By Julie A. Corwin and Gulnara Khasanova
Human rights activists Lyudmila Alekseeva of the Moscow Helsinki Group and Lev Ponomarev of the For Human Rights movement told reporters in the capital of the Republic of Bashkortostan in Russia on 13 January that they have collected evidence of mass beatings in the city of Blagoveshchensk during security raids on 10-14 December, RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service reported.
Alekseeva even charged that "there has not been such a mass violation of human rights anywhere in Russia outside of Chechnya." According to Ponomarev, the police in charge wore masks, making it difficult to prosecute the guilty. But he argued that someone must take responsibility for the actions, suggesting that "this should be the leadership of the Bashkortostan Interior Ministry."
The police raids in Blagoveshchensk that took place on 10-14 December were described as a "crime preventive" measure at the time. They followed an incident on 8 December in which a group of youths allegedly beat up five policemen, three of whom wound up requiring hospitalization.
During the ensuing raids, as many as 1,000 people were detained, many were beaten, and there were also reports of torture, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported on 13 January. Of the more than 400 people who showed up at local hospitals, the majority had severe bruises, while many had sustained concussions or fractures. Human rights activists in Bashkortostan suggested that dozens of women had been raped, the bureau reported.
After information concerning the raids began circulating in the media near the end of December, the Russian Federal and Bashkortostan Interior ministries began to engage in damage control. After a meeting with human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin, Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev announced on 29 December that a probe was being carried out not only into the incident in Blagoveshchensk but also into the work of the republican Interior Ministry as a whole, ITAR-TASS reported.
Hints Of A Cover-up
However, this effort has been dogged by accusations of a cover-up. Ekho Moskvy reported on 3 January -- quoting the For Human Rights movement -- that Blagoveshchensk residents who complained of police brutality are facing Interior Ministry attempts to talk them out of testifying. The group also reported that records of patients and their injuries at the Blagoveshchensk accident and emergencies department have been altered. Bashkir Interior Ministry spokesman Ruslan Sherefetdinov told Regnum on 6 January that none of what human rights activists have alleged over events in Blagoveshchensk is true, adding that such groups have "inflated" events. According to Sherefetdinov, only 280 people were administratively detained, and most of those detained were cited for disturbing the peace or public drunkenness.
On 8 January, members of a commission from the Interior Ministry in Moscow arrived in Bashkortostan to investigate the raids. However, local human rights activists insist that efforts were made to discourage and discredit the victims of the raids from coming forward, RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service reported on 11 January. In an article for politcom.ru on 12 January, analyst Dmitrii Bagiro argued that "cynical measures" are being taken in Bashkortostan to improve the public image of the police. He noted specifically that the Bashkortostan Interior Ministry's Public Council for the Observation of Human Rights was allegedly created on 1 December -- more than a week before the notorious raids. When the council held its first session in Ufa on 11 January, the police claimed that just 381 -- not 1,000 -- people were detained, and that police were attacked first.