Foreigners convicted of crimes in Russia can find themselves serving time in a former slave labour camp. Briton Karen Henderson could soon join them. Phil Reeves discovers what awaits her
It is past noon, and the winter sun has long since risen above the barbed wire fences and watch towers, to shine down into the yard of the camp. But the men within, huddled in padded blue anoraks, have yet to feel the warmth of its rays. Russia's only penal colony for foreigners is nothing if not bleak.

The inmates are lined up on a patch of tarmac in two squads, as if on parade. After a minute or two, guards give them permission to file into the nearby canteen, where they collect a tin plate of meat soup and porridge, and a lump of black bread: lunch is served, in ITK Corrective Labour Colony No 22.

It is here, in the tiny republic of Mordovia, that foreign men - Britons included - will find themselves, should they fall foul of Russia's criminal courts. Some 60 years ago, the camp was part of Stalin's sprawling gulag system whose prisoners provided slave labour across the Soviet Union, in this case by processing timber for Moscow, a 350-mile rail journey to the west. Today's 150 inmates are not tainted by politics; they are men accused and convicted of murder, rape, violent robbery, drug smuggling.

Conditions have certainly improved since the Great Terror, though the place's appearance suggests one of Solzhenitsyn's camps. The prisoners live in one-storey whitewashed barracks in a compound wrapped by three rings of fencing and a band of sand - enabling the guards to detect footprints, should anyone be foolish enough to try to get out. That may be unnecessary. Asked what happens to escapees, the camp's commander, Alexander Shalin, replies with a grin and a gesture making clear that they risk being shot.

It is to an establishment like this that the British teenager Karen Henderson is likely to be sent if her appeals against a six-year prison sentence fail. The 18-year-old was convicted a month ago after customs officials found more than four kilos of cocaine in her luggage when she arrived in Moscow from Havana - drugs which she says were planted. She is currently in a prison in the Russian capital, while her lawyer appeals against the verdict on technical grounds.

The landscape surrounding Labour Colony No 22 is scarred by the harsh outlines of 15 other penal colonies, occupied by Russians. Advertising billboards, fast food joints and nightclubs have yet to arrive amid the sprawl of drab structures which house the Russian workers who service these institutions. This is a world that still seems to subsist beneath the glow of 40-watt light bulbs, where the chief nocturnal attraction is sitting on one of the giant hot water pipes that snake, like fat metal worms, along the streets.

As the prisoners, out of the courtyard now and embraced by the relative warmth of the canteen, queue up for their food, Daryl Bending, an Australian, watches from the kitchens. He is the only native English speaker among the inmates, who comprise some 30 different nationalities, dominated by Vietnamese, Afghans, Chinese and Mongolians. "I have good days, and bad days," he says, standing next to a huge iron pot of greasy-looking soup. "Yesterday was a bad day. I couldn't speak to anyone. After work, I just went to bed."

Mr Bending, a 31-year-old former travel agent, was arrested in Moscow last August while he was in transit from Nepal to Switzerland. The Russian authorities said he was carrying three kilos of hashish, flung him into an overcrowded prison and charged him with drug smuggling.

His six-year prison sentence came as a profound shock. The case was conducted in Russian, a language with which he is still struggling. "I simply didn't know what was going on," he says. Never having been in trouble before, it took him weeks to pluck up the courage to tell his parents in Melbourne.

With no further chance of appeal, Mr Bending, who says he will protest his innocence "to his dying day", is hoping the Russian authorities will grant him clemency. He therefore chooses his remarks carefully when he discusses the conditions in which he lives, though he talks of the "huge difference" between this "purgatory" and normal life.

It is clear from his words, and those of other prisoners, that it is not physical hardship but mental stress that makes such a place hard to bear. The camp is not a horror story. The peeling dormitories are crowded with narrow beds, yet they are far from being hell-holes. A sentence here is more like being condemned to being a private in the Russian army, stuck in a camp without any duties.

Winters are long and very cold - with temperatures outside occasionally plummeting to minus 38C. But the prisoners I spoke to did not complain of cruel treatment, not even in the section called "The Isolator", where troublesome inmates are held in cells almost round the clock for up to six months. The food is adequate, though not good enough to deter Korean prisoners from eating every last morsel of a horse that died in the camp.

Though it is called a corrective labour camp, little real labouring takes place. Much of the work that used to keep many inmates busy - carving chessmen, sewing clothes, building wardrobes - has dried up because of a lack of funds. There is little to occupy them, beyond playing football in the yard or - in the five months of winter - watching TV, reading, and hoping for a visitor from their embassies.

For some, this can mean an unexpectedly long wait. At present, seven former inmates - from Nigeria, Afghanistan, Mongolia - are living in a nearby settlement because, much to the irritation of the Russians, their governments made no arrangements to take them home after they had finished serving their terms. One prisoner, a man from Barbados, spent 18 months living amongst his former gaolers before he made it home.

What else, you might argue, would you expect? What else do criminals deserve? After all, many of them would be much worse off in the prisons of their own countries. This was clearly the view of Mr Shalin and our two other uniformed hosts from the Interior Ministry (MVD), who greeted our small party of foreign journalists with an extraordinary mixture of Soviet-style PR, rural hospitality and genuine pride in what they see as a stern but fair, and fundamentally humane, regime.

But such a defence is valid only where you have a sound system of criminal law. Russia does not. Daryl Bending is probably the only person who knows beyond doubt whether he should be behind bars, as the courts which tried him cannot be said to be a reliable measure of his guilt. Like almost all accused criminals in Russia, he had his fate determined by a judge and two lay assessors, just as in Soviet times when the courts answered to the Communist Party.

Under their constitution, Russians technically have the right to trial by jury, although few are able to exercise it. Jury trials have been introduced experimentally in only nine of the federation's 89 regions and republics. The great bulk of the accused go before courts with a heavy presumption of guilt: violent or not, they are usually made to sit in a steel cage; more than 95 per cent of them are subsequently convicted.

The same crude system sealed the fate of Karen Henderson. Whether or not she is guilty, there is no disputing that her case was riddled with flaws. Her interpreter could not keep up with proceedings, and mistranslated evidence. Several times during her hearing, one of the assessors appeared to be asleep.

Before the trial was over the same official told reporters that the teenager was guilty - a remark that would have provided immediate grounds for a retrial under any remotely fair system. Even now - a month after her conviction - she is in limbo, awaiting an English transcript of her case. Only after receiving it can she decide whether to mount an appeal of her own (a separate process from her lawyer's current technical appeal).

Put such points to the men of the Interior Ministry as they show off their labour camp, and their cheerful faces cloud over. They seem privately to accept that the criminal system is faulty, although they do not say as much. Mr Shalin says that he believes in jury trials. He also, somewhat wearily, points out that he is not the judge but the turnkey: his job is to keep his wards, guilty or not, firmly behind bars until higher powers decide they can go home