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By Matt Taibbi

It’s happened to all of us at least once; out late at night, drunk, carrying a hundred bucks or so, and suddenly stopped by a couple of hulking cops and asked for documents. You don’t have them with you, so you make a deal, pay a “fine,” and move on. No matter how often it happens, that’s as far as it goes-right?

No. What most foreigners don’t know is that there is always another variable in the equation of these encounters, and that variable is a place called the Center for Social Rehabilitation #1, or TsSR. It’s a real building that exists in a place where you can easily find it, on the 24th kilometer of the Dmitrovskoye Shosse- and what it is, in effect, is a secret prison for foreigners with visa problems.

Living conditions? The TsSR makes notorious criminal prisons like Butirka or Lefortovo seem like a Holiday Inn. Criminals in Butirka, at least in theory, have visitation and correspondence rights. Their treatment, though harsh, is governed by well-defined legal procedures, and they all eventually go to trial. It’s hell, but a hell that exists in time.

Not at the TsSR. In this squalid little building next to a landfill in a small outer Moscow region called Severny, foreign inmates live in an sort of extralegal purgatory, without visitation or correspondence rights. They aren’t allowed to shower and get no medical attention. They have no idea when they’re getting out, or where they’re going when and if they do.

President Yeltsin’s July 10, 1995 Presidential decree dictates that anyone may be held in jail without being charged with a crime for a maximum of thirty days. Homeless people and foreigners with visa problems must, according to the law, be released within that period of time.

The law hasn’t reached the TsSR. 30 days? There are foreigners who’ve been in there for months and who are being restrained to keep from killing themselves. Need proof? Just ask Yelena Vatakh.

Early in the afternoon of January 6 of this year, Yelena Vatakh, a divorced Muscovite theater producer, was in her apartment on Simonovsky Val, in the Proletarskaya Region, when she heard a knock on the door. Yelena and her common-law “husband” of three years, an illegal Kurdish immigrant named Babin Galali, knew it wasn’t good news. Just a few days before, a patrolman from the South-Eastern okrug had come by, asking if she had a foreigner living in her house.

Yelena put up a fight, but finally admitted that there was someone living with her, and she and the policeman agreed on a bribe to prevent further queries about her husband’s documents.

Yelena hadn’t paid the bribe that day; she hadn’t had any dollars (the patrolman rejected rubles), so she agreed to pay the patrolman at a later date, after she’d sold some rubles. Now there was this knock on the door, and she grabbed the dollars as she went to answer it.

The patrolman was there, but he didn’t want any money. He was now accompanied by several officials from the Visa and Registration Directorate (UVIR), who entered the apartment and hauled away the ponytailed Galali, whose presence in the building had apparently irritated a pair of elderly communist neighbors to the point where they tipped off the police.

The UVIR took Galali on the midnight express to the TsSR, where he’s been behind bars ever since. In over a hundred days, he hasn’t showered or had visitors. Unlike criminals or people in remand prisons, he can’t go outside (Butirka inmates are allowed an hour a day outside). He has twice tried to kill himself.

Vatakh has appealed to human rights organizations, and with their help has secured a letter from the UN giving him the status of a person seeking to become a refugee in another country. In any normal country, that would be enough to get him released on bond. But no one is any hurry to release him from the TsSR.

“They keep saying, get us another letter, it will all be resolved this week,” said Vatakh. “But it never gets resolved. I’m beginning to think he’ll never get out.”

One of the people working with Vatakh is Svetlana Ganushkina, a human-rights activist and assistant to Duma Deputy Vyacheslav Igrunov. Ganushkina has appealed to the state on behalf of a half a dozen foreigners who’ve been stuck in the TsSR, and has even, with the help of Igrunov, started a parliamentary inquiry into the TsSR. But with Galali’s case in particular, she believes that the sheer lack of laws governing treatment of foreigners makes it next to impossible for someone like Galali to get himself released.

“Frankly, the government is in a tricky position. It inherited the laws of the Soviet Union, where almost no one came in illegally and there was no need for a legal mechanism to deal with people with visa problems,” she said. “However, given that they’re in a tough spot, they’ve handled it in the worst possible way. What happens to people like Galali is torture.”

Nearly all of Gaushkina’s TsSR cases involved nonwhite foreigners, particularly Iraqis and Afghans. However, she believes that while racism is the chief factor in determining who gets sent to the secret jail, no one is excluded.

“Everyone should be aware,” she said, “that anyone who is stopped by the police and has a problem with their documents can end up in this place.” Ganushkina has only handled a handful of cases, but she hesitates to estimate how many foreigners have been in the TsSR over the years.

“The vast majority of inmates,” she said, “never have a chance to reach human rights activists. There are certainly more in there.”

How can a building which any private person can drive up to and photograph be a secret? Easy; it has a cover, which is as a rehab center for the homeless, for drug addicts and for alcoholics.

Originally, the TsSR was exactly what it calls itself-a rehab center. But somewhere in the last few years, foreigners started being brought there to be confined. Why? Because, as Ganushkina explains, there was nowhere else to put them.

“The root motive of the place wasn’t to hide anyone,” she said. “They just had these people and had nowhere else to put them. So they put them in a totally inappropriate place, in with drug addicts and alcoholics and the homeless.”

In fact, on the face of it, there’s nothing unusual about the TsSR. Every city has a similar building, usually known as a spetzpriyemnik, or special processing center.

“There’s one in every large town,” said Valery Abramkin, a Moscow prison reform activist. “Say a cop finds someone without the right registration. They pick them up, throw them in the spetzpriyemnik, check for outstanding criminal warrants, then, once they’re cleared, issue them temporary documents they can use to get back to wherever they’re officially registered.”

The process Abramkin is referring to usually lasts less than fifteen days, which is why these unregistered homeless, or bomzhi (after the acronym for persons with undetermined places of residence) are sometimes called “15-dayers.”

That’s also why people in the Severny region refer to the TsSR as a bomzhatnik, and not a prison. On the outside, it looks like nothing that would shock a Russian; a holding pen where disheveled wino types can be seen coming in and out of all day long.

When the eXile made a surprise visit to the TsSR last week, police were just in the process of unloading a bus full of bomzhi, who were led single-file into the facility. Simultaneously, a door opened and a bomzh named Mikhail Kleshnenkov was released. He ended up hitching a ride with us to the Altufyevo Metro station.

Kleshnenkov was from the Rostov oblast and had been released after twelve days with temporary documents he was supposed to use to get back home. He said the conditions were pretty good in the TsSR because “they don’t beat you” and because they were fed three times a day, although meals consisted of soup only. He’d been taken to a banya once upon entering and hadn’t washed since.

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