Tortured and silenced at the hands of the police Meduza reports on the widespread torture methods in Russia’s police stations, prisons, and courts
Sergei Pestov, a member of the band “Zhar-ptitsa” (which translates to “The Firebird”), died near Moscow, following a police interrogation. On September 4, police officers broke into the garage where Pestov’s band was rehearsing, handcuffed everyone, and beat Pestov before taking him to the police station. The doctors who were called in to the station determined that he was in a coma. Beatings and deaths at police stations are not unusual in Russia. According to the project Russian Ebola, at least 160 people have died in police departments since the start of 2015. Every year, courts hand down hundreds of sentences for torture, but it’s difficult to gauge the extent of police violence. In a special report for Meduza, Ilya Rozhdestvensky looks at recent torture and deaths that have occurred in Russia at the hands of police officers.
At around noon, Olga Maslova was supposed to come to a local Nizhny Novgorod police department to answer a few questions in connection with a murder case. Maslova was a witness in the case. But as soon as she entered the station, she was asked to confess to stealing the victim’s personal belongings. When she refused, two policemen started screaming at her, yanked her soccer fan scarf off her neck and started whipping at her head with the scarf. Then one of the policemen left the room, the second policeman locked the door, handcuffed Maslova, and raped her. An hour and a half later, she was permitted to go to the bathroom and freshen up. When she returned, the police officers starting punching her in the stomach. They also put a gas mask on her and blocked the flow of air. In addition, the officers electrocuted Maslova by attaching wires to her earrings.
Another two hours passed by in this manner, and by then Maslova was ready to confess to almost anything. But the torture continued. The two police officers were joined by an investigator, who saw the Russian soccer club CSKA insignia on Maslova’s scarf and asked her to denounce the club. That evening, after more beatings, Maslova slashed her wrists in a suicide attempt in the station’s bathroom. The attempt was unsuccessful, and when she was found, she was raped again by two officers. She was released from the station at around 10 p.m.
The police officers involved were never brought to justice. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that the government owes her 70,000 euros in compensation.
Maslova’s case was unique because she had to endure almost the entire array of torture techniques used by the Russian police. It is difficult to calculate how many people fall victim to such torture in Russia every year. If caught, police officers can face up to ten years in prison for Article 286, Part 3, of the Russian Criminal Code: “abuse of office involving violence.” Over the past four years, the number of officers sentenced for this has fallen twofold: in 2011, there were 1,651 cases, compared with just 961 cases in 2014, according to Supreme Court statistics. But other crimes also fall under this article, and it is impossible to determine what proportion of the officers were convicted for torture specifically. Moreover, about 30 people convicted of this crime are pardoned annually. Others get away with paying a fine or serving suspended sentences. Human rights advocates claim that law enforcement officers try at all costs to avoid bringing their colleagues to justice on charges of torture.
Usually, police violence begins with psychological pressure. Officers threaten to beat and rape the arrested individual or to lock them up in prison. They force the person to stand near a wall and shoot at them with blank ammunition, simulating an execution. They threaten to cut their victims with a power tool (this was used on Anzor Gubashev, one of the defendants in the Boris Nemtsov murder case). Sometimes police officers lock people in a basement with a sack over their heads for days. Sometimes, the locked-up person will hear screams for help from the neighboring room, and officers tell them the screams are coming from the person’s very own family members.
If threats like this don’t give the officers what they want, they turn to action. What they do depends on the degree to which they fear being held responsible for it. If the officer believes they won’t be brought to justice, they use primitive torture methods resulting in a great deal of physical marks on the victim’s body. The officers punch, bludgeon, and beat the victims with furniture and anything that happens to be at hand; they also poke through victims’ eardrums using ballpoint pens, put pencils up the victims’ noses and stick needles under their nails.
Akhmed Gasayev, who was kidnapped by Russian soldiers in 2003, was beaten for 16 days straight. He said that for four months after the ordeal, the hair on his head would not grow. Another prisoner, Zubair Zubairayev, who was sentenced for attacking a security officer and being in possession of weapons in 2007, was beaten both by police officers and Federal Penitentiary System employees.
“They nailed his feet to the floor. When he told me this, I honestly couldn’t believe it,” Zabairayev’s lawyer told human rights advocates, according to files the human rights association Agora showed Meduza. “He took off his socks and showed me the holes from the nails on the right and left foot. He was beaten in the kidney area with a bottle of water. Even the doctors beat him. Okay, they were police-authorized doctors—that explains at least something—but they were doctors! You can draw your own conclusions about how doctors like that treat [their patients].”
