Last updated: 24 november, 2010 - 11:15 GMT

A run-in with the Russian police

Prisoners’ roll call in the yard of a special prison for former policemen in Ryazan, Russia

Prisoners’ roll call in the yard of a special prison for former policemen in Ryazan, Russia

Whilst recording a documentary about anti-police guerrillas in Russia’s Far East, BBC World Service producer Ibrat Jumaboyev recalls a disturbing encounter in which he and presenter Lucy Ash were accused of working illegally.

When we arrived at a special prison for former policemen, our hosts had already decided the content of our report – quick general shots and couple of interviews with prisoners, all subject to approval by a minder.

It is normally the case with such institutions and the prison in Ryazan region, a three-hour drive from Moscow, was no exception.

But presenter Lucy Ash and I wanted to see more – prisoners working, eating, exercising and praying in the prison chapel.

We also wanted to talk to as many inmates as possible to get some good personal stories and some insight into the types of crimes Russian policemen are involved in.

Heated debate

He wanted us to write a testimony saying that we had broken the law and we were to go to court in Ryazan on Monday.

BBC producer Ibrat Jumaboyev

Russia has six special prisons for ‘bent cops’, as they are known.

Many Russians see the police as an organisation that punishes citizens rather than protects them. A lot of people hold a grudge against the police.

Almost every day there are fresh reports of police beating or torturing someone, taking bribes or getting drunk and running someone over, or generally acting like thugs.

The stories of Major Alexei Yevsyukov, who went on a rampage at a Moscow supermarket and killed two people, and of Major Alexei Dymovsky, who posted a video on YouTube asking the president to do something about the corruption in the police, have given rise to a heated debate in Russian society.

The Russian parliament, the Duma, is now planning to discuss the draft of a new police bill, initiated by President Dmitry Medvedev.

Close eye

As we were whisked from one location to another without a prisoner in sight, we tried to stay in places for longer and chat to kitchen staff or guards.

The prison governor wasn’t willing to talk initially.

Perhaps he was wary of our government minder – a young man who kept checking where my camera was pointing, telling me not to take any pictures of the barbed wire and reading every note I was taking.

Right to work

The kitchen at Ryazan prison

The kitchen at Ryazan prison

After spending four hours at the prison, the governor relaxed over a cup of tea and we finally managed to persuade the prison chief to do a short radio interview.

We then interviewed two prisoners who both denied committing any crimes.

Later we recorded the prisoners’ roll call in the yard. By the time hundreds of prisoners had lined up, we were freezing in sub-zero temperatures. And soon we were told it was time to go.

As we were leaving the prison, there were two policemen waiting for us outside.

They took us back into the governor's office and checked our documents.

The man who presented himself as the head of police in Skopin, a little town where the prison is located, told us we had no right to work in Russia.

Written confession

Both Lucy and I showed him our Russian visas which had “The press and information department of the Foreign Ministry” as our host organisation.

It was a proof of our accreditation, but the policeman looked determined to cause some trouble.

In an aggressive tone he said our visas weren’t valid in his territory, as if Ryazan or Skopin were independent states.

He wanted us to write a testimony saying that we had broken the law and we were to go to court in Ryazan on Monday.

The whole situation resembled a scene from a bad comedy.

First-hand experience

An elevated view of the prison yard during roll call

An elevated view of the prison yard during roll call

What followed was a long process, involving the police head quoting chunks of Russian law, while we phoned the BBC's Moscow bureau for legal advice.

We both refused to agree that we had broken the law and instead wrote that, as far as we knew, we were working legally.

We were eventually released with the threat of a fine, but it became an interesting opportunity for us to experience firsthand how the Russian police really worked.

Crossing Continents: The Primorsky Partisans will be broadcast on BBC World Service on 25 November

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