Despite the fact that he has spent nearly four and a half years in a penal colony in eastern Siberia, Valentin Urusov is not particularly well-known to the general public.
Unlike his fellow Russian prisoners of conscience Pussy Riot, his name is seldom mentioned in mass media and pop icon Madonna is yet to speak out against his imprisonment.
But Urusov, who was recently nominated for the 2013 Arthur Svensson International Award for Union Rights, is the victim of a human rights violation as gross as any.
A miner and a trade union leader from Yakutia in Russia’s north-eastern territory, he was sentenced to six years in a penal colony on trumped up charges of drug dealing.
But in reality, Urusov is behind bars for protecting workers’ rights.
His fate illustrates one of the more vivid examples of the confrontation between workers, major corporations and politics in Russia.
Urusov worked as an electrical fitter at an ore-processing mill owned by Alrosa. Alrsosa is a Russian state-owned diamond mining company which is one of the biggest in the world.
An intelligent and persuasive leader, Urusov chaired Profsvoboda, a small, independent trade union founded in Udachny in June 2008 which led the workers protests.
The workers were protesting against poor pay and even poorer working conditions: unpaid overtime, old equipment, dangerous work environments and chronic health issues.
In mid-August of the same year, workers in the repair shops at the Udachny mine announced a hunger strike, the formal notice of which was received and registered by the management.
The company’s director signed an order establishing a reconciliation commission to resolve the issue of workers’ pay.
Profsvoboda was supposed to represent workers on this commission, and the following day it suspended strike actions.
Despite its promises, however, Alrosa made no effort to conduct real negotiations, instead unleashing a crackdown against trade union activists. The workers responded by preparing for a large-scale protest rally.
In early September 2008, Urusov was detained on suspicion of narcotics possession. However, his arrest suspiciously coincided with preparations for the protest rally by Alrosa workers – a rally Urusov himself was involved in organising.
Equally ‘coincidentally’, the company’s deputy director for economic security was present as an official witness (such witnesses are a formality required under Russian law during police searches) when the drugs were allegedly found on Urusov’s person.
In a statement submitted by his lawyer, Urusov describes his arrest as a kidnapping accompanied by beatings and threats.
The men who arrested him forced Urusov to write a statement confessing that the packet of drugs they had planted actually belonged to him. They said they would kill Urusov if he refused.
Moreover, they demanded that Urusov confess that his deputy in the trade union had given the packet to him. A plan had been sprung to completely eviscerate the union’s leadership. Urusov, however, refused to give false testimony against his comrade.
“The charges against Urusov are based on the testimony of law enforcement officers and biased witnesses,” Urusov’s lawyer recounted. “The signature on the protocol documenting the confiscation of the packet of narcotics was obtained through humiliation and threats. Urusov was taken to the woods, where shots were fired near his head, and he was beaten with batons and told he should get ready to die.”
In December 2008, the District Court of Udachny sentenced Urusov to six years in prison. His conviction was briefly overruled in May 2009 but after a retrial in June that year he was sent back to prison with his original sentence reduced by one year.
In May 2010, the police officer who was in charge of Urusov’s arrest, Lieutenant Colonel Sergei Rudov, was himself arrested and convicted for fraud and abuse of power. He was charged with receiving 2.5 million rubles (US$80,000) from Alrosa shortly after he arrested Urusov.
The Russian Confederation of Labour initiated an international campaign to free Valentin Urusov. This campaign has become one of the most pressing issues on the Russian free trade union agenda in recent years. Numerous letters have been sent to Russian President Vladimir Putin and to the Yakutia authorities by Russian and foreign unions, NGOs and political organisations, demanding Urusov’s release.
In addition, a number of rallies and public protest actions have also taken place to demand his freedom and raise the issue of trade union freedom in Russia.
The campaign in defense of Valentin Urusov was actively supported by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and Global Union Federations. The Urusov Case became one of the issues reviewed by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Governing Body. Based on this review, the ILO issued a recommendation to the Russian Government to re-examine the case and release Urusov without delay.
Yet, despite this broad-based support, Valentin Urusov continues to languish in the penal colony in the Khangalassky district of Yakutia.
Scheduled for release later this year, his requests for early parole have twice been denied.
But despite dealing with a chronic kidney condition and being singled out by colony management, Urusov has not only survived this injustice but he remains committed to the union struggle.