!”
New Times: How was your last day in prison?
Zara Murtazaliyeva: On September 3, 2012, I was released with another inmate. Before they let us go, we were searched three times when usually, there is only one search. They completely stripped us in a special room equipped with security cameras. Then we were taken to a gynecologist and examined on a chair.
New Times: What is forbidden to be taken out of the prison?
Zara Murtazaliyeva: Any complaint signed by the prisoners, telephone numbers, and addresses. The prison administration is afraid of any information which you may take out of this zone. In the female prisons, you can’t use mobile phones as they are afraid of the women more than the men. It’s also dangerous to speak openly to your visitors, because there are wiretaps in the visiting rooms. Actually, they listen to you always. And naturally, when a female is released, all other prisoners give her the addresses and telephone numbers of their loved ones to deliver messages.
New Times: Did they allow you to take the letters or notes?
Zara Murtazaliyeva: Deputy Chief of the Colony, Tatiana Bezzubova, pulled out half of my copybook and these pages included telephone numbers and addresses. It happened despite the day before them checking all of my written things. They censored many things and sealed them in an envelope. From early in the morning, the other girls from my squad came to say good bye, but the guards chased them saying “What are you doing? Go away!” So many of them were crying. There were two other Chechen women too. They staged a general mourning: “Here you are going to see Chechnya, you will see the mountains, and we don’t know when we will see them…”
New Times: Let’s go back to April 2005. You were brought to the colony. You were charged with Article 205 of the Russian Criminal Code – Terrorism, Possession of Explosives. Besides this, you are a Chechen and at the moment the Russian-Chechen War was going at full speed. How were you treated?
Zara Murtazaliyeva: I was immediately put into “profuchet” (preventive monitoring) as one who tends to escape. This is a special control. For one and half years, every day I went to report to the duty staff. They were using hateful words such as “People like you should be killed in the womb. All of you should be destroyed!” I didn’t even hear such words from other prisoners. But anyway, I didn’t try to create close relations with others; I was talking only with three or four girls.
New Times: You were locked several times in isolation. Why?
Zara Murtazaliyeva: Especially during your first term in prison, you think that you have rights and you are trying to prove something to the administration. During the first half of my sentence, I struggled because I believed that I might change something. Then I was just tired and I realized that it was useless, the system is impenetrable. Moreover, if you complain to the administration of the colony, somebody comes to talk to you. After a conversation with the convicted person, the inspector goes to drink tea in the office of the prison administration and they leave. They are like relatives, they are all linked to each other, and they are always someone’s kinsman. But after that you find yourself in isolation with 100% harder conditions. They keep you there for 10-15 days. At first, I complained about the living conditions, low wages and beatings.
New Times: Did they really beat you?
Zara Murtazaliyeva: They beat me; the other prisoners were also beaten. Very brutally. If you don’t do your daily work, they beat you; if you commit any offense, they beat you. They ask you and beat you with the batons. It’s not only painful, but humiliating also. However, you can’t prove anything about the beatings, because in the infirmary, doctors don’t record your wounds. The doctors will never go against the prison’s administration which they work together with.
New Times: How long did it go on for?
Zara Murtazaliyeva: In the summer of 2005, a delegation from the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture visited us. Yuri Kalinin, director of the Federal Penitentiary Service was also with them. Generally, before such visits, the elders come and warn us: “If any prisoners complain, you will have problems”. The most active prisoners who might speak up are hidden from the delegation and threatened; but the ones who are left in the area figured out that it is a foreign committee and they started to talk about the beatings, the mice in the food storage areas and small salaries. The foreigners recorded all of these things. The administration realized that they could not hide anything anymore and they let us go to the hall where the delegation listened to the prisoners. Then we talked about the “profuchet”. We explained that as “terrorists”, we don’t have any hope for early liberation nor for encouragement. Whenever the delegation left, three or four prisoners were closed in the isolation cell as a punishment. But after that some other foreign delegations and also the inspectors from Moscow and their local representatives from the Federal Service for the Execution of Sentences started to visit us regularly. Since then, they’ve started to beat us less. But I know that the female prisoners are still being beaten in Mordovia in the penal colony IK-2. When I was at the hospital, I saw two beaten women who were brought from this colony. They came with damaged kidneys, heads, and hands. They said that one prisoner was killed and recently two women hanged themselves. And there is no one to complain about it to. They are not in their first days at the prison, they know the stories. They are alone there, and they cannot appeal anywhere because of their fear: once the inspector leaves, their situation will be worse.
