Transnistria. The republic of torture
100 km away from Romania lies a place where justice means blackmail and torture. An undercover investigation in Tiraspol’s prisons
April 1st, 2011. Vitalie Eriomenco is awoken, reft from his place, chained, blindfolded and dragged from the militia’s cell: “Move your ass, bastard!” He is too dizzy from the last two days’ beatings to understand what is going on.
The van stops at the edge of the forest. They start walking in one behind another. The investigator and three armed guards drive him along a twisted path up to a sleepy brush with a handful husky trees. Behind them, Dniester River cuts its way through rocks and orchards. It’s a humid milky morning in Tiraspol.
One of the guards, a big bulky man, takes the bandage off his eyes and the cuffs from his hands and throws him a shovel that lands in the mud. “Dig! You’ll die anyway. We either bury you here or throw you in the river where crabs will eat you!” he says, grinning ear to ear. “Thought you’d get away? This is not Moldova!”
Vitalie bows down, picks up the shovel and begins to dig. The investigator lights up a cigarette, sucks it avidly then mutters something. Everyone chuckles. Vitalie throws the humid soil into the air.
“Enough! Turn around!” One of the men in uniforms kicks the shovel away and drags him at the edge of the hole. Suddenly it’s as quiet as in a church. Some bullets spring through the fog from the Kalashnikovs. Vitalie is still standing. They fired in the ground.
“Ha ha ha! You got scared?” Vitalie doesn’t have time to realize what just happened. He is cuffed, taken into the car, dragged back to prison and thrown on the cell’s floor, 6 meters underground.
This scene was described to me by Ala Gherman, the sister of Vitalie Eriomenco, a Moldovan businessman arrested by the separatist authorities in Transnistria, accused of having stolen from his own companies. I arrived there after hearing dozens of legends about the torture inflicted in prisons on Dniester’s left shore.
I went undercover in Tiraspol, entered a prison and witnessed a surrealist trial session. Three former Moldovan prisoners managed to escape and told me about the indignities happening there.
The false execution was staged in order to persuade the businessman to give up his companies. This is how things work in Transnistria, an artificial mob-governed state where the militia use all their resources to extort the people they should be protecting.
It is a well-concocted business schema, as simple as it is frightening: the unofficial price of freedom is $1,000 per year. Which means 15,000 for a 15-year sentence. If they don’t pay, the people that get arrested by the militia are practically lost forever. They don’t have any defense mechanisms in a state that is not recognized by the international community. Many have died.
The militiamen come up with fake records to accuse these people. After applying all the physical torture methods, if the prisoners still refuse to sign false declarations, they take hostage mothers, pregnant wives, children or old fathers and hunt them relentlessly. It’s an unmistakable recipe: the person, powerlessly clapped-out, does whatever he is asked.
Prison is a crucial place in Transnistria’s society. Influential people are intimidated and extorted. The young are either indoctrinated in the army or imprisoned and re-educated. The dictatorship regime resists as long as the population is gripped by fear.
“If you don’t sign, we take your boy too.”
Vitalie Eriomenco had been living in the region for 11 years. He had founded four companies and was managing three of them: a bread manufacturing combine, a brewery and a beverages plant. The enterprises were huge for Transnistria, employing over 400 people on total annual revenues of over $ 800,000.
They were perfect businesses to be grabbed. In 2011, his business partner Victor Petriman, politician and member of the Slobozia Regional Council, where the plants were located, filed a complaint to the „Organized Crime and Corruption Department” in Tiraspol. Petriman’s uncle Vasile Moraru is a deputy in the Supreme Soviet.
They arrested him in the morning of 29 March 2011. Six men from the organized crime department, dressed as civilians, broke into his office and detained him on the spot. They kept him in the militia’s cell for 10 hours without food and water, then they brought him home.
His wife and his two-year-old were there. After a four-hour inquisition they evicted his family and levied on his house with everything there was in it. At 2:00am, his wife took the little boy and ran away to their relatives, wearing only their pijamas. The man was taken back to the militia station.
Although he was frightened by what happened on the river bank, Vitalie refused to give in to the separatists requests. Seeing the trick didn’t work, they passed him on the phone to Vlad, his eldest son, a 17-year old pupil. After a short talk, they threatened him again:
“If you don’t sign we arrest him tonight for drug possession. This means 15 years in prison. He is young, has a good looking body, he’ll be a delight for the other prisoners.”
