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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Prisoners Exercise Their Right to Vote

MAGADAN, Far East -- "OK, let's move it, and keep your hands to yourself."

So began election day in the Magadan pretrial detention center, as a prison guard escorted a group of sweat suit-clad inmates with shaved heads and tatoos out of a makeshift polling station and back to their cells.

The 600 or so inmates in the Far Eastern city of Magadan - founded as a convict-labor colony in the 1930s - were among the first Russians to cast their ballots in Sunday's parliamentary elections.

While Muscovites hundreds of kilometers to the west were still sleeping, members of Magadan's 30th precinct election committee brought a ballot box and voter information posters to the detention center, and sealed off a room with a red curtain to allow for secret ballots to be cast.

"None of our personnel have pressured the inmates in their choice of candidate," said Yury Yagunov, head of the detention center, assuring a visiting reporter that the constitutional rights of the citizens in his charge were being scrupulously observed.

"It is the personal matter of every citizen," he added, pointing out that close to 100 percent of the inmates were going to vote by the end of the day.

The Magadan remand inmates apparently had an easier time voting Sunday than most of their comrades behind bars across Russia. The right to vote is guaranteed to those in pretrial detention by the Constitution. However, the law on elections passed by the State Duma last summer made it harder for this category of people to vote, since it requires them to obtain absentee ballo ts - which can only be obtained at police precincts in the voters' home district by someone officially entrusted by the prisoner.

Vladimir Demchenko, a St. Petersburg-based officer with the Justice Ministry's prison department (GUIN) who supervised the elections said the federal Justice Ministry was only able to collect the absentee ballots of roughly 75 percent of those in pretrial detention who are eligible to vote. By Sunday, only 148,000 of the 192,000 prisoners across Russia who expressed a desire to vote had received ballots.

Among those who did receive ballots, however, the turnout was remarkably high - about 96.8 percent, Demchenko said.

"For the people whose freedom was restricted, [voting] is an important way to participate in life outside of prison," said Mikhail Zharkoi, spokesman for the St. Petersburg and Leningrad region department of GUIN. "It is one of the few civil rights which these people have not been stripped of."

Staff writer Anna Badkhen contributed to this story from St. Petersburg.