“Our prison system has found itself a new adversary. It’s Muslims.” Alexei Navalny’s impassioned speech at the Supreme Court
“Our prison system has found itself a new adversary. It’s Muslims.” Alexei Navalny’s impassioned speech at the Supreme Court
11 January 2024, 23:05

Alexei Navalny in court via video link, January 11, 2024. Photo: Alexandra Astakhova / Mediazona

The Supreme Court reviewed two lawsuits filed by Alexei Navalny against the Ministry of Justice, seeking to invalidate several sections of the Internal Regulations (IR) in penal colonies. The first complaint pertained to the restriction of having more than one book in solitary confinement (SHIZO) and other forms of prisoner isolation, while the second addressed the limitation of a 15-minute mealtime, forcing inmates to hurriedly consume their hot food. Judge Oleg Nefedov dismissed both lawsuits. Navalny himself addressed the court via video link from the Yamal penal colony IK-3, located in a remote village of Kharp above the Artic circle. We publish a slightly abridged transcript of his speech.

“Within this inexplicable fight against Muslims, everyone else suffers as well.” Lawsuit on the limitation of religious literature

I am very pleased to be here in the Supreme Court today. I have thought a lot about the Supreme Court recently. And about you, Your Honour, a great deal lately. Because I was transported [from my ex-prison near Moscow] for a long time, 20 days. Hidden away in special sections. I wondered, “Who would find me?” Then I remembered that Judge Nefedov from the Supreme Court would surely find me. So, on January 11, everyone would found out where I was.

Judge Nefedov asks Navalny to focus on the case: “We’ve found you, let’s try to get to the matter.”

You found me, and I’m getting to the point. An important thing. I believe my statement will be quite significant for the court. According to our laws, the court must consider all the circumstances of the case. However, the major circumstance of this case is unknown to the court. And apparently, unknown to both the Ministry of Justice and the Prosecutor’s Office, judging by their objections. So, we’re arguing about something, but the essence of what’s happening is that no one knows why these strange, absolutely illegal restrictions are included in the Internal Regulations.

And it’s clear why you don’t know. Because you are, fortunately, outside this system. But I am inside it.

A priest, the head of a church, Father Roman Vladimirovich Stolbov, visited me in solitary confinement. This happened in IK-6 [in Melekhovo, Vladimir region]. You would have liked him. A very conservative man. We had a great conversation. He [inaudible] Europe, said he had the letter Z on his car, but still a very good man, an excellent priest. We really had a good talk.

He came to me once in solitary confinement, then a second time, and said, “I have a gift for you. I’m giving you ‘The Law of God’.” A book, ‘The Law of God.’ And this book was immediately taken from me. Although the priest said, “Let him have it, he needs both the Bible and ‘The Law of God’ at the same time.” Because he told me, “Alexei, reading ‘The Law of God’ without the Bible is, well, meaningless. Please, read them together.” And I said, “But I can’t.” Because the new IR are such that there can only be one book, including religious content, in my SHIZO cell.

And he looks at my large cell, he looks at my large table, he looks at my shelf and says, “How so? There’s plenty of room for two, three, ten books.”

But no. Meanwhile, there’s this strange decision that [an inmate can have] only one book, including religious books. Meanwhile, respected court, respected respondent, respected representative of the Prosecutor’s Office, if we look at the IR that were in force just a year and a half ago, we’ll see that a book was allowed, plus another religious book in the same solitary confinement. And if we delve into such antiquity as the IR of Soviet times, or just read a book by a Soviet dissident [Natan] Sharansky, for example, he writes: “In the isolation, I was allowed five books.”

So, in Soviet times, more different books were allowed. Then there were two books, and now one. And the respected representatives of the respondent are trying to convince us that this is due to some physical anomaly. That supposedly the locker is getting smaller and smaller in capacity, so there’s nowhere to store books.

But it’s not the locker that’s getting smaller. There’s a major circumstance, Your Honour. And I want the Supreme Court to understand this very well. Because it’s a substantial political problem.

Our prison system, a large organization, has found itself a new adversary. This new adversary is called Muslims. And Muslims who practice Islam and study Islam. And it’s for this reason, to fight the so-called “green movement,” that various restrictions are constantly being invented, which prevent people from studying Islam.

Alexei Navalny in court via video link, January 11, 2024. Photo: Alexandra Astakhova / Mediazona

“[Inaudible] I often hear someone praying behind the wall. And in any detention centre, you’ll hear the prayers of a Muslim. Because, as a result of our operational and social policies, our prisons, Your Honour, are filled with both Muslims and non-Muslims. There are many of them.

And for some reason, the Federal Penitentiary Service perceives a tremendous threat in people studying Islam. To put it simply, there exists, well, a so-called “black movement,” that is, those obeying rules established by professional criminals, there’s the “regime”, or “red”, order set by the administration, and now, a certain “green movement.” I apologise for using such expressions in the Supreme Court, but they are irreplaceable.

This means Muslims who, in studying Islam, are supposedly assumed to reject all other rules, to unite on the principle of studying Islam, thereby opposing the administration and dictating their own rules. This concept is entirely fictitious, artificial, non-existent.