That was when the 43 year old cracked and gave in. He signed the papers and was left on the spot without his companies, but he was still under arrest. For three years he has been moved between the penitentiary and the court hall and he still hasn’t been given a sentence: the prosecutors want 20 years in prison for economic fraud.
Ala Gherman, Vitalie’s sister, speaks emphatically and hurriedly. She has piles of documents on her desk and a couch drowned in cardboard boxes filled with files and paperwork. „The investigator told me that Petriman’s intention was to seize his business, that’s all. They wanted to imprison him, scare him a bit and then set him free. But after I made a fuss, they changed their minds.”
They also told her that in Transnistria, the wind blows in the direction of money and if she doesn’t come up with one million dollars, anything could happen to Vitalie. „In the isolated cells, somebody hangs himself or self-mutilates once a week. It’s normal.”
Vitalie’s sister has an entire army of economic attorneys to help her decipher the loopholes in her brother’s file. „It’s a complicated process, no evidence or witnesses. I had read the bodyguard’s declaration saying he knew how much money the manager had transferred. Come on! How can a bodyguard know this? That is why they drag things out so much”, explains Alexandru Zubco, attorney at Promo-LEX, a Moldovan human rights watch.
„What happened to Vitalie is called «raiderskii zahvat» – Soviet raid”, explains the attorney. Somebody targets a good business and uses all their resources and political connections to weave a justifiable legal context under which they can seize the wealth.
„This case is good money. Everyone sees the money, nobody cares about the person”, says the prisoner’s sister referring to the attitude of the Transnistrian authorities.
Vitalie’s parents have only seen him during the court sessions during the last three years. During the first two years, they were not allowed to even come close to the cage he is kept in during the sessions, but ever since the OSCE representatives in the Republic of Moldova join the sessions, they can embrace him. Sometimes they kiss him on the cheek.
The results and recommendations in the report didn’t lead anywhere, although at the end of November Moldova signed the Association Agreement with the European Union. The attorneys from Promo LEX believe the country’s European path will be difficult and rough as long as Transnistria continues to exist.
Controlling the population
„The problem in Transnistria is that this torture and illegal detention system is institutionalized. It is one of the ways in which the state controls its population”, explains attorney Alexandru Zubco. Although there are no official statistics about the average age of the prisoners, Zubco discovered from the files of current or former detainees that most of them are young people.
„In any authoritarian regime, revolutions are started by the young population, who perceives things differently. To inhibit these initiatives, you must control the youth somehow. What are the authorities in Tiraspol doing? They enlist the young in the army where they effectively brainwash them for two years – they receive weapons, learn patriotic songs and make friends, so they come out with a radically changed mentality – otherwise they imprison them. They are no longer human when they are released from those prisons.”
On paper, the Constitution of Transnistria looks like any other European one. It clearly states the citizen’s right to protection „against torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment”. Moreover, although the Penal Code does not contain any definition of torture, the „torment” is criminalized and punished with seven years of prison. According to the same criminal procedure code, the evidence obtained by violent methods is unacceptable.
But these are bedtime stories for the European clerks. In reality, prisoners are from day one subject to physical and mental torture hardly imaginable in a modern state. In the „Report on Human Rights in Transnistria region of the Republic of Moldova”, UN expert Thomas Hammarberg notes he received „credible and consistent complaints against torture and maltreatments, especially during interrogations. Torture includes severe fist and baton beatings, including on the feet soles and around the kidney area, electroshocks, needles stuck under the nails.”
At the end of the report, Thomas Hammarberg wrote that the penitentiary system of the so-called Moldovan Republic must be utterly reformed.
“Say your prayers, you’ll rot in here!”
When they arrested Alexandru Ursu, district policeman, an employee of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Moldova, his lover Irina Lozinskaia was two months pregnant. They were to wed in October. They grabbed him from the edge of the road and took him directly to the prison cell in Bender, a dark room with a yellowish light bulb hanging shabbily from the wall, 6 meters underground, with wooden planks stuck on the walls.
