In Russia, a Different Torture Debate

Russia's police force is blighted by corruption, brutality and outright torture. When a police major went on a fatal shooting rampage in a Moscow supermarket in April, the incident prompted the ouster of Moscow's police chief and fresh promises of reform. In a recent cover package, NEWSWEEK's Russian-language partner, NEWSWEEK Russky, looked at whether the shuffles in the department known as the MVD (Internal Affairs Ministry) could actually make a difference. This article, adapted from a report by Yelizaveta Mayetnaya, Pavel Sedakov and Aleksandr Raskin, examines some of the problems endemic in the Russian force.

In early April, Russian police picked up Aleksei Yakimov in Nizhny Novgorod, a sizeable city 200 miles east of Moscow. Solidly built, bald and with a criminal record, officers wanted to confirm Aleksei's identity. "A gangster," the detectives of the criminal-investigation division snickered. After tying plastic bags around Aleksei's neck, the officers beat him half to death. Toward morning, he was dumped in the icy Volga River. "I was lucky—at the last moment they took the cuffs off me," Aleksei says. "The cops got scared that government handcuffs would be found on the corpse."

Aleksei's story is hardly uncommon. In Tyumen, a Siberian outpost, authorities are currently investigating a case in which a drunken police officer strangled a disabled person. In Saratov, three detectives are on trial for beating a robbery suspect to death and then burning the body. In Perm, staffers at a medical sobering-up station tied a detainee's hands behind his back and tied his bent-back legs to them, known as a "swallow." The detainee died, and investigators charged the officers with no crime.

All of these incidents result from a systemic problem in the MVD, which is essentially the national police department. The combination of poor recruitment policies and a shortage in police ranks have made for a volatile mix. Reporting by NEWSWEEK Russia reveals that the MVD has been undermined by a system of clans, personal acquaintances and hometown cronyism. "There is neither parliamentary nor public oversight of the police," complains lawmaker Gennady Gudkov. Despite claims by the MVD that wrongdoing by its officers is on the wane, the reality is that misconduct, and torture, is rampant throughout the system.

According to the European Court of Human Rights, every third complaint from Russia involves the use of torture during interrogations. Conversely, the MVD recently reported optimistically that the number of criminal police officers is steadily dropping. In 2008, criminal proceedings were initiated against 1,300 Russian police officers, and 1,500 were dismissed from police bodies for various offenses, a 10 percent drop from 2007. At the same time, citizens' confidence in the police grew from 30 to 38 percent, according to Rashid Nurgaliyev, head of the MVD, based on 2008 survey results. After an incident involving Maj. Denis Yevsyukov, who on April 27 fatally shot a cab driver and then opened fire at a Moscow supermarket, shooting eight more people and killing two, Russians are now increasingly skeptical of these positive statistics.

In a sense, the recruitment process is broken. "A guy like Yevsyukov would never have gotten into the police if it hadn't been for the total breakdown of the psychological service," says Prof. Mikhail Vinogradov, a psychiatrist and criminologist. Until 1990 he headed the MVD's Center for Specialized Research, which consisted of 89 laboratories around the country and employed 2,000 psychologists, psychophysiologists and psychiatrists. He says, "After testing we used to screen out almost 30 percent of the candidates, because their focus was on a thirst for power and a desire to get rich." Now it's even worse. A psychologist at one of Moscow's district police departments said privately, "By all rights, 90 percent should be screened out, because police work for them is above all good business." The fact that the MVD is desperate for personnel doesn't help either.

The consequence is that police officers often compensate for their lack of professionalism with brutality. Methods go by haunting names: "the little elephant," where a gas mask is placed over the subject's head and the air supply is repeatedly cut off until just seconds before the suffocating subject passes out; "the swallow," where arms are bent back and tied to the feet, causing numbness, pain and loss of consciousness; "the rack," where a suspect is handcuffed and dangled painfully from a pipe near the ceiling. Two other favorites are "the parachute," where suspects are lifted by their arms and legs then thrown flat to the floor, and the "marvanna" (also known as "the parrot" or "the wheel"). In this tactic, the hands are cuffed, the head is thrust between the knees and the legs are cuffed together. The living "wheel" is then hung on a rod that is spread across two tables or chairs and is spun while he is smacked around—often for several hours at a time.

Pencils are another common tool of torture. "You can squeeze a pencil or pen between two fingers and press them together hard—believe me, that hurts!" a member of the Moscow Criminal Investigation Division candidly told NEWSWEEK Russia. "Or hit them on the head with the Criminal Code plus commentary—their head rings like a bell, everything is swimming before them, and yet it leaves no traces." In the Kirov region, for example, district police departments have banned keeping ordinary pencils longer than four inches on their desks.

According to the Public Verdict Foundation, a Russian human-rights organization, torture and beatings occur most often in criminal-investigation divisions. "They need to produce impressive results," explains Natalya Taubina, head of the foundation. "They take the simplest route: they beat the statements they need out of people." An "approach" can be found for anyone, detectives say. They are harsh with former criminals, less so (though still sometimes brutal) with old men, teens and women.

Four years ago, the entire criminal-investigation division of the Krasnoyarsk District Police Department in Samara found itself on trial. The officers had tried to torture detainees into confessing to a robbery of nonferrous metal and then demanded a bribe of 90,000 rubles [$2,900] not to file charges. "I was forced to stand immobile and spread-eagled for an hour and a half in the anteroom of the district department," recalls Ivan Panfilov, one of the victims. "When they walked by, the police officers would ask, 'want another swig of beer?'—and then hit me in the kidneys." The police officers were convicted. The longest sentences were meted out to the head of the division, his deputy and an especially zealous detective—eight years each.

Russian police have long been known for their harsh interrogation tactics, but lately police torture and abuse appear to have become more brutal. According to Olga Sadovskaya of the Interregional Committee Against Torture, a survey was conducted among first-year trainees at one of the MVD's higher-educational institutions. They were asked: is it permissible to use torture to obtain evidence in a case? Fifteen percent of the future police officers answered in the affirmative. The same question was posed to fifth-year trainees right after they returned from internships at district police departments. Their response shocked the sociologists even more: 85 percent said that they cannot imagine detective work without torture or beatings.

But even the cases that do go to trial often go nowhere. "Yes, we really don't mete out sentences for torture very often," confirms a federal judge from Moscow. "But that is because the definition itself of torture in our Criminal Code is not very clear-cut."