Torture and ill-treatment of detainees at the time of and immediately after arrest is rampant in Russia 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. 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 procuracies close their eyes to evidence of abuse. The courts commonly accept forced confessions at face value, and use them as a basis for convictions. Despite overwhelming evidence that torture has become an integral part of police practice, the Russian government and law enforcement agencies generally-with some notable exceptions-deny that torture or ill-treatment is a problem, and are not taking any measures to end these abusive practices.
More than fifty interviews with torture victims and dozens of interviews with lawyers, relatives, former police officers, judges, and procurators in five regions of Russia reveal the systematic use of torture and ill-treatment as a means to coerce confessions and other testimony from criminal suspects. In April 1998, the Presidential Chamber on Human Rights, a gathering of administration officials, parliamentarians, and nongovernmental organizations, adopted a statement saying that:
torture and cruel, degrading forms of treatment or punishment with respect to citizens in the organs [of the Ministry] of Internal Affairs during the pretrial stages of criminal justice administration have a massive and systematic character which makes it one of the most serious problems of abuse of power and violations of human rights.
Some knowledgeable sources, including Russia's federal human rights ombudsman and a leading Russian judge, estimate that up to 50 percent of criminal suspects in Russia may be subjected to torture or ill-treatment. Another judge told Human Rights Watch she believed that as many as 80 percent of criminal suspects who refuse to confess may be tortured in the course of a criminal investigation. Some former police officers said they believe it is impossible to solve crimes without torture.
The most widespread method of police torture in Russia is prolonged beating. Asphyxiation, suspension by the arms or legs, and electroshock are also common. In addition, police use trusted prisoners in pretrial cells as proxies to beat and threaten suspects into cooperating with an investigation. Police almost always combine physical torture with threats of further physical harm and otherpsychological abuse. In some cases, torture has led to the victim's death or permanent disability.
Our research found several forms of prolonged beatings. Police punch, kick, and use nightsticks or other instruments, aiming for the victim's head, back, legs, kidney area, and heels. In some cases, police put books or criminal case binders on detainees' heads before beating there to avoid leaving traces. Torture by near asphyxiation is used less frequently than sustained beatings but almost always in combination with them. Police officers handcuff their victim to a chair and force an old-fashioned gas mask or a plastic bag over the head. Subsequently, the oxygen supply is cut; at this point, in many cases, police beat the suspect, causing him to hyperventilate. Some victims reported losing consciousness, with police reviving them, demanding they write a confession, and repeating the procedure if they resist. This is called "elephant," or "slonik" in Russian, a reference to the resemblance of a person in a gas mask to the head of an elephant. In July 1995, a public scandal ensued when it was confirmed that a detainee in Saransk died as a result of this torture. Torture by electroshock leaves few marks and, according to Russian human rights organizations, is used frequently. Police use what ex-prisoners call an electric "cranking" machine, which, according to descriptions, resembles an old-fashioned field telephone. The machine produces a current that is transmitted through electrodes attached to the ears of the detainee.
Police also torture detainees by suspending them or painfully binding them. For the "lastochka" (swallow) position, the victim's hands may be cuffed behind his back and attached to an iron bar or pipe so that the detainee hangs without his or her legs touching the ground, while police beat the victim with nightsticks. In a variation on "lastochka," the detainee is forced face down on the ground and his or her legs are tied tightly with a rope to the handcuffed hands. These positions cause grave pain in the joints, cut off the blood supply to the wrists and can dislocate arms or shoulders. In the "konvertik" (envelope) position, the detainee is forced to sit with his or her head between bent knees and his or her hands tied to his or her feet. In Nizhnii Novgorod, a detainee died in the mid-1990s after being held in this position for a long period and subjected to sustained beatings. A forensic examination found forty bruises from nightsticks on his body.