They accused him of having acquired an apartment through a scam. The first night, he was visited by three men dressed in camouflage clothes. „They asked me whether I’ll sign the papers by which I am acknowledging I was guilty. I refused and they started to beat me up again. They told me “you sign or we kill you and we tell your folks we set you free you but we don’t know where you are, you must have probably fled the country”.
They also pointed a Makarov gun to his head. The next day they took him to the investigator’s office, a blonde bony guy, where they hit him in the head a couple of times again. Alexandru lost consciousness and woke up only at the hospital. After a few hours they returned him to the cell.
In the evening they returned with a gas mask, placed it on his head and covered the breathing tube. They were keeping it covered for a few minutes, then they were taking it off. With every breath of oxygen they were yelling in his ears “Will you sign now, you scoundrel?”
The third day he got a slice of dry bread and a cup of water. „Your misfortune is that you’re a policeman and you come from Moldova. You can say your prayers; you’ll rot in here!”
They kept him in the cell from July until November 2009, when he was sentenced. During this period, he was told that Irina can lose the baby at any moment and they also arrested his father, Timofei Ursu, who was the owner of the apartment on paper. They detained him for three days. In the end, his father gave up on the apartment.
„They always kept asking for money to repair the restrooms, the barracks, anything. The lawyers told me to give them $500, then $10,000 for my release. My father listened to them and borrowed money, but I was still sentenced to 15 years”, remembers Alexandru.
The militia’s affairs run swimmingly. A Byelorussian owner of an enforced concrete plant in Chișinău was stopped by the customs police together with wife and, because they carried a bottle of cognac, they were accused of racketeering and arrested on the spot. They released his wife the next day and asked for $40,000. The woman returned with the money, but they said that was for her release. For her husband’s release, she had to come up with an expensive Jeep.
Things are not much different in women’s prisons. Attorney Alexandru Zubco tells me about a case when the 17-year-old pregnant daughter of a woman accused of fraud was detained and threatened to rot in prison if her mother didn’t come to the militia section.
„The detention cell in Bender is three floors underground with inhuman conditions. The young woman was wearing light clothes and the bunked beds stuck to the walls were occupied by other prisoners. She slept on the cold ground. Of course she fell ill and had problems with the pregnancy.” They released her only after three days.
The second prison mob
„If you are the mother of an arrested person, your entire pension is consumed on their maintenance. Your income and your relatives’ income.” By this, attorney Alexandru Zubco does not only refer to packages, but also to random official taxes or the bribe for the prison’s administration.
He takes a file from his desk, randomly opens it and recites a mother’s list of expenses:
Lawyer from Transnistria – between 200 and 1500 $ Lawyer from Moldovia – 1000$ Unofficial release tax – 20.000 $ (1000$ for 1 year of punishment) Embracing her boy on the way to the court hall – 40$
Other than having to bribe corrupt chiefs and militiamen, a prisoner’s relatives must also pour money into a semi-autonomous parallel mobster system living in prisons.
Vor-v-zakone (an.: lawful robbers) form an underground group of imprisoned gangsters. They are closely related to the freely organized crime groups. In Russia they sometimes extend into the political and administrative structures and in Transnistria they work together with the prison chiefs and employees.
„When a detainee goes to prison, a post-it is stuck to his file stating his status within the mob in the penitentiary. Polojeneț (an. – the boss of the mob in a certain sector or region) receives this file and manages the case from there. He decides where the individual stays, with whom, which duties he must perform and especially what monthly amount he should pay for protection”, explains Zubco.
The lawful robbers share the foreign currency with the prison’s bosses. It often happens that somebody hangs himself, cuts his veins or that something simply falls on his head and kills him.
“Sorry, we can’t help you, please appeal after the conflict is solved.”
The authorities in the Republic of Moldova are incompetent when confronted with this problem.
George Balan, chief of Bureau for Reintegration in Moldova, describes the authoritarian regime: „[People in Transnistria – ann.] do not allow the information to circulate. We do not have any data regarding the number of prisoners or detention conditions. I never set foot in a penitentiary on the left shore of Dniester river. Honestly, we are lucky with the non-governmental organizations we collaborate with.”
This journalism project was conducted with the support of the Black Sea Trust Foundation for Regional Cooperation.