Assault on activist hints of old Russia

SUN JOURNAL

Rights: A prominent Soviet-era dissident pursues his quest for justice after being brutally attacked last year.

August 03, 2004|By Douglas M. Birch | Douglas M. Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - It seemed a simple police matter, an alleged assault.

But the case of Andrei N. Mironov suggests just how difficult and frustrating the search for justice in Russia can be.

Mironov, a slight, graying, 50-year-old human rights activist who has taken interest in Chechnya, says he was attacked in the dingy entrance hall of his small communal apartment just over a year ago.

His injuries seem to bear him out. He suffered two gashes on the back of his head and numerous bruises. Doctors at a Moscow neurological clinic diagnosed a brain injury. For months, he experienced dizzy spells, insomnia and loss of short-term memory. He bears a scar from a deep wound in his thigh that took weeks to heal.

"When I tried to cross the street," said Mironov, "I kept forgetting what I saw to the left when I turned to the right."

Two German doctors said the injuries were consistent with Mironov having been knocked unconscious, then kicked and beaten.

Mironov, who considers himself a pacifist, says he knows who assaulted him - a 210-pound security guard who said he served in the OMON, Russia's paramilitary police, in the war in Chechnya.

The 35-year-old guard, who works at an arts academy run by a prominent Moscow sculptor with strong ties to some of Russia's most powerful politicians, has admitted to police that he confronted Mironov, but denies beating him. The guard was not hurt in the incident.

Moscow police, meanwhile, have dismissed Mironov's injuries as mere cuts and scrapes. They say they have a witness - the security guard's girlfriend - who contends that Mironov tried to start a fight.

At first glance, Mironov's case might seem like the stuff of police blotters everywhere: a disagreement over a telephone party line Mironov shared with a neighbor, then a flash of anger and a spattering of blood.

But a closer look reflects the fear and repression of Russia's troubled past and hints of a potentially ominous future.

Many police and security guards here are veterans of the long-running civil war in Chechnya, where brutal violence is common. Police are often corrupt; in a survey published in May, one in four Russians reported having been shaken down, beaten or otherwise abused by law enforcement officers.

Growing hostility

Human rights groups say there is a growing atmosphere of hostility among ordinary Russians toward rights campaigners, an attitude that seems to have been encouraged at the highest levels of government.

Because of Mironov's prominence as one of the last of the Soviet-era dissidents to be sentenced to prison for his political beliefs, his case has drawn unusual attention.

A member of the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, appealed last fall to Moscow's chief of police to investigate the assault allegation. A member of the European Parliament has taken up the cause. Supporters say they might appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

Last month, Alexander Petrov, deputy director of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch, sent a letter asking the Russian Ministry of the Interior, which is in charge of the police, to reopen the investigation.

So far, none of these appeals has budged the police.

Petrov says he plans to write to the presidential administration, but he notes that Russia's leaders have shown little sympathy for the plight of rights advocates.

In his state of the nation address in May, President Vladimir V. Putin accused some human rights activists of being paid supporters of commercial groups with "dubious" aims.

On July 19, a senior official of the Russian Orthodox Church told reporters that rights advocates had "discredited" themselves because of their criticism of the church and other Russian institutions, and suggested that they focus instead on protecting the rights of Russians abroad.

"The statements that Putin and other high-ranking officials have made regarding human rights groups definitely add up to this atmosphere of suspicion and hostility," Petrov said.

Police, meanwhile, say they don't see any reason to make an arrest in Mironov's case.

"Tell him he can appeal to the president, and even the pope of Rome," said Maj. Vladimir Alyushin of the Presnensky Police District in western Moscow. "It will all come back down to us for consideration."

`Like an enemy'

In the 1980s, Mironov published banned works and served 18 months in the gulag for "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda." He is well known among foreign journalists here, having worked as a freelance translator and researcher for several news organizations, including The Sun.

In recent years, Mironov has organized six informal meetings in the United States and Europe between Russian political figures and Chechen separatists, in an effort to encourage peace talks.

Mironov said he suspects, but cannot prove, that his attacker targeted him because of this work.

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