Russian police brutally efficient, report finds

Criminal suspects routinely tortured, rights group says

November 10, 1999|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Sun foreign staff

MOSCOW -- Terrifying in its brutality, often indifferent to guilt or innocence, Russia's legal system has organized itself around an unspoken bargain: Policemen are free to torture criminal suspects as much as they like, as long as they make arrests, get confessions and keep their victims quiet.

This dark assessment emerges from a two-year investigation carried out by Human Rights Watch into police methods and legal practices across Russia. The 196-page report, "Confessions at Any Cost, Police Torture in Russia," is being published today.

"In the first hours after detention, police regularly beat their captives, nearly asphyxiate them, or subject them to electroshock in the pursuit of confessions or testimony incriminating others," says Diederik Lohman, director of Human Rights Watch's Moscow office, who wrote the report.

During the Soviet era, such violence was selective, say human rights advocates. Today, it has become indiscriminate.

"I'm 57, and as long as I remember, people have always been scared of the police," says Svetlana Ganushkina, director of the human rights group Civil Unity. "But recently, the situation has deteriorated. The police are now criminals, having no limits.

"During the Soviet days it was the state power over a person. Now it's the personal power of a policeman over a person."

Poorly paid, badly trained and ill-equipped, police are expected to fulfill the promises of Russia's politicians, who regularly vow to cut down on crime without providing the resources to do so.

Many policemen unschooled in evidence gathering instead rely on confessions -- extracted under torture, according to the report, which estimates that 50 percent or more of all criminal suspects are tortured.

"Torture is part of a cycle of abuse, which starts at the time of arrest and continues through conviction or beyond," the report says.

Favored torture techniques

The favored method is beating, punching or kicking victims in the head, back, kidneys, legs and heels. But police also resort to putting a gas mask over the head, then squeezing the air hose to cut off oxygen. They call that technique the "elephant," because the hose resembles an elephant's trunk. If they don't have a gas mask, they use a plastic bag.

Or they handcuff the accused behind his back and hang him from an iron bar with his feet off the ground, beating him with a nightstick in an exercise known as the "swallow," because the victim looks like a bird in the air.

Some victims reported receiving electric shocks so painful that they jumped out an upper-story window, Human Rights Watch said. One young man was left paralyzed after such a leap. Others were put in cells where police knew they would be raped by other inmates.

Torture seemed to produce results, and courts here rely on confessions even when they're repudiated.

In one such case documented by Human Rights Watch, Sergei Mikhailov confessed to the murder of a 10-year-old girl in Velsk, in northern Russia, after 10 days of beatings. When he finally saw a lawyer, Mikhailov, who was 21 at the time, withdrew his confession.

He was found guilty, largely because of the confession, and sentenced to death. A year later, an almost identical murder was committed in Velsk. Another man confessed to that murder and to the earlier one. Two years ago, a special investigator concluded Mikhailov had been wrongly convicted and recommended overturning the verdict. Local officials have refused to do so, and Mikhailov remains on death row, where he has been for 4 years, permitted to see no one but his lawyer.

Three years ago this month, police in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg picked up Oleg Fetisov, then 15, at school. Fetisov said police accused him of stealing a schoolmate's jacket and, when he refused to confess to the crime, put a gas mask on his head and cut off the oxygen several times for about a minute.

Eventually, Fetisov jumped out the window and was taken to the hospital with fractures of the skull, pelvic bone and arm, and a concussion and small cerebral hemorrhage.

Fetisov was not sent to prison but received a two-year suspended sentence for theft. His parents began proceedings against the policemen, but the prosecutor dropped the case.

"With the exception of a few particularly grave cases in which public exposure led to prosecutions, police carry out torture with complete impunity as the provincial and federal prosecutors close their eyes to evidence of abuse," the report asserts, listing numerous examples.

Not widespread, officials say

Though Interior Ministry officials acknowledge torture occurs and say any cases discovered will be prosecuted, they deny it is widespread. "A number of our policemen use such methods," says Yevgeny Ryabtsev, spokesmen for the Interior Ministry, "but they are not of mass character. Every family has its black sheep."

Ganushkina says that about 70 percent of policemen perform their jobs honestly, despite pay of $60 to $80 a month, few computers and carbon paper instead of copying machines.

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