Brutality Jolts Russia Into Action on Police
The New York Times, 28.03.2012
By David M. Herszenhorn
KAZAN, Russia — Even now, after the police officers who brutalized him have been fired and jailed, after federal investigators swooped in from Moscow to take charge of a widening abuse scandal, after an avalanche of attention from major human rights organizations and the international media, Oskar Krylov is still afraid — afraid of the police, afraid to live in Russia.
“You are nothing,” Mr. Krylov, 22, a computer repairman, said after describing how he was sodomized in October by a police commander who was enraged that he would not confess to stealing $200 from a customer. “You are nobody after they pick you up, take away your phone, and you realize nobody will be able to find you.”
It is not surprising that horrific police abuse occurs in Russia, victims and human rights officials say. What is unusual is that the cases of Mr. Krylov and dozens of other victims are being reopened and investigated after the death this month of Sergei Nazarov, 52, who told a paramedic that police officers had sodomized him with a Champagne bottle.
The Kazan scandal has unfolded at a particularly inopportune political moment — just as President Dmitri A. Medvedev announced that a broad, yearlong overhaul of Russia’s 1.2 million-member police force had been a success. Thousands of officers failed re-evaluation exams and were dismissed. Even the name was changed to “politziya” from “militziya” to soften its image.
Mr. Medvedev and other officials say they recognize that abuse of police authority is a fundamental indignity that turns citizens against their government. Last month, Mr. Medvedev ordered the firing of the police chief in St. Petersburg after a 15-year-old boy was beaten with a broomstick and died in police custody there.
Officials now seem intent on making an example of Kazan, the 1,000-year-old capital of the republic of Tatarstan, which cherishes its reputation for tolerance. It is a crossroads of East and West, where Tatar Muslims and Russian Orthodox Christians coexist in a melange of languages, cuisines, beliefs and architecture. But the litany of abuse complaints here shows just how hard it will be to change Russia’s entrenched police culture, in which the rights of the accused are routinely ignored.
As in many Russian cities, people in Kazan live in general apprehension, if not outright fear, of the police — whether the traffic cops on downtown corners, or plainclothes officers in elite units. Police accusations of minor infractions are a routine prelude to demands for bribes; pressure by superiors to close cases often leads to false arrests and coerced confessions.
In a nationwide survey late last year by the Levada Center, an independent research organization, 60 percent said the police were mainly concerned with their own interests, while 24 percent said their main concern was public security.
Had Mr. Nazarov survived, his case probably would not have drawn attention. He was arrested on March 9, suspected of stealing a cellphone from the cashier of a local store, and taken to the Dalniy police station. From there, he was taken to a hospital with a ruptured rectum. He fell into a coma and died.
Officers who interrogated Mr. Nazarov denied hurting him. One suggested that Mr. Nazarov had injured himself in a bathroom, perhaps using a vodka bottle found in the trash or a broomstick. An autopsy disproved that. An initial news release by the local Ministry of the Interior, while promising an investigation, noted that Mr. Nazarov had been arrested six times before. But outrage over the case spread quickly. More than 100 people attended a rally, many carrying balloons in the shape of Champagne bottles.
The local authorities quickly fired nine police officers, including the Dalniy chief, then disbanded the station entirely. There were formal apologies, and this week officials said all interrogation rooms in Kazan would be fitted with Web cameras.
They also acknowledged that another man, 24, had been sodomized at the Dalniy station days before Mr. Nazarov’s arrest.
Meanwhile, federal officials sent a team to Kazan to take over the investigation. Day after day, people have lined up to resubmit complaints that they said had been ignored, or to report new abuses — some of which occurred even after Mr. Nazarov’s death.
The Internet is also playing a part, allowing victims to connect with one another and with human rights groups.
Last week, Mr. Krylov, the computer repairman, described in a soft voice how he initially refused to confess to stealing $200.
“I told him I wanted a lawyer and would not give evidence without a lawyer according to Article 51 of the Constitution,” he said. “They laughed and asked how did I know it?” Mr. Krylov, a part-time student of law and criminal justice, told the police that he had a copy of the Constitution in his bag. It did not matter.
Over the two hours of interrogation, Mr. Krylov said, he was knocked off a chair and repeatedly slapped across the face. Then, he said, a police commander threatened to rape him.
“I was handcuffed,” Mr. Krylov recalled. “They pushed me facedown on the desk and turned my arms up behind me. He yelled: ‘What are you waiting for? Pull down his pants!’ ”
The assault began with a pencil, but the commander, Aynur Rakhmatullin, was in a rage. “Where is a bottle? You must always have a bottle around,” the commander shouted at other officers, who found one, Mr. Krylov said.
Mr. Rakhmatullin and another supervisor, Amir Sharafullin, who were fired in the Nazarov case, have since been charged with attacking Mr. Krylov.
Others have come forward with similar stories. Alya Sadykova, 20, said that in January officers at the Dalniy station beat her and threatened to sexually abuse her with a soda bottle if she did not confess to stealing money from a former employer.
Ilfiyar K. Falakheyeva, who works in the Tatarstan presidential administration, said officers at a different station here killed her 27-year-old son in 2010 after he was arrested at a nightclub where he and his friends were celebrating the end of exams at the State Service Academy.
In an interview near her office in the Kazan Kremlin, she said she had fought unsuccessfully for two years to have the case investigated.
“The police are allowed to kill people with impunity,” Ms. Falakheyeva said.
Igor N. Sholokhov, the chairman of the Kazan Human Rights Center, said the group had documented about 160 serious cases of police abuse and met last week with the Tatarstan interior minister, Asgat Safarov, to discuss the need to retrain officers. Mr. Safarov gave the group a book he had written about fighting organized crime in Kazan that he said explained the dangers of police work.
Victims said routine abuse was likely to resume once attention faded.
Albert Zagitov, 30, said he was arrested in July at a market where he sold fruit and vegetables, thrown into an unmarked Chevrolet, and beaten — because he was not carrying identification papers. His wife, six months pregnant, rushed to the police station with his passport and got him out.
Mr. Zagitov, now a business student, filed a complaint, but said it had been ignored.
“I was shocked by the police behavior, and by the fact that an innocent person could be taken in broad daylight from the street, beaten up and humiliated whatever way they want,” Mr. Zagitov said. “How can one feel safe if the people who are supposed to protect us dare to do anything like that?”
Photo courtesy of inkazan.ru