More information has surfaced about police actions in Bezhetsk, a small industrial city also located in Tver Oblast. That city has reportedly experienced more than one incident involving the physical abuse of dozens of citizens in the last six months. The Bezhetsk incidents came to light only on 14 March in an interview on Ekho Moskvy with Kirill Kabanov, the head of the National Anti-Corruption Committee. According to Kabanov, about two busloads of police officers from the Federal Service for the Control of the Drug Trade (FKSN) stormed cafes and other public places late on 3 March. They forced male patrons to undress in front of women and several people were beaten with rifle butts.
After Ekho Moskvy broke the story, Marat Khairullin, a journalist with "Novaya gazeta" and member of the Public Council for the Investigation of Blagoveshchensk Police Raids, gave interviews to RFE/RL's Moscow bureau, gazeta.ru, Ren-TV, and the Regnum news agency providing more details of the "zachistki." Khairullin said that police stormed a local cafe, Charodeika, and everyone there, including women, were forced to lie on the floor. Those who objected were beaten. He told Ren-TV on 15 March that a policeman struck an elderly cleaning woman and sent her sprawling. Men were forced to disrobe as the police looked for drugs. Those who were taken in custody told Khairullin that the men were laid on the floor of the police office and handcuffed behind their backs for several hours. The officers reportedly demanded that they admit they were selling drugs. When those in custody were finally released, they allege that their cars and apartments appeared to have been searched and several valuable items taken. Khairullin told RFE/RL that some 12-15 people were detained, while around 50 people were beaten.
In an interview with strana.ru on 16 March, Maksim Sidorenko, a deputy director of a local market in Bezhetsk, gave a detailed account of a similar police raid that took place on 24 November. He said the incident started with a small conflict with some men who came to their market trying to sell furniture. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the Starodeika cafe is located inside this market, according to Regnum on 16 March). The men had tried to sell their furniture at the market on previous occasions but had left after Sidorenko explained to them the market is for clothing only and is legally prohibited from selling furniture.
This time, however, they refused to leave, and Sidorenko called the police. But instead of carting away the furniture sellers, the police rounded up market workers, including Sidorenko, along with some people who happened to be in the market at the time, and forced them to lie down outside in the snow for about 30 minutes. The temperature was minus 15 degrees. According to Sidorenko, they removed his clothes, hit him in the head with a rifle, and kicked him. At the station house, they beat him so hard that one of his ribs fractured and pierced his lung. One officer stuck a sharp pencil in his nose and pressed his fingers into Sidorenko's eye. "They kicked and beat me with their automatics, demanding that I confess that I had created a crime group with the goal of monopolizing furniture trade in the city," Sidorenko alleges. According to strana.ru, there are five furniture stores in Bezhetsk, and Maksim is neither a director, founder, nor partial owner of any of them, nor are any of his relatives. As a result of his encounter with the police, Maksim, 33, has become an invalid and speaks with a stutter.
So far, the mayor of Bezhetsk denies that any such incident involving police has taken place in his city, Khairullin told Ren-TV. Eduard Arsenev, head of the Bezhetsk interraion department of FSKN's Tver directorate, told gazeta.ru in an interview published on 15 March that the FSKN did conduct an operation in Bezhetsk that was completed on 8 March. He said that FSKN received a tip that a group of residents were selling drugs. Several people were detained, and criminal cases have been opened. He said during the course of the raid the drug traders offered some resistance, which was met with force. However, no one touched "ordinary citizens," forced them to undress, or hit them with rifle butts. He added that no weapons were used and no bullets were fired.
In an interview with strana.ru on 16 March, an FSKN officer in Tver who wished to remain anonymous was more forthcoming than Arsenev. "If people defy us, what do you want us to do?" the officer asked. "You see on television how the Federal Security Service (FSB) works when they conduct a raid. They also do not stand on ceremony if they meet resistance. We acted in Bezhetsk only within the framework of the law. Indeed, those people we picked up have already given consistent...depositions. They even cried, asked us to let them go, because they understood that the evidence [against them] was overwhelming. Drugs and weapons were seized. How do you think that the court would have given us approvals for searches, detentions, and arrests if we did something illegally? Who would take such responsibility? This whole uproar is because someone is [trying to] take care of their fate. This is [their] best defense -- we were attacked."
Meanwhile, a group of officials from various human rights organizations in Moscow left on 15 March to investigate the incidents in Tver firsthand, according to gazeta.ru. And, on 21 March, State Duma deputies are planning to open a receiving area for citizens of Bezhetsk. Kabanov told strana.ru that "We possess the facts of the physical coercion and not simply with regard to those persons for whom a criminal case has been launched but also concerning those persons who happened to be located next to these people -- chance visitors to the cafe."
How local or national prosecutors choose to handle this evidence is anybody's guess. In the case of Blagoveshchensk, the Interior Ministry official charged with overseeing the investigation, Colonel General Sergei Shchadrin, was dismissed last month, just days after asking that the investigators probing the incident be replaced (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 and 28 February 2005). This week, two more policemen were charged with abuse of office, but human rights workers in Bashkortostan report that witnesses are being threatened with compromising material and the possibility of being charged with a crime themselves.
Already, the Blagoveshchensk events have had an impact on public perception of the police in Russia. The Public Opinion Foundation (fom.ru) conducted a survey before news of the incidents in Bezhetsk were reported and found that 41 percent of respondents are afraid of becoming victims of police violence, the foundation's website reported on 17 March. Forty-six percent of youthful respondents said they are afraid, compared with 31 percent of the elderly. Respondents who knew about the police raids in December in Blagoveshchensk were more afraid than those who didn't; some 17 percent of respondents knew about the alleged police violence there. Fifty-six percent of those who had heard about the incident believe that similar events could take place in their regions.