Artemy Semenovsky’s speech at the International Conference of the Foundation to Battle Injustice with a report on «The situation with torture and violation of prisoners’ rights in South American countries»

Artemy Semenovsky, Russian human rights activist, head of the non-profit organization CST Command and the Public Committee for the Release of Russian Citizens from Brazil. Expert on the problem of violations of human rights and freedoms in South America, took part in the International Conference of the Foundation to Battle Injustice and the Patriot media Group “The Problem of Tortures and Its Undermining of the Criminal Justice Systems of the Modern Countries of the World. Searching for Solutions“, making a report on “International legal problems in the systematization of various forms of torture and bringing guilty to justice.”

Артемий Семеновский
Artemy Semenovsky

Good afternoon dear colleagues. I would like to start with a thesis that I constantly repeat and will repeat in the future. If a cold war is inevitable, then let it be a bloodless war for human rights, because there are no losers in this war. I am glad to see that our today’s conference is an example of the fact that Russia has finally begun to understand that non-intervention is not always good either. And if this is not an interference with human rights, then this can be called indifference, which will sooner or later affect the inhabitants of our country. It is very good that we are now all discussing human rights together. What associations do people have when they talk about death squads and dictatorships, about kidnappings, sophisticated methods of torture in tropical prisons. Of course, this is Central and Latin America. We all know that it was in Latin America that almost every country went through an era of dictatorships characterized by excessive police and military violence. And, unfortunately, the traditions of this violence are still alive. I want to remind you that almost all the coups in Latin took place with the participation of the United States and CIA. And this is already such a common place in any discourse when they talk about torture during a dictatorship that it was the US CIA that brought the tradition of such torture, which put pressure on the military and the police, demanding certain results. Accordingly, they did not look back at the use of torture. As you can imagine, the CIA didn’t care if non-US citizens were being tortured, they didn’t really care.
As John Kiriakou says, this is a former CIA agent. He worked for the CIA, then retired because of ideological differences when he learned about the use of torture in the CIA, about enhanced interrogation techniques that we all heard about. When asked why the CIA imposed the use of torture on the police and military during all sorts of political upheavals in Latin America, he said: “Because we have the Monroe Doctrine, which is still the basis of American foreign policy in Latin America, and Latin America we see it as our backyard. And we don’t need Russians here, we don’t need Chinese, we don’t want anyone but us.”
So, the problem of torture in penitentiaries is inextricably linked and directly correlates with the general level of police violence in Latin American countries. On the American continent, the leaders in this area are El Salvador, Colombia, Mexico, Ecuador and, of course, Brazil as the largest country in the region. There are, unfortunately, a number of questions to our friendly countries such as Venezuela and Nicaragua. I would like to talk about Brazil in more detail. Not only because it is the largest country in Latin America and the fifth largest and most populous in the world, which sets the tone not only in the economy, but also in social trends, including negative ones. Because this country ranks third in the world in terms of the absolute number of prisoners. This is about 750 000 prisoners. According to some reports, more than 800 000.
In my opinion, and I have personal experience of being in Brazilian prisons, and as a victim of the mass arrests of Russian citizens that took place in 2016, in my opinion, Brazil is such a classic police state. That is, what we mean by the concept of a police state is exactly Brazil. There are several types of police, each of which has its own area. Military police are involved in poorer areas, favelas, ensuring order on the streets. The federal police deal with major crimes, for example, the same as the FBI in the United States or the FSB in Russia, only on a much larger scale and with a political bias, unfortunately. The main types of physical violence and torture in Brazilian prisons now are not as sophisticated as during the dictatorships. These are mainly rubber bullets and pepper spray, which the police in prisons do not hesitate to use. You can easily find videos on YouTube of prisoners fired at with rubber bullets, thrown gas bombs at them, and so on. This is generally not a problem to find, you can see it all. Who uses torture and violence in prisons? As a rule, this is still not the staff of the prison. Yesterday I studied the reports of non-governmental organizations from Brazil, which reported on the example of the state of São Paulo, where there is a special police team that is responsible precisely for creation of the so-called torture laboratory in prisons.
Lawyers say these police specialize in prison operations, and these officers stay inside prisons for months, sometimes even for years, torturing detainees and teaching prison staff how to use torture tactics. Lawyers acknowledge that other states have similar police forces, but the state of São Paulo is the pioneer in this model and this model has been in place for more than 15 years. During the years of the military dictatorship, torture was the standard method of conducting any interrogation. Many of them were invented with great ingenuity and even have proper names, invented even with a certain amount of perverted humor. Everyone has probably read Orwell’s 1984. What is written there about rats and so on, during the dictatorship in Brazil it was used. I mean when they used rats and roaches for tortures, electric shock torture, water tortures and hanging. Each torture has its own name. As I said, this is practiced a little less and, at least if it is practiced, it is already practiced outside of penitentiaries. And that’s why. Why is torture now not so inventive and not so terrible. There are some positive things in Brazil that affect this. I think that we can take some of them into service.