New Times: Are there many prisoners who resist the lawlessness?
Zara Murtazaliyeva: Three months ago, Aleksandr Reimer, director of the Federal Penitentiary Service, came to inspect the situation in Mordovia. He got a phone call and went back to Moscow. One of his deputies continued the inspection. The women complained to him about the living conditions; the dampness, lack of hot water, which is given only two times in a day for an hour; once in the morning and once in the evening. They also said that they have to work long hours after working the gardens. Around 40 people signed the complaint. When the commission left, all of them were locked in the isolation cell. But there are still some prisoners who are not afraid to complain. For example, Yuliana Balashova writes complaints day and night. She still believes that she will have justice.
New Times: How is the situation of Chechen prisoners particularly?
Zara Murtazaliyeva: It seems that the prison administration is formed with people who are against the Caucasian nationality, especially Chechens. For example, all sentenced women may see a premature release but for the Chechens, it isn’t possible. Last week they released a Chechen woman on parole. The whole colony was in shock: this is the first such case in eight and a half years! She was in prison for selling drugs. In general, you are constantly reminded of your nationality.
New Times: How were you spending your one day in the prison?
Zara Murtazaliyeva: You are under observation 24/7. It doesn’t matter if you are resting, sitting or lying down. About one year ago, they even installed video cameras to the sections where we sleep. It is humiliating for many of women from different nationalities. At 6.45am, you have to wake up to music and after breakfast you go to work. You even have to work during the holidays. When you work two weeks, you get one day off. We sew uniforms for construction workers, camouflages for soldiers, and cotton jackets. I was earning a big salary; around 700-800 Rubles (17-20 Euros) per month, but the others earn generally 200-300 Rubles (5-7 Euros) per month. I sew well, so it was easy for me to fulfill the quotas. After work, dinner and a wash await you.
New Times: So how could you find time to write your letters?
Zara Murtazaliyeva: All this was done during the breaks. But all the free time that you’re supposed to have in a daily routine gets filled. Because the hours that you consider to be your “personal time”, a thematic conversation filled it, for example, they talk about the dangers of alcoholism. All prisoners have to gather in a common room and have to listen to these things.
New Times: How has the situation changed in the prison over the years?
Zara Murtazaliyeva: If we compare, for example, what we had to eat 8 years ago to today, there are differences for sure. Today it is more bearable. But in the kitchen or canteen, it is dirty. When there is a commission, they cover all the tables with oilcloths, but other times, there is a real poverty, they don’t even provide the basic cleaning products.
New Times: What would you recommend to a woman who goes to the prison?
Zara Murtazaliyeva: When I was sentenced, I realized that I would never show my weakness to anyone. I would cry all night, burying my head in the pillow. Even when you are sick, you must say to yourself that liberty and your loved ones await you outside; the prisoner must find the meaning of life. She must fight for it.
New Times: What should be changed in the prison in your opinion?
Zara Murtazaliyeva: Nutrition, lifestyle, attitude of the administration toward the convicts. I believe that if the colonies are created for the prisoners, it does not matter what their nationality or religion is. They must execute the sentence. They must be kind and treat them equally. They should not infringe on some of the prisoners’ rights and put pressure on the others.
New Times: Do you think that is it possible to forget all these things that happened during the years you spent in the prisons?
Zara Murtazaliyeva: I wish that I could wake up one morning and see that all of these things were part of a nightmare. But unfortunately, they weren’t. I think that I will never forget it. If I see the judge or the prosecutor, I would want these women to answer only one question: how could you sleep after the sentence? How did they live without guilt, knowing that eight and a half years ago they screwed up the life of a 20-year-old girl?
New Times: What are you going to do now?
Zara Murtazaliyeva: I am going back home. My mother still lives in Chechnya and she will host a party which around 200 people will attend. And then I’ll think about where to live and what to do. Maybe I’ll study law or journalism. But I haven’t decided yet.
Translated by Waynakh Online