“He didn’t have control over his body. He couldn’t sit or stand,” said Zubairayev’s sister, Malika. “There was pus on his arm; Zubair said that the deputy prison doctor, named Novikov, would put some kind of powder on the wounds so that they would not heal. My brother also said that he got stitches on the skin of his wrists, but they didn’t stitch the slashed ligaments.”
If police officers do not want to leave any physical marks on the body of their victim, they turn to various cunning torture innovations. During beatings, they use water bottles or sacks of sand. They also wrap the objects used for beatings in thick wet towels. That way, the victim does not bruise, but if they are hit hard enough, they can sustain serious blunt trauma or even get a concussion.
Electrocution also hardly leaves any marks—only small dark dots on one’s skin. This torture method is sometimes dubbed “a phone call to Putin,” “Polygraph Polygraphovich,” “the Internet,” “the death machine,” or “birdie.” To get a weak, yet high-voltage current, police officers use an old electrical insulation testing device, a plunge battery, or a field telephone that has an electric generator. Tasers also leave no marks, but they hurt like your nerves are being yanked out. An arrested man named Igor Peskarev once gave such a fierce jolt after he was electrocuted that he tore his handcuffs. Suspects in the murder trial of late opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, as well as Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov, all claimed they were electrocuted while in police custody.
“The had this electric rolling thing—a small machine with a handle. Two wires extended from it. They attached them to your ears,” Igor Akhremenko told Kommersant, recalling his arrest. “I was chained to a heater, and one guy held my legs, and another held my head. They asked me questions and turned the handle. At first they turned it slowly, then faster. When they would turn it quickly, I would just pass out. I passed out five times.”
Another popular torture method is known as the “elephant method.” Policemen put a gas mask on the arrested individual and cut off their air supply. When they start to choke, the officers beat them in order to quicken their breath. The victim often faints from lack of air. Sometimes bug spray, ammonia, or other harsh-smelling chemicals are sprayed into the gas mask, which usually causes the victim to vomit right into the gas mask and start choking on their own vomit. This happened to Sentsov’s co-defendant, Gennady Afanasyev. The so-called “supermarket method” is the “elephant’s” distant cousin: this torture technique uses a plastic bag instead of a gas mask.
“First they just beat me, and then they would handcuff me with my arms behind my back, sit me up in a chair, put a gas mask on my head and cut off the mouthpiece,” 15-year-old Oleg Fetisov told human rights advocates. “This was repeated about four times. The first couple of times I almost passed out, they would take off the gas mask, I would sit down in a chair, and they would let me rest. They’d keep me without air for about a minute, or maybe even longer.”
The “elephant method” caused Boris Botvinnik, a mathematics PhD student, nearly to go blind. Before experiencing this torture technique, he had never had any problems with his vision. “When they searched [my place], they found a gas mask, put it on me, blocked the breathing vent, and started asking me something. Then they decided to stop, invited attesting witnesses in. The attesting witnesses were there for about ten minutes. Then I was taken outside, beaten for half an hour, then dragged back inside. They took me to a different room, took a plastic bag out of my bag, and put it over my head. From time to time, the detective would come in. As far as I understand, he would clarify certain details, since the riot police didn’t know what needed to be done. The bag on the head, the punches in my forehead and my ears; sometimes, when I held my breath for a long time, they would also punch me in the solar plexus.”
Binding is also a favorite torture technique. Victims can be tied in a vast array of different ways, and this hardly leaves any marks on the body, but can still cause painful stretching and tearing. Tying together a victim’s hands and feet in the back and handcuffing their hands causes acute joint pain, cuts off the blood flow at the wrists, and can lead to shoulder injury. Usually the victim is then hung from a rope and bludgeoned in mid-air. In the variation known as “envelope,” the victim’s hands are handcuffed, the victim is placed on the floor, the legs are tied together with a rope, the rope connects the legs to the neck (the neck is first wrapped in a towel so that the rope does not leave any marks), then the head is pulled between the knees in a painful stretch. Another variation involves tying hands and feet together in the back and placing the victim on the floor on their stomach for subsequent punching.
The “television” technique involves forcing the victim to stand in a mid-squat and to extend their arms in front of them holding a stool, with the seat facing them. In this pose, the seat is considered to be the TV screen. In another version of this technique, the victim has to hold two stools. Former military serviceman Andrei Sychev had to endure this pose for three hours. This resulted in intense constriction of the legs and genitals. The blood supply to the lower part of his body was cut off, causing gangrene, a life-threatening condition.