First, there is a high level of transparency. Again, I’m talking about the example of Brazil, because it can be used to predict the trends in the whole region. Usually, what happens in Brazil then happens in other neighboring countries. High level of transparency, i.e. you can track where a person is, track court cases, for some court cases you can file lawsuits, appeals, and so on online. I even know that a delegation from the Brazilian judiciary came a few years ago and they trained our judges in transparency, because they have quite advanced technology. This is good. Video cameras are installed in many prisons. I don’t if recording is being done there or if it’s just online surveillance. But nevertheless, it is also possible to record what happens in the cameras. A very high level of public control, there are a lot of human rights organizations. In Brazil, this is very good. The bad thing is that not everyone listens to them, and the fact that they work may not always have any results. But nevertheless, there are dozens, probably hundreds of human rights organizations and human rights activists who follow all this and raise a scandal as soon as the facts of torture in prisons are revealed. Another factor, I personally know about it, is frequent visits. With this in Brazil, more or less good. That is, in general, visits by relatives and wives occur every Saturday and Sunday. And in the last week of the month, they can generally come every day. This contributes to the fact that if relatives see bruises or injuries on prisoners, they file complaints. Therefore, the police and prison staff prefer, so to speak, to use it very carefully, if physical violence is used, then they try to do it at least without leaving traces.
I would like to note indirect signs of what is not direct violence, but what we can also attribute to torture. Well, everyone understands that all over the world these criteria are approximately the same. These are overcrowded prisons. In Brazil, it is at least 60%. Some prisons are almost 200% full, as in the state of Amazonas. To be in such conditions, I will tell you, is a challenge. That is, I know from experience. I was in a cell of 9 square meters, where there were about 5-6 prisoners. Their number varied. In general, when mattresses were laid there, they went to bed, it was already impossible to walk there. And if we are talking about places that can be qualified as a pre-trial detention, where the first acquaintance with the prison system takes place, this is a room of about 100-120 square meters, in which there are more than 200 prisoners.

That is, lie down, it was impossible there. You can sit down, you can stand, because there is simply no space. Thus, we stayed there for two days, and in order to somehow sleep, they moved the prisoners into neighboring cells, because it was absolutely impossible to sleep there. That is, there were some kind of backup three cells and for the night, in order to sleep somewhere, one people from large cell were moved to other cells. It was the only way to sleep, and then another day and again standing and sitting. Well, they gave us some water and burgers.
A little about what, in my opinion, can be maned a torture. This is that you are in prison and you know for sure that you are not guilty of anything and not only that you are not guilty of anything, but that there are actually no signs of a crime you have committed. For example, when there were arrests of Russians in 2016, I fwas also arested. We knew for sure that we had certain interrogations, then we had police materials. We knew for sure that the only sign of a crime is that somewhere in the FBI they said that all immigrants from Eastern Europe are involved in some kind of crime in Latin America.
We thought it was nonsense. We thought that we would serve a month in prison until the trial, and then everyone would laugh, let us go and make police officers accountable. But unfortunately, for us it was a shock when it turned out that the prosecutor’s office had made an official accusation. It was proposed to imprison us for 14 years on the basis that we are Russians. There were no violations in our clothes, in our behavior, in our documents. No one violated any customs rules, the customs in general was a witness to the protection.

Returning to torture, the most unpleasant thing is not lack os space in cells, not that the food there is not very good, but the fact that you are sitting and thinking that now you will be imprisoned for 14 years for no reason at all. Let’s return to the issues of torture and to the fact that people are often imprisoned without guilt. It seems to me that the percentage of people who are in temporary detention, that is, who are in the status of innocent, who have not yet had any charges, they are arrested and thrown into prison. This is 40%. Can you imagine. Now it has dropped a little to 35%.