For example, Your Honour, when you were reading what one can take into one’s solitary confinement cell, you might not have noticed: “This is a religious item for personal wear.” In the previous IR, it was: “for personal or pocket wear.” Why? Because a cross can be worn around the neck, but prayer beads are now prohibited.

Who did these prayer beads bother? Orthodox Christians sometimes use prayer beads, Catholics too, but far less often. It’s obvious this is done so that a Muslim can’t bring prayer beads into solitary confinement. Why is this done? No one understands. It’s an absurd thing.

But within this strange, mysterious, inexplicable fight against Muslims, against the study of Islam in prisons, everyone else suffers. Both Muslims and Christians suffer. I won’t claim, your honour, to be a great scholar of faith or a profound expert. But in preparation for this hearing, we spoke with a large number of clergy of all denominations, and the unanimous opinion is: whether for Catholics, Orthodox Christians, or Muslims of various denominations, normal daily religious practice requires two or three different books. I need two or three books. I need the New Testament and a psalter.

I need them daily. The legislator understands this. And the legislator prescribed: “Ten books are allowed for the convicted Navalny.” Nonetheless, the prison authorities (FSIN) refused. Well, I’m sure it wasn’t the Ministry of Justice that came up with this, I’m sure, of course, it was the FSIN, and the Ministry of Justice just approved it because they didn’t understand the meaning of all this.

Why can’t I sit in a cell with both the New Testament and the psalter? No one can answer this question. But we understand why.

Because I, your honour, have seen what books the convicted have. They are exclusively Islamic books. Who’s imprisoned here, I don’t know, haven’t seen anyone yet; in my previous solitary unit, I was the only Russian. All the others were Muslims and (I’m not saying all, but many) practicing Muslims. And to prevent them from practising, they are not allowed to have enough books.

This is absolutely absurd and crazy. Throughout human history, no one has ever been hindered by this. If you want to practice your religion, you will practice it. But this is done to complicate your life.

Want to have the Quran in your cell? Then, besides the Quran, you will have nothing. You won’t even have a newspaper if you demand the Quran. Obviously, if he’s a believer and a Muslim, he needs the Quran.

Want the Quran? Then you won’t even have a newspaper, a crossword puzzle. A person still spends 16 hours a day in a cell. In solitary confinement and enhanced regime penal isolation, Your Honour, for your understanding, there’s just a bench—and that’s it. You read a book and stare at the wall. You need the Quran, but if you take it, you won’t be given anything else.

It’s assumed that you can ask the inspector, and he will quickly replace [the book]. But he won’t replace anything for you. Because the inspector is the busiest person. He’s just always busy and certainly won’t bring anything to you.

And this is done exclusively so that Muslims are limited in their ability to study their religion. And limited in their ability to bring books, except for the Quran, which you definitely need, but you won’t bring any other books, possibly dangerous or possibly extremist.

I’ll say more, Your Honour, the reality of solitary is such that it is often a very cold place. Do you know why people take newspapers there? To cover themselves. Because with a newspaper, allow me to report, it’s much warmer to sleep, for example, than without it. And you need this newspaper just so you don’t freeze. You’ve already taken a newspaper—then you won’t have your Quran. Obviously, choosing between a newspaper and the Quran, you’ll choose the Quran. But then, you’ll freeze.

Why do this? Well, you’re all smart, educated people in the Supreme Court, you understand that these measures are absurd. They won’t prevent the rise of extremism, even if this rise in extremism is not fictitious but real. But the people who prescribed this don’t understand it. And I really want—I don’t know what the outcome of today’s case in the Supreme Court will be—that you, Your Honour, would talk to the FSIN and explain the senselessness of all this.

Of course, the problem of Islamic extremism exists. And these extremists are in prison. And terrorists are in prison. The problem exists. Well, if you want to fight this somehow, deal with it, here they all are. Give them other books. Give them, from your point of view, good books. Let clergy come visit them. Then let there be some debates about it. If this person is a Wahhabi, try to persuade him. But when a Muslim simply has his prayer beads taken away by [inaudible], has another book taken away, what does this lead to? This leads to resentment, and only that. Then you understand: that’s what the authority is like. That we, excuse me, define religious rights in the correctional institution. In every prison, there is now a prayer room. Formally, all your religious rights are observed, [but] your prayer beads are taken away, your book is taken away.

Every time I’m in transit and my belongings are checked, they usually don’t attract much attention. The officers search through them, glance over, but generally, they don’t seem to be paying attention. Things changed when I had the Quran and several Islamic books with me. Suddenly, it was as if there was a bomb in my suitcase. The reaction was immediate: “Why do you need these? What are these for? But you’re Orthodox, why do you need the Quran?” In our system, anything related to Islam is perceived almost as a threat. This is not just absurd and wrong, Your Honour, but it also leads to the exact opposite of what’s intended. People get embittered. A person understands that he’s not only been imprisoned, but his religious book has been taken away.

