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‘They asked why I don’t support Putin’ After the January 23 protest in Astrakhan, police unlawfully detained a 22-year-old student and used her social media to incite protests. Here’s her story. 

Source: Meduza
Vera Inozemtseva’s personal archive

On January 23, hundreds of thousands of people across Russia took part in massive demonstrations in support of jailed opposition figure Alexey Navalny. In the city of Astrakhan, several hundred people attended a large rally that turned into a march through the city center. Though the rest of the country saw mass arrests, there were no detentions reported in Astrakhan. However, a local student named Vera Inozemtseva later filed a complaint against the police with state investigators: according to the 22-year-old, police officers unlawfully detained her after the rally and then used her social media accounts to post calls for further protests. For Meduza, Vera recounts the story of her abduction and subsequent arrest, in her own words.

The abduction

I was coming home after the rally when I noticed a police car sitting by the entrance to my building. It was a jeep, not the Soviet kind, but a modern one. I immediately sensed that it must be waiting for me. I was able to write [about my possible arrest] to а human rights advocate I know (Meduza has a copy of the screenshot). Then things started to happen very quickly, literally within seconds.

Two officers got out [of the car], hastily introduced themselves, and asked me to get into the car. I think they were [police] sergeants, but I didn’t get a look at their badge numbers or name tags. I remember that they were wearing turquoise colored medical masks.

I, of course, asked on what grounds [they were asking me to get in the car], but they didn’t give an answer. I was still trying to get an answer out of them when a rather large man in civilian clothes stepped out of the backseat [of the car]. He was wearing a black long-sleeve and dark blue jeans. He appeared to be from the Caucasus: [he had] wide, very thick brows with a distinct, rounded shape. His hair was cut short, it was black and curly, I think. He was wearing a mask too, but a light-colored one with laces instead of elastic bands [like those on the policemen's masks].

He grabbed one of my arms and put it behind my back, my phone was in my other hand. He started grabbing it while pushing me into the car. He broke one of my nails. I screamed and called for help, but he shoved me into the car very quickly, took my phone, and tried to cover my face with my hat. I took it off quickly.

When this man was shoving me into the car, he said that I was resisting the legal demands of the police officers. I tried to clarify everything: “So this is an [article] 19.3 story?” But they didn’t say anything [in response] to that. They also gave no answer when I asked what was happening, why they were taking me, and where we were going.

The car was filthy and covered in dust — my jeans got dirty. There was lots of trash in the backseat: empty bottles and bags. I asked them to get rid of it and to open a window. It felt stuffy, perhaps also due to the stress. It was awful.

At first, I didn’t understand where we were going. Then we passed the FSB building and drove up to the Kirov Regional Police Department. I know the city well and realized that they had chosen a very odd route. When we stopped, the man in civilian clothes got out of the car and gave my phone to a police officer. I asked that the officer with my phone remain in my sight. I had to insist on this, because they didn’t want to do it.

I don’t think the man who abducted me went into the building. But the other two officers did. I was taken through the corridors and my phone was constantly being passed around to different people in civilian clothing and people in uniform. At one point, I didn’t know where my phone was because the person who had it was hiding in the corridors.

They put me in an office, with a sign on the door that read “Chief of Criminal Investigation Unit.” I tried to memorize as many details as possible.

A little while later, a large, tall man in civilian clothing came into the office — he was maybe [6 foot 2]. He wasn’t wearing a mask. I noted that he had more of a Slavic appearance, with short, dark hair that was starting to turn grey. And a small bald patch in the front. He didn’t state his name or rank, even though I asked. He said that we were going to have a “talk.”

At the station, I continually asked the staff to record the fact that I was there. [I asked them] to explain to me what was happening and to give me back my phone. But they ignored all of it. I asked the man who had come into the office to document our conversation and I tried to find out the legal status of this discussion: was it an interrogation or a questioning, or [was I giving] a statement? But he said that we were simply “talking.”

The conversation was very strange. He asked about Navalny’s regional headquarters, how it opened in Astrakhan, if I’m in personal contact with Alexey Navalny, and how I found out about the protest that took place across Russia on January 23. Then the conversation went in a completely incomprehensible direction: why I don’t support Putin, something like that.

I have been following protests in general since 2011–2012. Back then, I was too young to get involved. In 2017, when the “Don’t Call Him Dimon” investigation came out and Navalny called on everyone to take to the streets on March 26, I went. That was the beginning of my public political activism. That same year I started working at the Navalny regional headquarters, which had just opened in Astrakhan. Later, my position of assistant coordinator was cut due to downsizing in small cities and I became a volunteer. Following the 2018 [presidential] elections, the office was closed. I came to the January 23 rally as a [human rights] “defender” – to monitor the observance of due process [during] detentions, if there were going to be any, and to help the detainees.

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Our talk lasted about 20-30 minutes and ended abruptly. The man suddenly just got up and left. Later I learned that at that very moment my friends and loved ones had begun to look for me. Just before I was abducted, I wrote [to my husband] that I was coming home and asked him to warm up food for me. So, when I didn’t show up, they called the police. I think this played a key role in my release.

I was left under the watch of some other police officers for about another half hour. Then three plainclothes officers in medical masks came in and said “Let’s go!” In the corridor one of them pulled a bunch of phones out of his pocket and asked which was mine. I showed him and reached my hand out to to take it. But he wouldn’t give it to me.

