GENEVA — Russian officials on Thursday pledged to prosecute anyone implicated in a prisoner-abuse scandal, but they failed to convince United Nations human rights experts that their promises signaled a change in official attitudes on torture.
Russia’s deputy justice minister, Mikhail Galperin, told the United Nations Committee Against Torture on Thursday that Russian authorities had arrested five prison guards who are suspected of torturing a prisoner in a penal colony northeast of Moscow in June 2017, and dismissed 17 officials.
The abuse was captured in a chilling 10-minute video filmed on a body camera and released online last week by Novaya Gazeta, an independent newspaper, showed uniformed guards holding down a naked, handcuffed prisoner, later identified as Yevgeny Makarov, while they ferociously beat his feet with truncheons and fists as he howled for them to stop.
Mr. Makarov’s lawyer, Irina Biryukova, who released the video to the newspaper, subsequently fled the country with her family, saying she had received death threats.
As public outrage mounted in Russia over the events in the video, the powerful Investigative Committee and the federal penitentiary service announced this week that they had begun inquiries. And as Mr. Galperin addressed the committee on Thursday, Russian authorities announced the arrest of a sixth prison guard.
Mr. Galperin denied having any knowledge of what prompted Ms. Biryukova to leave the country, but he promised her full protection, including a personal security detail and help in changing her appearance, if she wanted it.
“The severe punishment of those responsible regardless of rank and position” will send a clear official signal that torture was unacceptable, Mr. Galperin said. He said the case also demonstrated the effectiveness of government efforts to install video cameras in prisons and interrogation rooms.
“Well, actually it doesn’t,” Jens Modvig, the committee’s chairman, retorted.
It was a friend of one of the guards, not the authorities, who had handed over the video to the inmate’s lawyer, Mr. Modvig pointed out, and faced with evidence of abuse, the authorities were supposed to act immediately. “That didn’t happen so I disagree that it shows any kind of effectiveness,” he added.
Mr. Makarov’s case was not the only source of the committee’s dissatisfaction with the performance of Mr. Galperin’s delegation over a two-day hearing at the United Nations human rights office in Geneva.
“Torture is practiced widely” in Russia, Mr. Modvig said Wednesday in the opening session of the committee hearing, “but there is no rule ensuring that punishment for torture corresponds to the seriousness of the crime.”
He pressed for details of the legal action taken by the Russian authorities against officials implicated in cases involving the use of torture, but Mr. Galperin’s delegation provided no answers on Thursday.
“The conclusion here is that the Russian Federation is unable to explain how it prosecutes torture,” Mr. Modvig said. “This is simply not good enough.”
The committee also wanted details about what happened to Valery Pshenichny, a 56-year-old entrepreneur who was found hanging in his cell in a St. Petersburg prison in January. Mr. Pshenichny had accused a former business partner of stealing company money, but he then was charged with fraud related to a submarine contract.
The committee drew attention to an official medical report that found that Mr. Pshenichny had a broken spine and knife wounds and that he had been subjected to electric shocks and raped.
That case and others had given rise to speculation, “including in this committee,” that Russian authorities were seeking to hide the harsh conditions in prisons, Mr. Modvig said.
The Russian delegation’s responses did little to clarify the situation. “Causing a person to commit suicide is a crime in Russia,” said a delegation member, Dmitri Dudukalov, a senior official in the Office of the Prosecutor General. But preliminary medical and criminal investigations had determined that there was no evidence of physical or sexual violence by third parties, he said.
It was possible that Mr. Pshenichny’s neck had been broken by the weight of his body, Mr. Dudukalov suggested, but he added that the case was still under investigation.
The committee had even less success with its questions about the 2009 death of Sergei L. Magnitsky, the 39-year-old lawyer who exposed fraud by tax officials but died in pretrial custody in a Moscow prison after he was beaten and denied medical treatment.
His death still casts a shadow over America’s relations with Russia. A campaign by Mr. Magnitsky’s former boss, William F. Browder, an investor, led Congress to pass the 2012 Magnitsky Act, which established economic sanctions that have infuriated the Kremlin.
Russia’s handling of Mr. Magnitsky’s death was “exemplary of nonaction,” Felice Gaer, an American member of the committee said, and she asked how the committee could have confidence that the Russian authorities would prosecute others accused of torture.
Mr. Galperin’s delegation, however, would not be moved beyond the written replies it had submitted to the committee before the Geneva meeting.
A criminal investigation had looked into the possibility of “unlawful acts” committed against Mr. Magnitsky, including torture, Mr. Dudukalov from the Prosecutor General’s office, said. “No evidence was found to support that hypothesis.”