Your Honour, I described the situation in general. As for me specifically... I remember you said at one of our trials that we are considering an abstract norm of the law. So, the abstract norm of the law, as I’ve already said, directly violates my religious rights. The correctional institution says that I can have ten books. Among these ten books are religious books. I need two books for the constant practice of my religion. My religion is Orthodox Christianity. And any, any practitioner of Orthodox Christianity will tell you that for daily practice you need more than one book. One book is not enough for me. This directly violates my religious rights. That’s the first thing.

This situation infringes upon my right to education. I spend 16 hours a day in a cell, and the correctional institution’s code explicitly acknowledges my right to self-education, as does the Internal Regulations. But how can one engage in meaningful self-study with just one book? Take language learning, for instance; you need a textbook, a workbook, and a dictionary. Realistically, you require at least two or three books. However, the IR inexplicably prohibits this. So, I return to my main point. In this odd crusade against the study of Islam within prisons, we—and by ‘we,’ I mean the FSIN—have, pardon the cliche, thrown out the baby with the bathwater. In an effort to prevent access to what might be considered extremist literature, they’re banning textbooks, all religious literature, even pocket-sized religious items, and the list goes on.

This is absolutely absurd, and it directly violates my right. The legislator said that I am guaranteed ten books. I want to have ten books in my cell. They are needed for education, they are needed for religious practice. Sorry that I spoke for so long, but this is a very important thing.

Alexei Navalny in court via video link, January 11, 2024. Photo: Alexandra Astakhova / Mediazona

“I find myself rushing, almost choking on the boiling water.” Lawsuit on the limitation of mealtime

Now, as I move on (and I’ll try to be brief) to the second part, which concerns the restriction on mealtime.

To someone who’s not in prison, it might seem trivial. After all, they reduced your mealtime to ten minutes—I had mine reduced to 15 minutes in one case, and to ten minutes in another. And everyone says, “What’s the fuss, I have breakfast in three minutes.” And indeed, we all have breakfast, grab something on the run, and get to work in three minutes. But in real life, Your Honour, if your breakfast is three minutes, your lunch is 15 minutes because in so many meetings, later you come back home and calmly have dinner, eating for as long as you need.

In my case, when the colony began to pressure me with various tactics, imposing both legal and illegal restrictions, they came up with a peculiar rule: a ten-minute limit for meals. It’s practically impossible to eat properly in just ten minutes. Daily meals become a challenging ordeal. One of the few perks, or rather peculiarities, of solitary confinement is that I can get two mugs of boiling water. And I wait for them. Those moments, when I receive two mugs of scalding hot water along with two pieces of disgusting bread, are precious to me. I long to savor the boiling water and eat the bread leisurely. However, within ten minutes, I find myself rushing, almost choking on the boiling water. This rule seems designed to prevent a person from having a decent meal.

I’ll tell you more. Let’s take a look at the price list from what’s known as the prison kiosk. The most popular item purchased by the inmates? Instant noodles. Your Honour, have you ever tried them? I suggest you do. They’re surprisingly good. But, for these noodles to be enjoyable, they need to be properly prepared—steeped for seven, maybe ten minutes, as per the instructions. Only then can you enjoy them at leisure. However, imagine you’re allocated just ten minutes for your meal. In this short time, you have to collect your food, wash your spoon, among other things. You’re rushing through eating, practically gulping down boiling water and barely tasting your food. Imagine sitting for 16 hours daily in solitary confinement, hungry, and looking forward to this meal. Yet, the circumstances transform these brief moments of relief into utterly hellish minutes.

The representative from the Ministry of Justice might argue, “This is just an odd prison. These peculiar people have devised such rules because, frankly, it seems absurd. This wasn’t our intention.”

But let me tell you, it’s pretty standard here. Upon arrival, I was given the usual half-hour for meals. But if your Internal Regulations allow for such absurdities, if they give leeway to dysfunctional prison colonies, to incompetent or even criminal administrators—to those who are practically bandits or fascists—then... We all know the state of our prison system. In the Vladimir region, there are lunatics in administration, in [inaudible] real fascists, mean and aggressive. I won’t mince words... They concoct these rules. But it’s your IRs, esteemed respondents, that give them this power.

We challenged this in court, in Kovrov. The court’s response was that there’s perfect compliance, rules state “Up to half an hour.” “Do you get half an hour here?” “Up to half an hour.” During the trial, we questioned the respondents: “Could you set it to three minutes?” They said, “Yes, we could. Three minutes, even one. It’s so written: up to thirty minutes.” So there you are, with your standard ten minutes, fitting within the “up to thirty.” Enjoy your boiling water in those ten minutes and be thankful you get it at all. That was their stance.

That’s all I wish to convey, Your Honour. I stand by our lawsuits. I urge the court to consider all these details seriously and not dismiss them lightly. This isn’t just about the harsh reality of our prisons or about me; it affects thousands, tens of thousands in their daily lives. It’s these small details that contribute to a broader, pervasive injustice occurring every day. Thank you.

Editor: Maria Klimova

Support Mediazona now!

Your donations directly help us continue our work

Load more