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Getting away with torture in Russia's criminal justice system

Source: Meduza
Anton Karliner / Novaya Gazeta / SIPA / Scanpix / LETA

Every year, Russian courts issue about 1,000 sentences under Article 286, Part 3 of Russia’s Criminal Codex. While there is no formal definition of “torture” in Russian criminal law (which makes government torture very difficult to track), it is Article 286, Part 3 that punishes violent overreach by government officials and members of the military. While 1,000 convictions per year may sound like a lot, that number has been gradually declining: In 2009, more than 1,800 convictions were issued under the statute, while in 2018, that number sank to less than 800. While acquittal rates in all Russian criminal cases are extremely low, they are relatively high in Article 286 cases. A new report by attorney Maxim Novikov, who works with the human rights group “Zona Prava” (Rights Zone), adds hard to find-context to those statistics and many others. The report, titled “Violence by Security Forces: Crime Without Punishment,” examines more than 250 court rulings as well as judicial statistics. Because some rulings were redacted to exclude information about torture or the compensation civilians received, Novikov used 109 rulings as the primary basis for his report.

He found that 4 percent of Article 286, Part 3 cases that were recorded in the last decade ended in acquittal or dropped charges. In 2018, according to Russian Supreme Court data, that figure was 3.7 percent. The overall rate of acquittal and dropped charges in Russian criminal cases is only 0.43 percent, almost 10 times less than the rate for military or law enforcement officials accused of violent overreach. Novikov argues in his report that those officials are punished less frequently than other Russian residents because they tend to have preexisting knowledge of the Russian criminal justice system that enables them to push back against investigators. “The events in question develop largely within spaces that are controlled by security officials, which inhibits the collection of ‘incriminating’ evidence,” the report indicates.

Ineffective investigations in Russian torture cases have led to regular appeals in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). In 2018 alone, the court affirmed more than 100 of those appeals. Because the ECHR has developed relatively strict standards for the Russian government in such cases, it is not uncommon for the government to award alleged torture victims compensation even before the court considers their appeals.

Aside from disproportionately high acquittal rates, Novikov pointed to disproportionately lenient sentences for those convicted of torture as another problem in the government’s handling of the issue. In almost half of all Article 286, Part 3 cases, judges issued suspended sentences even though all charges made under the statutes are severe felony charges. The second most common punishment for convictions under the law is a fine. Prison sentences stand in third place. “All in all, court sentences under Part 3 of Article 286 are notably more ‘chaotic’ [than sentences for other crimes]. For example, with all else held equal, lesser harm done to [a victim’s] health may receive a more severe punishment, and vice versa. The sentences are also disproportionately lenient on average,” the report concludes.

Prison sentences are typically applied when torture victims die or experience lasting injuries. However, even when the injuries are serious, the security officials who caused them often receive a minimum prison sentence of three years. During the sentencing process, courts take the defendants’ service records into account, including any professional awards. According to Novikov’s report, lenient sentences for lighter injuries lead security officials to engineer their torture practices so as to avoid leaving physical traces on their victims’ bodies. For example, they might use low-voltage electric shocks, beat victims with water bottles, or suspend their victims in painful positions.

However, even more noticeable injuries do not always stop police officers from receiving lenient sentences. For example, Novikov’s report noted that two police officers received suspended sentences of four and five years, respectively, for torturing an arrestee by kicking them around the head and body. Although the victim had only been arrested for an administrative offense, they were kicked severely enough to suffer a lacerated spleen. The report inferred that the officers responsible did not receive harsh sentences in part because they pleaded guilty and in part because each of them paid the victim 30,000 rubles ($469) before they were sentenced.

The ECHR has repeated asked Russian courts in its rulings to ensure that the compensation issued to torture victims is greater than previously issued sums that the ECHR has already deemed to be unreasonably small. Nonetheless, Russian courts have continued to give torture victims compensation that amounts to a few hundred dollars. Those amounts increase only in cases of very serious injuries, though even that correlation is, in the report’s language, “chaotic.” Some more severely injured victims receive smaller court payouts and vice versa. The ECHR consistently increases compensation amounts for Russian torture victims to tens of thousands of euros.

Novikov concludes that current conditions in the Russian criminal justice system enable security officers to follow the following line of reasoning:

  • Without a dead body or serious injuries, investigators will be slow to open a torture case.
  • If they do open a torture case, the investigation will stretch for an extended period of time.
  • If the case reaches the courts, even serious injuries will be met with lenient sentences or, following jail time or house arrest, a sentence of time served.
  • If the victim is compensated, that compensation will be a small sum, and it will be paid from the state budget (though defendants may still be sued individually).

“Ultimately, a security officer who uses violence is only risking the opportunity to keep pursuing a career in state security forces, and the current incentive system works to deter individuals from being imprisoned, not to deter them from committing torture,” Novikov’s report for Zona Prava concludes. It recommends that the Russian government introduce a separate criminal statute to punish torture with a high minimum sentence that is not tied to the severity of the victim’s injuries. The report also recommends that Russia’s Supreme Court develop standards for issuing compensation to victims that comply with ECHR rulings and exceed 700,000 rubles ($10,940) in each case.

The Russian edition of this piece is part of a Meduza special project dedicated to resisting police brutality and reforming the Russian justice system. You can find other pieces from the project here.

Report summarized in Russian by Mikhail Zelenskiy

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