An unmarked car was waiting for us at the exit. It was white with tinted windows. I asked to look at the license plate. They just laughed and didn’t let me. They put me in the backseat in between two plainclothes officers. Two other men sat in the front. I saw the driver’s eyes and recognized him as the man who abducted me. This time he was wearing a grey hooded jacket. When I told the everyone in the car about him, he pulled up his hood and adjusted the rearview mirror. They told me they were taking me home.

As we drove up to my building, my phone rang. The man who had my phone took it out and said, “answer it on speaker phone and say that you’re already close to home.” I did what he said (Vera’s husband confirmed to Meduza that she told him over the phone that she’d be home soon at approximately that time), but my phone wasn’t returned to me after that.

Then my abductor turned around and said “You’ll behave yourself?” I didn’t understand what he meant. Then he asked what I planned to do the following day. I told him that I planned to file a complaint with the prosecutor’s office over being unlawfully detained. He said “Don’t even think about it, got it?” Then he added that I shouldn’t tell anyone anything.

They didn’t want to hand over my phone, they said that it would serve as a “guarantee that I wouldn’t say anything to anyone.” I promised not to complain to the prosecutor’s office, but that didn’t help. Then I grabbed hold of the front seat and said that they can do anything they liked but I wouldn’t get out without my phone. We argued for a long time and, in the end, they gave me my phone, took me out of the car, and drove me up to the corner of my building. There, they told me once again not to say anything to anyone.

I walked away but then — from the other direction — two uniformed police officers came up to me and asked me to come with them.

The official arrest

I had no choice. I got into the backseat of their police car, which was parked nearby. There was a plainclothes officer in the car. I asked him immediately, “Are you going to take my phone now too?” He didn’t understand what I was talking about. I told him what had happened to me all that time. But at first, he didn’t believe me.

While we were driving I tried to find out on what basis I was being detained. But the officer said that he himself didn’t know. They brought me to the Kirov Regional Police Department once again. While we were waiting to go through security, I could see the surveillance monitor and noticed that two cameras were switched off — the ones that looked out onto the street where the unmarked car that had taken me away just a little while earlier was parked.

My phone was blowing up. I saw a message from a friend that said something like, “Delete your posts quickly or you’ll get fined.” I opened VKontakte and saw two posts that I hadn’t written. I delete them quickly, without really reading them (Vera’s husband confirmed to Meduza that he saw those posts at about six o’clock in the evening while he was unable to reach her; according to him, the posts contained calls to participate in the next protests in support of Alexey Navalny.) Then I opened Facebook and found the same two posts. I deleted those too.

My phone could have been unlocked with either my fingerprint or my passcode. My passcode was the number one six times. I understand that this isn’t safe. But I didn’t expect that it could end up [in the hands] of bad people. I told the police officer about everything that had happened. He was very surprised and said that I made a mistake in deleting those posts.

About an hour later they took me to the floor of the criminal investigations department but put me in a different office. An officer who had spoken with me earlier, during the first detention, was there. He took a statement from me confirming that I had committed an offense under article 20.2 [by participating in the rally]. I tried to get clarification on the section [of the article], because there’s a big difference, but they told me they still “weren’t sure.”

Toward the end of giving my statement, I realized that in the car I had told the officer about what my kidnapper warned me not to talk about. And I became frightened. Realizing that there could be [а listening device] in my phone, I asked for a sheet of paper and wrote down everything that had happened to me since the protest. They were surprised and started asking more questions. I answered all the questions in writing. Later I destroyed this piece of paper in the bathroom.

They believed me but not right away. Evidently, it was apparent just by looking at me that something out of the ordinary had happened to me. In the end, they told me that they would look into the situation. But I don’t know if that’s true (Meduza sent an inquiry to the Russian Interior Ministry’s Astrakhan Regional branch requesting comment on this incident but has yet to receive a response at the time of this writing).

Then they took my fingerprints and photographed me next to a ruler. For about an hour the police were trying to decide which section [of Article 20.2] to charge me under, either section 2 or section 5. Finally, they brought me a copy of a protocol charging me under section 5 (Meduza has a copy of the protocol) and an order on referring the case to court.

* * * 

When I got home, I quietly told my husband, in a whisper, about everything that happened to me that day. And I spent all of the next day thinking about what to do next and speaking with people I trust. In the end, we came to the conclusion that the only possible way out of the situation is to go public with the story so that this doesn’t happen to anybody else.

To be honest, I think that they have an order to find the [protest] organizers at any cost. But there weren’t any organizers in our city. Still — because of the issues concerning Navalny — it seems to me that now they’re digging into him all over the country.

I lodged a complaint with the Investigative Committee. I did it online because I’m still scared to leave my home (Meduza has a letter from the investigative department of the Astrakhan Region’s Investigative Committee branch confirming receipt of Vera’s appeal).

Seeing police cars terrifies me. I flinch even if I’m just looking out the window and see a police car go by. But we still have to keep on living and continue fighting. Because more people will notice that, than if I just lie down, be scared, and don’t do anything.

Read more

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Recorded by Kristina Safonova

Translation by Peter Bertero

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