Rights activists damn Russian jails

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They also called on Russian leaders to dismiss the country's top prison official, Yuri Kalinin, claiming he has allowed systematic violations of convicts' rights.

Lev Ponomaryov, the head of the All-Russian Public Movement for Human Rights, likened Russia's prison system to the Soviet Gulag. "Without doubt, the policy of [prison officials] is aimed at making punishment more severe, crushing each convict ... and morally and often physically destroying them," he told a news conference.

In an annual report based on monitoring prisons in 40 out of Russia's 89 regions, his organisation said prison officials routinely beat and tortured inmates. The report said the convicts also were subjected to cruel punishment for no reason and systematically humiliated.

Such treatment by prison authorities prompted several revolts by inmates in the past year, the activists said. In the most dramatic protest, hundreds of convicts in the western city of Lgov in January slashed themselves after several inmates allegedly were beaten by jail officials in the presence of prison chiefs.

Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group rights organisation, accused Russian authorities of denying rights activists access to jails and prisons. "Until there is public control over [detention facilities] these kinds of atrocities will continue," Ms Alexeyeva said, urging Russian lawmakers to pass the necessary legislation.

The criticism came amid concern about the treatment of jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev. Khodorkovsky went on a hunger strike to protest after Lebedev, who lawyers say is ill, was moved to an isolation cell last Friday. Prison officials told the Interfax news agency he was moved back to a regular cell yesterday.