The so-called “stretch” or “rack” is used less frequently. This is a version of medieval torture: the victim’s hands are tied behind their back, they are raised up into the air and hung on a metal rod so that their feet do not reach the ground. Sometimes victims are forced to spend several days in a row standing up, often inside a closet. Other times, victims are forced to lie down on a wooden bench, are handcuffed to the bench, one leg is tied to a rope and the rope is looped around one of the legs of the bench and pulled, painfully stretching the groin.
In solitary confinement cells, in prisons, and sometimes in the army, the “refrigerator” or “Karbyshev” method is used, named after General Dmitry Karbyshev, who died in a concentration camp during World War II. The victim is taken outside naked at sub-zero temperatures, handcuffed, and made to stand there for several hours. Sometimes they are doused in cold water. The opposite method is called “furnace,” when the victim is forced to stand inside a small space for hours in intense heat. This usually happens with suspects who are transported from pre-trial detention centers to the courts, since the 60-by-60-centimeter (24 by 24 inches) confinement module in which the suspects have to stand in the prison truck often heat up to 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).
In penal colonies where guards don’t have to hide torture marks on inmates’ bodies, Federal Penitentiary employees team up with riot police officers who are stationed at prisons to prevent prison riots. These police forces are known for their brutality.
Inmates at a Nizhny Novgorod region prison sent calls for help in letters describing the abuse: “The riot police officers came into the prison with weapons and started beating and humiliating people who were being held in solitary confinement cells as punishment. They kicked them and bludgeoned them, choked them with towels until they lost consciousness, then doused them in cold water. They would ask them their charges and sentences, and then they would start beating them. A few people were beaten until they passed out, then they would stick their heads in the slop pail. They also used ‘Chinese torture.’ They would throw the person on a tabletop and beat their feet with a club. They would make them do the splits and then beat them. They would walk into the cells, ask who would mop the floors, and would take those who didn’t want to out into the hall and also beat them. They would throw the person on the floor, hold down their hands and feet, and another one would stand on their chest or their back and jump. They would strip you naked and beat you. They would stand on tables and kick you right in the face.”
Torture was also popular in the Soviet Union, says human rights lawyer Pavel Chikov. On the one hand, the Soviet army was known for its system of hazing. Then former military servicemen were recruited into the police force, and they would bring their army methods with them into law enforcement. Meanwhile, in the late 1980s, the police saw a rise in criminal activity and organized crime. Criminals became more brutal, and police officers countered this with their own brutality. If official reports on torture in the USSR ever existed, they were classified.
2004 marked the year when the NGO “Committee Against Torture” succeeded in its advocacy for a prison sentence connected with police violence. Nizhny Novgorod Police Major Ivan Chetvertakov got three years behind bars for beating a 24-year-old former hotel security guard who accidentally saw him drinking vodka in the middle of a police operation. In addition to beating the security guard severely, Chetvertakov promised to “screw his head off,” if he reported the incident.
The prison sentence for Chetvertakov was the result of a lot of hard work on the part of human rights advocates. But they don’t always succeed. Recently jailed Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov said he was tortured and emerged from his pre-trial detention center with scratches and bruises. His lawyer, Dmitry Dinze, said that the Attorney General’s Office officially claimed that Sentsov was a BDSM fan and that the trauma marks on his back came from a sexual encounter before he was arrested. That said, a search conducted in his home did not yield any evidence of a BDSM fetish.
Opposition activist and Bolotnaya Square case defendant Leonid Razvozzhayev repeatedly filed complaints of torture, to no avail. Many other complaints filed by arrested individuals have been left unanswered. Reports of torture are part of everyday life in prison colonies, pre-trial detention centers, and courts.
Only one Russian region stands out among the rest as practically torture-free: Tatarstan. In 2012, a man named Sergey Nazarov died after being raped repeatedly with a champagne bottle at a police station in Tatarstan’s capital of Kazan. Alexander Bastrykin, the head of Russia’s Investigative Committee, ordered all regional cases on police violence from the past several years reopened, if the case files contained medical examination results and if the victims were ready to go through with a trial. As a result, the number of criminal cases on police violence in Tatarstan shot up, and then fell to zero. Everyone who was caught was jailed, and a zero-tolerance policy on police violence is in place in Tatarstan to this day. Police officers know better than to risk it.
“Generally speaking, all the officers who used to be untouchables were put behind bars. Almost every police officer has a former partner or colleague who was sentenced. But this is just one region, as a result of just one case, after direct orders from Bastrykin,” says human rights lawyer Pavel Chikov. Chikov believes that if Bastrykin gives the same orders across Russia, torture will stop entirely within a few years.