Russia: A Move to Investigate Police Abuses

New Unit Needs Independence, Robust Mandate, Resources
April 19, 2012
(Moscow) – The creation of a special unit to investigate crimes by law enforcement officials is an important step toward ending impunity and eliminating torture by law enforcement and security agencies in Russia, Human Rights Watch said today. It will be critically important for the unit to have the independence, robust mandate authority, and resources it needs to do its job, Human Rights Watch said.
On April 18, 2012, the head of Russia’s Investigation Committee, Alexander Bastrykin, signed an order to establish a special unit responsible for investigating allegations of abuse committed by police and other law enforcement officials. The decision to establish such a specialized unit was largely based on recommendations by a coalition of leading Russian nongovernmental organizations that have long advocated measures to prevent torture and other abuses by law enforcement officers and effective prosecution when abuses occur.
“Victims of police torture in Russia have been waiting a long time for justice,” said Hugh Williamson, director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch. “Creating the capacity for effective, independent investigations into police abuses – and the independence it needs to do the job – is an important step forward, but the proof will be in the pudding.”
On March 22, the coalition of nongovernmental groups published and opened for signature a joint letter to Bastrykin demanding the creation of an independent body tasked with investigation of human rights violations and other abuses by law enforcement officials. By mid-April, approximately 5,000 people from across the country had signed the letter. The new unit should cooperate with civil society activists in its efforts to counter human rights abuses by law enforcement agencies. It is also especially important for the new unit to be protected from pressure by the people it is investigating, Human Rights Watch said.
The problem of torture and ill-treatment by Russian law enforcement is deeply entrenched. In 1999, Human Rights Watch published a report, “Confession at Any Cost: Police Torture in Russia,”, documenting the use of police torture and the appalling lack of effective investigations into torture allegations. In 2006, one of the people interviewed for the report, Aleksei Mikheev, who was permanently paralyzed as a result of police torture, won his case against Russia in the European Court of Human Rights – the first such case against Russia. He received a compensation of 250,000 euro, the court’s highest damage award to a torture victim.
Impunity for police torture and lawlessness by law enforcement officials have caused growing public discontent. Numerous credible allegations of torture have not been investigated effectively, Human Rights Watch said. Human rights advocates point to the close cooperation between investigators and police officials, even when investigating crimes allegedly committed by the police, as a key impediment to independent and effective investigations.
In 2011, President Dmitry Medvedev introduced long-awaited law enforcement reform, but effectively failed to address the problem of torture and police impunity.
In March, the death of a detainee in Tatarstan after police allegedly sodomized him with a bottle triggered a wave of public outrage and led to the resignation of the regional police chief. The death caused such scandal that the Russian media published numerous reports of other alleged police torture around the country. The cases included the use of severe beatings, electric shocks and near-suffocation, as well as use of other forms of coercion, to extract confessions from detainees.
The decision to carry out the recommendation by human rights defenders for a special investigation unit has the potential finally to significantly improve the effectiveness of investigations into allegations of police torture and other abuses, Human Rights Watch said, though actual progress can only be measured by an objective evaluation of the unit’s work.
“Russia’s civil society and international human rights groups will monitor this unit closely as it is established and carries out its operations,” Williamson said. “This looks like a very positive development, but it will do victims of police abuses no good if it turns out to be a toothless tiger.”