Man's Death In Police Custody Leads To More Revelations Of Abuse In Russia

March 16, 2012
MOSCOW -- Albert Zagitov was selling fruit at a Kazan market when police detained him, threatened him with rape, and beat him until he agreed to pay a small fine.
Aliya Sadykova was picked up on suspicion of theft in the Tatar capital and also threatened with rape unless she confessed to a crime she says she did not commit.
And Stanislav Kim was beaten so severely by police that he had to be hospitalized. Two officers then visited him in the hospital and threatened further abuse if he lodged a complaint.
All three had been silent about what they claim happened to them -- until now, that is.
The unusually swift arrest of five Kazan police officers over the death of a man who was allegedly raped and tortured in police custody last week has led to a spate of Russians revealing their own tales of abuse.
The case that sparked these revelations involves 52-year-old Sergei Nazarov, who was arrested for hooliganism on March 9 and later taken to a hospital, where he died of a ruptured intestine.
He allegedly told doctors that he was severely beaten and raped by police with a champagne bottle.
Thus far, nine police officers have been fired from Kazan's Dalny district police station, where the alleged incident took place, including the station chief, Sergei Yefremov. Five of the officers are facing criminal charges.
Police Lawlessness
According to Pavel Chikov of the human rights group Agora, eight Kazan residents have approached his organization with stories of police beatings and torture since Nazarov's death was made public. At least two of these people say they were abused in the very same Dalny police station.
"There's an unwritten rule in Russia that if there is a body, then someone has to do time," he says. "If there hadn't been a body, then we can say that nothing would have happened [with this case]. The second reason [for the case’s high resonance] is the heightened vigilance of civil society in Russia to police lawlessness. It is unquestionably higher than it was a few years ago."
Rights activists like Chikov say the case's unusual public resonance -- and the authorities' unusually rapid response -- reflects a growing intolerance in society to police abuse and arbitrary behavior.
The trend has been growing, they say, since April 2009, when Moscow police major Denis Yevsyukov went on a shooting rampage in a Moscow supermarket, killing two and wounding seven.
Fierce Debate
Nazarov's death has received extensive press coverage and sparked a fierce debate on social media sites with many Kazan residents demanding the dismissal of Tatarstan's Interior Minister Asgat Safarov.
On March 15, dozens of activists gathered outside the Tatarstan Interior Ministry building in Kazan bearing mock champagne bottles and a wreath.
The demonstrators chanted "Out with Safarov!" "Shame!" and "No to police torture!" Two activists were detained and accused of insulting the police.
Thus far, Safarov has managed to hold onto his job, although he was publicly reprimanded on March 15 by his boss, Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev.
"Those who have betrayed the interests of their service, those who betrayed their oath, and those who have besmirched the honor of their uniform are a disgrace," Nurgaliyev said, "They have brought shame on the Interior Ministry and its staff but most of all on their superiors who allowed the possibility of such situations happening within their ranks."
"I am not shirking responsibility for what happened," Safarov said in response to the rebuke. "I am ready to punish anyone."
Abuse Remains Rampant
Some rights activists note, however, that police abuse remains rampant in Russia and will continue to be prevalent long after the furor over Nazarov's death fades.
“This story is a breakthrough for the media, but [the case] is not really special," says Igor Sholokhov, a Kazan-based activist with the Kazan Human Rights Center. "Unfortunately, this happens on a fairly regular basis. Of course people do not die every time in police stations. Usually, it ends with light injuries.”
Some Russian officials say the frequency of police torture is the result of a system that requires police to meet regular quotas of arrests and convictions.
“What are the Kazan police doing? They are doing the same thing that all police across Russia are doing," Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, said during a special session of the State Duma called on March 14 to address Nazarov's death.
"There aren’t enough arrests, so they arrest," he added. "If there aren’t enough solved crimes, then they force confessions out of people using torture.”
Settling Scores?
Others point out that Russian Interior Minister Nurgaliyev and other law-enforcement leaders often use cases like Nazarov's death to oust rivals and settle scores, suggesting that a house cleaning in the Kazan police force could be on the way.
This is what many observers say happened in St. Petersburg earlier this year
In January, the death in police custody of 15-year old Nikita Leontiyev who was arrested on charges of robbery became a pretext for the firing of local police chief Mikhail Sukhodolsky, a rival of Nurgaliyev.
But for those who have come forward in the wake of Nazarov’s death, these behind-the-scenes machinations are less important than the hope that the case it will lead to more accountability.
"Of course, I honestly hope that they will look at my case again," says Zagitov, the Kazan fruit seller who says he was abused by police. "I have appealed to the Interior Ministry again and I truly hope they will reconsider."
RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service and Natalya Dzhanpoladova from RFE/RL’s Russian Service contributed to this report.