These are people who are in the status of temporary prisoners. That is, they are awaiting trial. How many of them were cleared? Also 40%. And of those who are in detention and wait for trial will also be cleared. That is, it turns out that these people are in prison for nothing. And sometimes waiting for a trial is a year or two. Let’s just say that we spent a month, and managed to get out through a large bail. Then there was the expectation of a court hearing. We waited seven months for the first court hearing. The police did not come. Accordingly, we waited another month, as a result, we spent 8-9 months there. Thanks to our Ministry of Foreign Affairs, our folder had the inscription “urgent”. 8 months is an urgent to wait for the first hearing, to see the judge. Despite the fact that the case takes 15 minutes, that is, when the judges were changed, they said: “What are we talking about. We see no violations on your part. Why you were in prison?

Back to torture. As I said, frequent visits to Brazilian prisons allow indirect control of physical abuse. And then, as we know, we had an epidemic of coronavirus. And during the coronavirus epidemic, visits were restricted. And it was precisely during the coronavirus epidemic that there was an increase in the number of complaints of violence in the prison system. Firstly, over the past year, according to the latest data, about 500 prisoners died from the coronavirus. The most interesting thing is that the numbers of victims and deaths on the part of the prison staff are approximately close to this, and sometimes even exceed it. 57 000 were infected. The restriction of visits has led to a decrease in control and an increase in physical violence. Food problems started. The fact is that when visitors bring food for prisoners in the conditions of the coronavirus, the food undergo quarantine. There, in my opinion, 5 days. During these 5 days, as follows from the complaints, this food was thrown into the basements, where it was eaten by rats, worms appeared in it, and so on. Accordingly, it was no longer fresh and often not suitable for eating. The most frequent complaints were related to negligence in the provision of medical care, lack of or substandard care in the provision of food, clothing, personal hygiene products and cleaning products, and about 89 cases were recorded for physical abuse.

Some types of physical abuse that can be equated with torture often take place outside prisons, making it difficult to control. First, transportation. Transportation of prisoners in Brazil is practically uncontrolled. I myself know what it is. It is a metal van where people are chained by hand to a pipe. It shakes on the road. We are not talking about any comfort conditions. First, it very hot there. Some people lose consciousness. According to the latest data, in 2020 3-5 people died there during transportation. Somewhere the van was delayed, it was not loaded quickly, it remained in the sun, you yourself understand that the heat is decent there. And it’s just a metal bag, and there are no fans inside this thing. Those who lose consciousness fall because they are handcuffed, their skin is bloody, it can peel off to the bone, Plus, people are packed there and there is nothing to breathe. That is, I know that such a move, even together, is not even very pleasant. I once drove with ten, although they were quickly transported inside the city, which, in general, is a very unpleasant feeling. And I believe that people can not only lose consciousness, but also die.

You can also find many photos, articles in the Brazilian press about how often people are kept in the police station due to overcrowded prisons. I also spent about two days there, I know what it is. It’s a nightmare. If in prison they at least give clean linen and mattresses, then in the police station it is a dirty black mattress, which they probably never change there, but we are not talking about linen. Plus such a thing, which is specific, which I equate to torture. There are no glasses in prison cells and, in prisons and police stations. It is clear why. So that the prisoners could not cut their veins, and so on and so forth. Imagine an opened window. This window must be covered so that no one could escape. What happens at night, so to speak, around the lamp, all sorts of insects fly there, a bunch of mosquitoes. I think everyone understands everyone has heard what is dengue fever, what is yellow fever, what is malaria. If the locals still have some kind of immunity to some of these diseases, then if a foreigner gets there, then, firstly, he has to endure all these terrible mosquitoes. Mosquito cream in prisons is not issued immediately, I say, machines are still issued. We were still there, more or less some kind of soap is given out, but mosquito repellent, it doesn’t come to that. Unfortunately, sometimes this is generally quite unpleasant, because how can you not sleep.

Torture, so to speak, by lack of sleep is also torture. And this can lead to death. In the Gulag, for example, I read, there were tortures when a person was simply thrown to death into the taiga, but there in Brazil, of course, or in Latin American countries, it is difficult to imagine that mosquitoes will stick around a person so much that he will die right in prison.

Another small point to note is the high level of killings of human rights activists who deal with these cases. Data for Colombia, 145 human rights defenders were killed in 2021. In Brazil, the figures are about the same. So besides, the work of human rights activists is quite difficult, and what we can safely do here from Russia in Brazil is fraught with risk. Sometimes, in general, coverage of problems with torture can greatly affect a person’s life and health. Let’s move on to questions.


Dina Karpitskaya, “Komsomolskaya Pravda”: Yes, I just wanted to know how you were just detained, you were walking down the street ..

