Six years on death row dims 'Flame' A day in the life of a death row convict

Russian justice: Soviet collapse leaves killer's appeal against execution in judicial limbo
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The Independent Online


Imagine. You are kept alone in a narrow, windowless cell which you never leave, not even for a short walk in the prison yard. Every time you hear a footfall in the corridor, you think the guards are coming to take you for execution. Your relatives visit you occasionally and each time you say a tearful farewell. And this goes on for six years.

Such is the hellish existence of Nikolai "The Flame" Pozhedayev, on death row in the town of Yelets in central Russia. "Don't get the wrong idea," said Yuri Frolov, acting governor of Yelets prison. "This guy is no national hero. He is a real killer."

But even the prison authorities feel that the cruel limbo in which he is being kept is a violation of human rights.

Pozhedayev earned his nickname when he took the leading part in a brutal gang murder of three men travelling in a lorry. The killers robbed their victims before burning them in their vehicle. For this, in December 1989, Pozhedayev was sentenced to death. The other members of the gang each received the maximum jail term in Russia - 15 years.

The Russian justice system is much simpler than that in America, where death row inmates can spend years appealing to higher and higher courts. Here, the prisoner has one chance, a direct appeal to the President, and if that fails he can expect a bullet in the back of the head to follow fairly swiftly.

And so, after he was sentenced, Pozhedayev appealed to the then Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, and received a refusal. Knowing the system, he understood that he had, at most, only a few weeks left to live and he composed his mind as best he could. Then the Soviet Union collapsed. He was told to appeal again to the new Kremlin leader, Boris Yeltsin. He has been waiting for a reply ever since.

What can you ask a man in this situation? "How do you feel?" As I was taken into his cell to meet him, I remembered that Pozhedayev had seen no woman except his mother for six years. Pale-faced and dressed in the distinctive navy and grey striped uniform of a smertnik [death-row prisoner], he stood to attention as I entered. The guards hovered in the doorway.

But there was no threat. He was infinitely more afraid of me than I was of him. Perhaps I had come to announce his death.

Timidly, I requested an interview. He asked for an hour to marshal his thoughts. I just had time to notice the tight mesh over the window, blocking out all natural light, the narrow bed and toilet hole in the corner before I was ushered out.

The guards organised a tour of the prison to pass the time until Pozhedayev was ready. They wanted to tell me that they were strict but humane. They welcomed the Interior Ministry's new battle against corruption.They complained that the state had not paid their wages for the past five months.

We tramped the corridors of the the fortress-like jail, which was built in 1830 and which remains standing only because of the huge iron girders which hold it up. My own ideas of Russian prisons come from Solzhenitsyn - icy cells, guard dogs, watch-towers. But Yelets Prison is unsettling in its attempts at cosiness.

The cells have black-and- white television sets and the prisoners are allowed posters on the walls. The library is perhaps a little overstocked with the works of Lenin, but soft pornography is also available. In the kitchen, young men peeled potatoes into bath tubs under the supervision of a motherly former factory-canteen manager, who said that meat was guaranteed daily. As is physical exercise.

The privileges of the ordinary prisoners are not for Pozhedayev. Thirty- one years old, he has been in and out of custody since he was 11. His father was also a convicted murderer. A local reporter had warned me that Pozhedayev had become like an animal. "He smelt me through the metal door of his cell. He said he recognised my aftershave. He will smell you too."

But in the interview Pozhedayev was all too human. He spoke softly, haltingly, obviously overwhelmed by the space of the conference room where he had been placed for our 10-minute talk. The time was short but he revealed something of his agony.

"I thought it would be quick but it has dragged on," he said. "Each time I hear a sound in the corridor, I think the moment has come. When you came, it was strange. I thought, 'maybe this is it'. My mother visits me once a month and every time we say goodbye."

Pozhedayev said he passed his time like a caged beast, "pacing to and fro". His cell light is always switched on but he has control over the radio switch and sometimes listens to pop music. He once gave up smoking for two weeks but then thought: "What's the point?"

Pozhedayev said he had heard that life sentences could soon be available in Russia. He would prefer life imprisonment to execution because while he has his life he has hope.

His other requests were modest. "Tell the civilised world I need medicines for my stomach ulcers," he said. "And say I want magazines - magazines with coloured pictures."

Outside the jail, I can't forget Pozhedayev. The thought strikes me that my writing about him may bring him to the attention of someone in Mr Yeltsin's office and his execution may be hastened.

But the chances are that nothing will be decided in the foreseeable future. The Kremlin leader is reviewing the use of the death penalty, weighing up the need to protect society from rising crime against the necessity of satisfying the Council of Europe on issues of human rights if Russia is to become a member of the European Union. However, with presidential elections due in June, the latter is not a priority.

Accurate statistics are hard to come by, but it seems that fewer executions are now being carried out in Russia. The head of the regional prison service, Colonel Vladimir Mitkeyev, thinks the number may have been about 20 for 1995.

How many prisoners still await execution is unknown.