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In Russia, Hotline Renews Hope For Victims Of Police Torture

  • Tom Balmforth

"Finally, society realized that there really is a problem with this," says rights lawyer Ilnur Sharapov, shown here answering the torture hotline in the offices of Agora in central Moscow.

"Finally, society realized that there really is a problem with this," says rights lawyer Ilnur Sharapov, shown here answering the torture hotline in the offices of Agora in central Moscow.

MOSCOW -- Yelena Isaulova says she's lucky to be alive.

Two police officers in the southern Russian town of Pyatigorsk took the then-46-year-old mother of two into custody, where she says they repeatedly beat her head, arms, and legs while she was handcuffed.

Isaulova adds that her “glassy-eyed” captors would have tortured her to death if a third police officer had not intervened.

"My skin was scraped off, my hands were all bruised and beaten, and so were my wrists because they hung me up by my handcuffs," she says. "Then they drove me to the nearby river and said, 'We’ll smash your head in, plant drugs on you, and throw you in the river and you’ll float away and no one will ever come looking for you.'"

Six years have passed since that day, but there has been no investigation. Isaulova says her appeals have simply been ignored.

Nationwide Anger

Isaulova's horrific story might never have come to light were it not for a new nationwide hotline based in Moscow that logs cases of alleged police torture and provides legal support for victims.

Isaulova is among scores of Russian citizens who, in the space of three weeks, have appealed to the Agora human rights organization, recounting tales of police abuse -- some of them nearly a decade old. Many who are now calling the hotline say they had previously feared filing official complaints or were ignored when they did.

Demonstrators clash with police during a rally in Kazan on March 18 sparked by the death of Sergei Nazarov while in police custody.

Demonstrators clash with police during a rally in Kazan on March 18 sparked by the death of Sergei Nazarov while in police custody.

But that feeling of helplessness appears to be changing in the wake of the nationwide anger that erupted over the brutal murder in police custody of 52-year-old Sergei Nazarov in Kazan last month.

Since then, dozens of victims who have kept their grief, anger, and shame quiet for years have been inspired to go public and seek support from organizations like Agora.

Ilnur Sharapov of Agora says police torture has always been prevalent but that the public’s passivity finally reached the breaking point when Nazarov was tortured to death after allegedly being sodomized with a bottle.

"This case was simply so cruel and awful," Sharapov says. "There was a boil that had long been growing and growing and finally it burst. Finally, society realized that there really is a problem with this."

Calls Pouring In

Sharapov, an ethnic Tatar lawyer who mans the phone in Agora’s small three-person office in Moscow's upscale Chistie Prudy district, says he has personally logged 88 concrete cases of police torture. He says he has taken calls day and night from 31 Russian regions -- stretching from Sakhalin on the Pacific coast to Krasnodar on the Black Sea to Murmansk in the Arctic Circle.

In a sign of the success of the hotline, Sharapov says four regional law enforcement bodies -- in Sverdlovsk, Kurgansk, Moscow, and Krasnodar -- requested that relevant information be sent to them.

A Moscow police spokesperson said investigators were "studying the statements" of those who have called the Agora hotline.

Additionally, on April 4, Agora handed 107 cases of alleged police torture to Investigative Committee chief Aleksandr Bastrykin.

If Sharapov establishes that a claim is valid, he requests that victims send him documents and other evidence. If he has time, he gives brief legal consultation himself and then forwards the documents to Agora’s regional lawyers, who take the case from there.

Trends Of Abuse

If Agora has no local lawyers in a particular region, they dispatch a legal team on a temporary basis.

This was the case in Sverdlovsk Oblast in the Urals region, where Agora logged 13 accusations of police abuse, according to Dmitry Kolbasin, another Agora employee. The organization is sending a team of four lawyers to the regional capital, Yekaterinburg, to consult with alleged victims on a walk-in basis.

Sharapov says trends are already emerging that illustrate why police abuse is so prevalent.

Russian police officers are required to meet monthly quotas of arrests and detentions, a practice that critics say results in officers forcibly extracting confessions based on trumped-up charges.

"The majority of the people who have come forward said that they were tortured so that they confessed to crimes they did not commit," Sharapov says.

Local media and social networks are rife with such cases.

RFE/RL’s Russian Service reports that three Moscow Oblast police officers are currently facing trial for forcing a 48-year-old woman held in their custody to wear a gas mask with closed airways in order to extract a confession.

In a YouTube video posted on March 24, Sergei Medvesh, a resident of the town of Varenikovsky in the Krasnodar region, describes how he confessed to taking part in a murder after police raped him with a bottle.

Asked by the interviewer on the video if going public with these accusations was frightening for him, Medvesh replies: “I am afraid.... Either they are going to plant drugs on me or I won’t make it home one day.”

'Patience Isn't Endless'

Sharapov says, however, that factors other than quotas also lead to abuse and torture. In some cases, police are simply trying to punish detainees who are defiant or insubordinate. In others, they appear to be exacting revenge.

Isaulova, the woman who was allegedly tortured in Pyatigorsk, for example, says she was detained after she exposed a 140 million-ruble ($4.8 million) property scam allegedly involving police and lawyers in which people were killed in order to steal their homes.

Regardless of the cause, Sharapov says public anger is boiling over. If police abuse is not tackled seriously, he says, it could result in a serious problem for the authorities. He belittles outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev’s recent police reforms as little more than window dressing.

"There is no result and this is worrying. How much are people able to tolerate? How long is it going to go on?" he asks. "Our patience obviously isn't endless. History shows the Russian people are calm and peaceful like a bear, but if you wake them up, then you can't stop them. This is a real danger. It is all leading to unpleasant consequences."
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    Tom Balmforth

    Tom Balmforth covers Russia and other former Soviet republics. He can be reached at


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