Artemy Semenovsky: No, we were in a hotel. Many articles have already been written about this, all the documents that are available have been published. First, my friends were detained, they were simply kidnapped. My friend and his wife, they traveled from Brazil, they worked in Venezuela. Then they spent about a month or two in Brazil, and then they went to Russia. And they tried to detain them twice. The first time they tried to detain them at the airport, but the airport staff, including the airport’s federal police, said it was not necessary to do this on our territory, we do not want to, we see no reason why you are arresting these people. We do not want to take part in this, because we have no claims against the Russians. They failed to get on airplane that day. And my friend and his wife tried to do it on the second day. On the second day, they were arrested on the way to the airport, so that the airport staff would not take part in this. Then the airport staff testified that they also went out and said what you were doing, and the police showed the warrant. We have warrant to arrest all Russians, ignoring signs of their innocence. If there is a warrant, they all then testified at the trial. It was based on the fact that my friend and his wife, when they returned from Venezuela, had Venezuelan currency in the amount of 500 dollars per person, converted into dollars. And declared. Moreover, both for import and export, and in advance a month before. This served as an accusation that they were probably illegally transporting millions of dollars and in general it would be from the Venezuelan currency. It sounds like a joke, but the federal police have come up with a new interpretation of the term money laundering. They said that maybe the Venezuelan currency, it is very similar to dollars, so they wash it in the washing machine. And American dollars will be printed on this good paper. This is how counterfeit dollars will be made. Such a joke. The FBI provided this information.

They called us from prison because they were kidnapped, they were not allowed to tell the consul anything. Finally, they found a phone somewhere in prison, which obvoiusely was wired by police. They called the hotel via Whats App and asked to help them. We called the consul, found a lawyer. The lawyer turned out to be a police officer, then it turned out that he recorded our voices. And plus our place of residence, and the next day we were going to go to airport, the federal police came into our room two hours before departure and also throw us in jail after interrogations. And what is the problem in general. They say you lived in the room. Yes, we were in our friend’s room. He gave it to us, he says you can live here, because I have a rent for three months in advance, I often come here in the room, too, it was somewhere around a thousand dollars. My friend’s money, there was a declaration, it was attached, and all this appeared in the inventory. Still you are all one gang. There is a very important point here. I believe that the arbitrary arrest of Russians, and such ones are rare, in Norway about two years ago there was a Russian who went to the toilet too often, they considered that a spy was possible, although this cannot be considered evidence of a crime. This means that it was an arbitrary arrest, and he was there for some time, despite the requirements of our Foreign Ministry, he was in prison. So that’s why I’m saying that we decided that it can not be left unpunished.
At the moment, an investigation has been initiated in the Brazilian prosecutor’s office against four federal police agents who initiated all this nonsense with the arrest of all Russians in the city. In total, somewhere around 8 people were under investigation, 4 of them I know including myself. I don’t know the rest, although I saw two of them. And we’re trying to initiate an investigation against the judge. That is, we started it, but the National Council of Justice of Brazil stopped it without explanation. But we have filed an appeal. Moreover, we found out that this judge sounds like a conspiracy theory, but it turned out that he was most likely an FBI agent. He was a former police officer, he wrote books about infiltration into political criminal structures. He studied at Washington College, which, as it turned out, trains FBI agents, current and retired employees of the CIA and the NSA work in this colledhe. Moreover, we found out that in 2013, during Lavrov’s visit to Rio de Janeiro, photographs were taken that hang on Wikipedia, and these photos, instead of metadata, you can find them on Wikipedia. The photograph of our delegation was taken on camera, the metadata says who the owner of the camera is, it says the name of our judge. He wasn’t a judge then. He is considered a judge, but he is not really a judge.

Evgeny Zubarev: You believe his fault is that he approved your arrest?

Artemy SemenovskyYes. Because he approved the arrest. After we were put in jail he went to enter an American college. It must have been the entrance exam. Then he studied at Yale and watched online courses there about confronting Russia, etc.

Dmitry, “Economics Today”: You spoke about complaints, about a developed institution of public control. In some countries, institutions where prisoners are held hinder the work of human rights defenders, which does not allow prisoners to complain or report any facts. Can human rights activists somehow influence this? Impose any sanctions on employees of institutions?

Artemy SemenovskyPrisons are run by private companies, often the owners of these companies are under investigation. In Brazil, there is mass incarceration. Everyone is under investigation. Brazil is a police state, where the power is not in the hands president and parliament, but the hands of police. Why don’t we hear about torture in prisons? Because they are tortured not in prison, but outside it. The person is then killed and the corpse thrown to piranhas. Then they can find a corpse, but people will not know that this person was tortured. And there are many such corpses. It is easier for the police to get rid of a person than to let human rights activists find out about the torture and try to deal with their reaction.