MOSCOW A jailed member of Russia's dissident Pussy Riot punk band was moved to a solitary confinement cell on Tuesday after she went on hunger strike to protest against what she called "slave labor" at the penal colony.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova was jailed for two years over a "Punk prayer" protest against Vladimir Putin in a Moscow cathedral in August 2012. Kremlin critics say her sentencing along with other band members is part of a crackdown on dissent since Putin returned to the presidency for a third term in May 2012.
The head of a public supervising committee in the remote region where she is confined, Gennady Morozov, denied the transfer was punishment. He described her cell as a "safe place" where she would be shielded from threats from fellow inmates.
He said Tolokonnikova's allegations that she had received death threats from a senior prison official and of deplorable conditions at Corrective Colony No. 14 in the Mordovia region, southeast of Moscow, would be investigated.
She could face discipline for slander, if they were found to be false, he added.
A spokeswoman for the Federal Prison Service said the member of the feminist punk rock group is now living a spacious single cell with a bed, a refrigerator, toilet and personal belongings.
In a letter circulated by her husband, Tolokonnikova said inmates were forced to work up to 17 hours a day sewing police uniforms and were allowed no more than four hours sleep a night.
She said camp officials used senior inmates to enforce order, describing a system of collective punishment and production quotas reminiscent of Soviet-era Gulag labor camps.
When Tolokonnikova appealed for investigation of the conditions, she said a senior prison official told her: "You'll surely never feel bad again because it's never bad in the other world."
A former lawyer for jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky's now defunct Yukos firm, who served time in the same Mordovia prison colony, told the Ekho Moskvy radio station on Tuesday that most of what Tolokonnikova had alleged was true.
Svetlana Bakhmina, who received early parole in 2009 from a six and half year sentence, said she expected that collective punishment would be meted out on the inmates in response to Tolokonnikova's letter.
"Everything will be very harsh," she said. As a result, the Pussy Riot activist would become the target of fellow inmates' anger, she said, adding that other prisoners would fear telling the truth about living conditions to investigators.
The Pussy Riot protest, miming to rock music in the cathedral, offended many in the mostly Russian Orthodox country; but their treatment has won them high-profile support in the West, from celebrities including Madonna and ex-Beatle Paul McCartney.
Tolokonnikova is due for release in March, as is fellow band member Maria Alyokhina. A third band member had her sentence suspended.
(Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel; editing by Ralph Boulton)