An inseparable part of police torture in Russia is psychological abuse aimed at utterly disorienting the victim. This abuse might consist of strings of insults, which one victim said included "you're a horse," "a pig," "we'll break you," "confess!," "you drunk!," together with threats of continued physical violence, or threats to the suspect's family. These might include threats to "do with you whatever we like"; to kill, rape, or otherwise physically injure the person; to have the person sentenced to death (even if they are not charged with a crime that carriesthe death penalty); to throw the person into a "pressing room" where "criminals will take care of you"; and to harm the person's family. Threats against family members may be particularly effective because the detainee is isolated from the outside world and has no way of knowing what is happening to them.
More than fifty interviews with torture victims did not produce a single case in which lawyers were present at interrogations in which torture or ill-treatment occurred. Police routinely refuse to grant detainees access to a lawyer in the hours after detention, often allowing the presence of a lawyer only after a confession has been secured. In several cases, police called in friendly lawyers who ignored evidence of torture. Asking for a lawyer can be risky because such requests sometimes provoke increased violence by police officers. Police were found frequently to force their victims to write in their confession that they had voluntarily refused the assistance of a lawyer.
Police detectives use criminal suspects and defendants who are trusted and given special privileges in police cells and pretrial detention centers-known as IVSs and SIZOs-to beat, rape, or otherwise force suspects and defendants into confessing or providing needed testimony. This widespread phenomenon is called the "pressing room" or "press hut" (press-khata in Russian) because police trustees "press" the detainee within the confines of the pretrial cell. In exchange for their services, these prisoners, who serve both as police enforcers and informers, receive privileges, such as access to narcotics and women.
Most torture victims Human Rights Watch interviewed were adult males. We also interviewed five minors who described being tortured, and relatives and lawyers of other minors told us of more such cases. In some cases, the detainees were tortured for petty crimes. Oleg Fetisov, a minor in Ekaterinburg, was tortured by near asphyxiation and beatings in 1996 for stealing a jacket from another schoolboy. Unable to withstand the torture, he jumped out of a third-floor window. He was taken to a hospital with a fractured skull, pelvic bone, and arm; a small cerebral hemorrhage; a damaged knee; and a concussion.
In several of the cases Human Rights Watch investigated, torture led to the death of or permanent injury to the detainee. Oleg Igonin was tortured to death by gas-mask asphyxiation in 1995. Boris Botvinnik lost more than 90 percent of his eyesight after police tortured him in 1996, beating and asphyxiating him at his Moscow apartment. A medical examination confirmed that the damage to his vision may have been caused by beatings to the back of the head.
In the course of our research, we found four cases of detainees who leapt or fell from police precinct windows-a peculiar hallmark of torture in Russia. One man from Arkhangel'sk province, fell to his death. The other young men told Human Rights Watch they jumped to escape the torture that they were no longerable to withstand. Two of them were tortured by electroshock, one was asphyxiated in a gas mask. Twenty-four-year-old "Dmitrii Ivanov" (not his real name) from a town in Central Russia fell fifteen meters to the ground after police beat him and subjected him to electroshock. He fell on his back on a parked car, breaking his back. Despite undergoing surgery, Ivanov will never be able to walk again and was not even able to sit up when Human Rights Watch interviewed him. Twenty-three year old Aleksei Mikheev from Nizhnii Novgorod jumped out of a police station's upper window after he was tortured with electroshock, landing on a parked motorcycle. As of this writing, he was paralyzed from the waist down and recovery prospects were uncertain.
Due to conflicts of interest inherent in the procuracy-the state agency that bears responsibility for criminal investigation and prosecution, and human rights protection-strong corporate solidarity in the police force, pressures on prosecutors, and intimidation of the victims themselves, the overwhelming majority of the abusive police officers who torture criminal suspects are not held accountable. Some prosecutions of torture cases take place, but this appears to be limited to exceptional cases in which the torture victim dies, is maimed or, as in the cases of suspects who fall from high windows, attains public notoriety. Informal procuracy inquiries into torture complaints, which a torture victim usually files prior to his trial, frequently do not lead to a criminal investigation against abusive police officers, and complaints filed during the defendant's trial are usually dismissed without serious consideration. Criminal investigations of police abuse have yielded a mixed record, and few victims of torture are known to have received compensation for the injuries they suffered. In some cases, torture victims reported that police or procuracy officials threatened them with repercussions if they were to complain about their treatment. Victims can also seek accountability through the Russian ombudsman's office, which started to work on torture when it was established in 1998. However, it is too early to assess the effectiveness of this complaint procedure. While international remedies, like appeals to the European Court of Human Rights, are theoretically open to torture victims, international bodies appear not yet to have heard any torture cases from Russia.
