Russia: A Phone Call to Putin

For 48-year-old Mekhti Mukhayev and the men of Zumsoy, a hamlet high in the Chechen mountains, the Russian Army's "special operations" have become a depressingly familiar fact of life. In January last year the village was bombed, apparently at random. Soon afterward, a unit of Russian troops in ski masks landed in helicopters and ransacked the villagers' houses for valuables. As they left they detained Mukhayev's brother Vakha, his 16-year-old son, Atabi, and two others. None has been seen since. Despairing of finding any news through official Russian channels, Mukhayev and his kin tried another route: they filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

That almost cost him his life. On the night of Dec. 29, Mukhayev's house was raided and he was taken away. In January, Zareta Hamzatkhanova, a lawyer for Memorial, a Russian human-rights NGO, found him in a local detention center, barely able to stand. According to Mukhayev, he had been tortured for 11 days. "The officers would beat me and give me electric shock and threatened that they'd make me disappear," he wrote in a legal affidavit.

Since 1998, the Strasbourg court has received more than 28,000 human-rights complaints from Russia, most concerning abuse of power by police and judicial corruption--more than any other country in the Council of Europe. Of those, the court has ruled on 106 and found the Russian state guilty in 90 cases. Russian authorities, embarrassed, are increasingly retaliating. According to Philip Leach, a lawyer for the European Human Rights Advocacy Center in London, at least five petitioners to the Strasbourg court have been killed and dozens kidnapped, beaten and tortured by police since 2001. "People are being intimidated for using the mechanism meant to protect them," he says.

According to Andrey Nikolayev, a lawyer with the Judicial Initiative, another Russian human-rights NGO, police go to elaborate lengths to keep people from filing protests with the Strasbourg court. In November, for instance, prosecutors in Grozny paid a friendly visit to a man named Ruslan, a motor mechanic whose mother had petitioned over the January 2001 disappearance of her eldest son, Isa, arrested by Russian forces during a passport check. Local authorities ordered Ruslan to write Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov in Moscow, requesting him to close the case. "They told me they could arrange my disappearance, too," he says. Moscow duly forwarded the request to Strasbourg--but instead of closing the case, the court added a charge of witness intimidation.

Elsewhere, the European Court of Human Rights has become an important catalyst for change. Partly at its urging, Romania last year forced more than two thirds of its old, corrupt judiciary to retire. But in Russia, it has at best been able to claim only piecemeal victories. In one recent landmark ruling, the court awarded €250,000 to Aleksei Mikheyev of Nizhny Novgorod, falsely accused of rape and murder in 1998. Investigators had extracted a written confession by administering electric shocks to Mikheyev's earlobes, a torture method widely known as "a phone call to Putin." Mikheyev threw himself out his cell window to escape his tormentors, landed on a police motorcycle and broke his back, rendering him a paraplegic. His alleged victim turned up unharmed a few days later. A criminal case against the police involved was repeatedly closed. Only pressure from NGOs and a formal request for an investigation from Strasbourg kept it going. Last September, two police investigators were sentenced to four years in prison--though the prosecutors involved have been promoted. "Mikheyev's case was the first serious victory in a case of torture," says Nikolayev. "It will take a hundred more before the government decides to change Russia's judicial system."

Perhaps the biggest obstacle is Russia's new intolerance of outsiders seen to be interfering in its affairs. Internationally funded NGOs have been key to bringing cases of abuse to Strasbourg--yet earlier this year President Vladimir Putin signed a new law subjecting them to much closer control by local authorities. A court in Ingushetia, bordering Chechnya, ordered two such organizations to close. The reason: lack of a permit to work in Ingushetia. (The decision is under appeal.)

Despite such pressures, Russians continue to look to Strasbourg with hope. Local police and military commanders may fear the repercussions, but growing numbers of investigations are nonetheless being launched--forcing Moscow to take notice. Indeed, Putin's human-rights ombudsman recently set up a working group to implement Strasbourg's rulings. A step forward, to be sure, but it remains to be seen how that plays out for the likes of Mekhti Mukhayev.