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‘I screamed bloody murder’ Following violent arrests on the streets of St. Petersburg, protesters report continued abuse in police custody

Source: Meduza
Dmitry Lovetsky / AP / Scanpix / LETA

Protesters took to the streets in cities across Russia on April 21, in solidarity with jailed Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny. Law enforcement officers detained more than 1,900 demonstrators nationwide, and more than 800 of these arrests took place in St. Petersburg. The city also saw some of the most violent detentions, as police officers used truncheons and stun guns to subdue demonstrators. For many of the detainees, the violence continued in police custody. Meduza recounts what happened on St. Petersburg’s streets and inside the city’s police stations on the night of April 21. 

The rallies in solidarity with Alexey Navalny began in St. Petersburg and other Russian cities at 7:00 p.m., local time, on April 21. Navalny’s associates called on his supporters in St. Petersburg to come to Palace Square, but the authorities closed it off on the eve of the rally. During the day on April 21, a military band held rehearsals there, and then street cleaners showed up and spent several hours giving the square a thorough sweep

In the end, the protesters moved around the downtown — they started gathering at the Alexander Garden, then made their way towards the Mariinsky Palace. The crowds ended up on Senate Square and Sennaya Square, where law enforcement officers actively began detaining demonstrators.

The police used force and less-lethal weapons widely. Officers threw protesters to the ground, beating their legs with truncheons and breaking their fingers; they also used stun guns against demonstrators. At least one protester was detained just for filming the arrests: police officers shocked him with a stun gun on the way over to a police van, triggering symptoms of cardiac arrhythmia, which the protester had been diagnosed with six years before. The man was able to stop the attack with medication, which he had brought with him to the rally. 

The protesters tried to hide from the police by fleeing into subway stations, but they were seized there too. Officers also detained passersby who were on their way to a nearby shopping center, or simply crossing the street. 

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‘They said I was putting on a show’

Dozens of people were arrested after 10:00 p.m. local time, even though Team Navalny’s St. Petersburg headquarters had announced the end of the rally already. There were so many detainees that some had to wait for free police vans to pick them up — officers made them stand facing a wall with their hands above their heads in the meantime. In total, at the time of writing, independent monitors had recorded 842 detentions in St. Petersburg on April 21. 

Among the detainees was 40-year-old choreographer and ballet teacher Yuri Mirov — he told Meduza that he attended the rally on April 21, as well as the other pro-Navalny rallies earlier this year, “because what’s happening in our country is a tragedy.” Mirov was on his way home from the rally with his mother around 11:00 p.m., when they noticed a police cordon outside of the Zvenigorodskaya Subway Station and turned back. All of a sudden several police vans pulled up — riot policemen jumped out and blocked the street. Then, according to Mirov, the officers “began beating everyone one after the other” with truncheons. 

“We got scared and started to run away. I lost [sight] of my mother, she later said that she and [some other] girls were pressed up against a building and weren’t beaten up. But I ran and this worked like a red flag,” Mirov recalled.

Realizing he was surrounded by the police, Mirov raised his hands and shouted that he wasn’t going to run away — he asked them not to hit him, trying to explain that as a dancer, it’s very important that he doesn’t get injured.

“Six to eight guys ran up and started to hit me. Four of them were holding my arms and legs, and the rest hit me with truncheons and stun guns. I don’t know why they hit my legs with stun guns if they were holding me down. I screamed bloody murder. At that point they said that I was putting on a show and wanting attention,” Mirov recalled.

The police officers loaded Mirov into a paddy wagon. He recalls that the other detainees were afraid for him, because his face was “nothing but bruises.”

At the police station, the women were taken out of the paddy wagon first, followed by Mirov and another man — he too was in need of medical assistance after his arrest. The police officers at the station said they had “nothing to do with the violence” and blamed the “brutality” on the riot policemen, Mirov recalled.

Seeing the state he was in, the police officers took Mirov into a seperate room, where they took a statement. His friends called an ambulance to pick him up from the police station (at the hospital, he was diagnosed with a concussion and kept overnight). Before leaving the police station, Mirov demanded a record of his arrest so he could press charges against the officers who beat him up — the police never gave it to him.

Violence in police custody

Many of the detainees sat in police stations overnight. Ivan Ostapchuk, who runs the St. Petersburg Telegram channel for the volunteer group “Peredachi,” told Meduza that messages from detainees “poured in endlessly” throughout the night. At some police stations, the officers tried to convince activists that certain protesters weren’t in their custody; they refused to accept packages of supplies or, in some cases, took the packages but didn’t give the food and water to the detainees. They also confiscated the protesters’ cell phones and denied them access to the toilets. 

According to testimonies from detainees, police officers at one station tore up a protester’s passport. At other stations, lawyers weren’t allowed access to the detainees — even though the protesters were being threatened with criminal charges. In addition, OVD-Info recorded incidents involving officers beating up detainees and using stun guns against them at at least six police stations that night.

On the morning of April 22, courts handed down 10- to 15-day jail sentences to several detainees. However, most of the protesters arrested on April 21 didn’t go to trial the following day — some of them were still being held inside police stations or even inside paddy wagons, which brought them directly to their court hearings.

One of these detainees was 47-year-old businessman Vadim Zabolotsky — he spent the night in the auditorium of Police Station No. 74. He was detained at the rally along with his 21-year-old daughter. The police struck him with a stun gun twice during his arrest.

The police spent the entire night doing up the paperwork to charge Zabolotsky and the other detainees with organizing an unauthorized rally. When they spoke to Meduza, Vadim and his daughter were inside a police van parked near the Krasnoselsky Court. “We’re sitting in a line of paddy wagons that have arrived at the courthouse,” Vadim said. Heading into the hearing, he was facing 15 days in jail.

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On April 22, the St. Petersburg legislative assembly discussed the actions of the security forces during the rally. From the rostrum, opposition deputy Maxim Reznik said, “I have a question: who, which fool, organized the beating of civilians on the streets of St. Petersburg yesterday? They’re torturing people with stun guns and the St. Petersburg parliament is pretending that nothing is happening.”

The legislative assembly’s speaker, Vyacheslav Makarov from the ruling United Russia party, responded by turning off Reznik’s microphone and expressing his support for the security forces. “If it weren’t from the Rosgvardiya [Russian National Guard], police officers, and the armed forces, what would happen to Mother Russia?”

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Story by Alexandra Sivtsova

Abridged translation by Eilish Hart