Our research and that of numerous human rights groups in Russia's regions show that the informal inquiries conducted by the procuracy into complaints of abuse are exceedingly superficial. These are conducted primarily by young and inexperienced procurator's assistants, who often reportedly do no more than forward complaints to the chiefs of police precincts for a response, take these responses at face value, and neither interview the complainant nor seek otherevidence of abuse. The procedure frequently ends with a letter informing the complainant in a few stark sentences that because his complaint "was not confirmed by the facts," no criminal proceedings will take place, without further explanation. Most torture complaint procedures end after this procedure, since many complainants are not aware of their right to study the records of the procurator's inquiry and to challenge it. If victims of police abuse do challenge the outcome of the initial inquiry, they face lengthy delays as the complaint wends its way up the hierarchy of procuracies-district, city, province, and federal. As the process drags on, evidence of torture (wounds, burns, and the like) disappears and the likelihood of a criminal investigation of the torture claim diminishes.
Torture victims who seek justice can become intimidated by police and procuracy threats. For example, procuracy officials reportedly threatened Dmitrii Ivanov's mother with repercussions if she were to lodge a complaint about the torture of her son. She was told that if she were to pursue the torture complaint, her son's "status could easily be changed from witness to defendant." After this threat, she gave up all attempts to bring to justice the police officers whose abuse resulted in her son being crippled.
In the minority of cases in which criminal proceedings are begun, abusive police may threaten and intimidate the complainants or case investigators, or the procuracy itself can undermine the investigation. In the case of Oleg Fetisov, who was fifteen-years-old when police tortured him, the procuracy began a criminal investigation into the boy's torture allegations and even charged the police officer with exceeding authority. The case, however, never went to court. It was transferred to another procuracy, ostensibly to ensure greater objectivity, and eventually closed. In 1997, procurators in Ekaterinburg began a criminal investigation against police officer Sergei Kolosovskii for asphyxiating a suspect. Local police officers launched a campaign on behalf of their colleague, with the support of several newspapers. The procurator in charge of the case told Human Rights Watch that large numbers of armed police sat demonstratively in the corridor outside his office as well as in the courtroom to intimidate procuracy and court employees. In court, Kolosovskii was acquitted of one charge; the second charge was sent back for further investigation. In Nizhnii Novgorod, a district procuracy started a criminal investigation into the arbitrary arrest and torture of Timofei Petrov in 1996. For three months, the alleged torturers intensely harassed Petrov and finally reportedly offered him money to drop his complaint. Petrov, apparently tired of the harassment, accepted the money as an informal settlement and withdrew his complaint, after which the procuracy closed the criminal case.
The record on those torture and ill-treatment cases that reach the courts is mixed, ranging from acquittals to lenient to appropriate sentences. Human RightsWatch is aware of the conviction of twenty-five police officers for torture or ill-treatment in seven criminal cases over a period of six years. The most significant conviction to date took place in February 1998, when the Supreme Court of Mordovia found seven police officers guilty of acts constituting torture and related crimes. This case began with the 1995 torture death of nineteen-year-old Oleg Igonin in Mordovia, which drew unprecedented attention from the Russian media. The media followed the case through to the historic conviction of several police officers for a range of related crimes three years later. On July 25, 1995, A. Daev, Ye. Sazonov and A. Guliaikin, detectives from the Lenin police precinct in Saransk, asphyxiated and beat A. Lavrent'ev, a minor, and demanded that he confess to armed robbery and name his accomplices. After Lavrent'ev named Oleg Igonin as his alleged co-offender, the Saransk precinct chiefs instructed their subordinates to detain Igonin. The three detectives and their colleague Kuflin detained Igonin at his home at 2:00 a.m., brought him to the police station, did not register him with the duty officer or write a detention report, and forced him to write a confession. Police asphyxiated Igonin with a gas mask on various occasions, until Igonin died at around 4:00 a.m. at the station.
