In a poll taken among inhabitants of Russia’s 12 largest cities earlier this month, 26 percent of respondents said that they had experienced mistreatment at the hands of police, ranging from rudeness, red tape and inaction to extortion, unjustified arrest and violence. The poll was conducted by the Analytical Center of Yuri Levada, one of Russia’s leading sociologists and the former head of the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM). The poll also was conducted at the request of the Public Verdict Foundation, which assists victims of police abuses. More than 80 percent of those polled said they are “firmly convinced” that police in their city are corrupt, while 40 percent believe that police in their city have links to criminal organizations. Still, two-thirds of those polled said they would appeal to the police if they had to do so. Yet, as Levada’s researchers reported, the need to appeal to the police combined with the knowledge of their ineffectiveness “further increases the negative attitudes of Russians toward the police.”
Another conclusion of the researchers was: “The former state punishment-repressive functions of the police have not disappeared, but have transformed into a source of today’s violations: extortion payments for the guarding and protection of people…demands for additional payments for fulfilling bureaucratic functions prescribed by the law; illegal racketeering and blackmailing of the more well-off groups of the population, people who work in trade [and] the service sector, etc.”
In addition, Levada’s researchers noted that in polls taken during the last decade, the percentage of Russians who say they fully trust the police has remained steady at around 10 percent, while the percentage that completely distrusts the police has hovered around 35-40 percent. “This distrust has a mass, stable and well-founded character,” the researchers concluded (Newsru.com, Hro.org, May 20; Moscow Times, May 21).
Reasons for persistent mistrust of the police by a significant number of Russians were illustrated in an article published in the May 17 issue of Yezhenedelny Zhurnal on the subject of fabricated criminal cases. The magazine quoted Yuri Sinelshchikov, a former first deputy Moscow prosecutor, as saying that while it is difficult to know what percentage of criminal cases are fabricated, it is a common practice. “For example, a businessman needs to be removed: his competitor can pay the police to fabricate a case against him. There are instances in which the police themselves want to extort money out of a businessman. Evidence is planted on him…after that, scare tactics are employed, such as detention, search, and arrest threats. The businessman buys them off. Sometimes it is necessary simply to raise the rate of solved crimes. For that purpose, a person is grabbed and put in prison.” Indeed, an anonymous active-duty Moscow policeman told Yezhenedelny Zhurnal that the system still calls for each police precinct in the capital to solve 40-50 criminal cases per month. But in fact only 20-30 cases are solved, making it more likely that cases will be fabricated.
Such arrest quotas have a direct causal link to another reputedly widespread problem – police torture. The Glasnost Foundation, a human rights group, for example, recently investigated allegations of torture by police in the Siberian city of Irkutsk. The foundation was looking into earlier media reports that two men who were being held in pre-trial detention after being arrested in February, Pavel Bazhenov and Roman Yermolaev, committed suicide after being subjected to systematic torture, including beatings and electric shocks. The foundation found that that media reports concerning circumstances surrounding their deaths were true. Other incidents of torture at the hands of Irkutsk police were uncovered. The group concluded that the use of torture by police in the Irkutsk region is large-scale and systematic (Hro.org, May 12).
Allegations of police torture are by no means restricted to Irkutsk. In March, a group of human rights activists, including such veterans of the Soviet human rights movement as Yelena Bonner and Vladimir Bukovsky, wrote an open letter to Vladimir Lukin, the Yabloko leader and former Russian ambassador to the U.S. Lukin had just been named Russia’s human rights ombudsman. The letter charged that “inflicting torture on people kept in detention institutions has become universal and virtually a rule.” To underscore their claim, the signatories reported that last year, 15 prisoners at the Rossoshanskaya penal colony in Voronezh punctured their own lungs with sharp objects as a protest against the prison administration’s actions. In a separate incident, 40 inmates at a Kazan penal colony slit their own wrists. The open letter also referred to some 5,000 prisoners in six St. Petersburg and Leningrad Oblast prisons and pre-trial detention centers who went on a hunger strike on February 24 to protest what they said was brutal treatment by prison administrators (Prima-news.ru, March 5; St. Petersburg Times, March 12).
A 196-page report released by Human Rights Watch in November 1999, “Confessions at Any Cost: Police Torture in Russia,” stated that Russian police routinely tortured people in custody to obtain confessions. The report cited estimates by some Russian experts that 50 percent of police detainees were subject to torture or mistreatment. In September 2003, Amnesty International cited a study by Krasnoyarsk University in which 30 percent of the convicts that the group interviewed said they had been physically or psychologically tortured into giving confessions.