Lack of Redress
Most torture victims are unable to get immediate access to medical professionals, let alone official forensic medical experts. As a result, medical evidence of torture is almost always lost. The procuracy and courts, which are obliged under Russian and international law to exclude any confessions or testimony received under duress, routinely ignore evidence of torture, and courts often base convictions on coerced testimony.
Russian criminal procedure, physicians' reluctance to have anything to do with the police, and simple financial constraints combine to make it unlikely that a torture victim will obtain medical documentation of torture. Forensic medical experts may examine people only at the request of certain law enforcement officials and judges. Torture victims and their lawyers cannot approach these forensic experts directly. They can, of course, request the investigator or judge in the case to order a forensic examination, but the latter can simply dismiss the request, claiming it is not germane to the criminal case. For example, Boris Botvinnik and his lawyer asked investigators, and later the judge, numerous times to order a forensic examination. Despite the fact that a hospital in Volgograd diagnosed Botvinnik with head trauma, both investigators and the judge refused these repeated requests.
Torture victims may also seek a medical examination by a regular doctor, but such a doctor's conclusions are often not accepted in court. In addition, victimswho remain in temporary holding facilities at police stations face problems gaining access to such doctors, as most of these facilities do not employ medical personnel. Detainees at pretrial detention centers, which do employ permanent medical staff, may distrust these staff members. Even victims who have been released face problems getting a medical examination as many medical doctors are reluctant to examine people who claim they were tortured by the police.
When confronted with a torture complaint, judges at trial generally appeared to question the defendant on the issue, often summoned the alleged perpetrators for questioning, and sometimes requested medical documents. Some judges subsequently dismissed the torture complaint without further inquires, while others sent it back to the procuracy for further investigation or instructed the procuracy to investigate it. However, Human Rights Watch's research did not identify any case in which evidence allegedly obtained under torture was excluded in court.
Cycle of Abuse
The torture experience is part of a cycle of abuse, which starts at the time of arrest and continues through conviction or beyond. These abuses range from arbitrary detention to life-threatening conditions in detention to refusal to acknowledge judicial errors.
Our research shows that police frequently make improper use of detention procedures when detaining suspects. For example, police may ask an individual to come to the police station for an ostensibly voluntary visit, rather than issuing a summons. The nature of these visits leaves the procedural status of the individual unclear and relieves police officers of the obligation to process any detention or arrest report that documents the individuals presence in custody and to inform the individual of his or her rights. However, force may be used to bring the individual to the police station in case he or she refuses to come, testifying to the not-so-voluntary nature of what effectively becomes a detention without a warrant. Police also frequently detain suspects on administrative charges for misdemeanors like swearing in public or petty hooliganism. However, once the detainee is in custody, police may question him or her on much more serious criminal charges, taking advantage of the more limited safeguards provided in law for those held on administrative charges. While criminal suspects-in law, if not in practice-are guaranteed immediate access to a lawyer, the law is much less clear on the right to counsel for those held on administrative charges.
Most torture victims are kept in pretrial detention centers from the time they are charged until a court verdict has attained legal force, which often takes years. The conditions in these pretrial detention centers are so horrific that the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture called them "torturous." The cells are severelyovercrowded-in many centers, detainees sleep in shifts and cannot sit down all at once. There is an acute lack of fresh air, no privacy, poor lighting, and the hygienic situation is such that the special rapporteur called these cells "incubators for diseases."
In our research, we came across several apparent miscarriages of justice-cases in which defendants were convicted on the basis of confessions obtained under duress. In these cases, the procuracy was often slow to admit its mistakes, causing apparently innocent individuals-including some facing the death penalty-to continue to be held in prison. In an egregious example, as of this writing, the Procuracy General refused to submit the case of Sergei Mikhailov, a man who was apparently wrongly convicted for raping and murdering a minor, to the Supreme Court, even though three independent procuracy investigators had established that Mikhailov did not commit the crimes, and another suspect had been identified.