MOSCOW, 3 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The case against Aleksei Mikheyev began in his hometown of Nizhny Novgorod in 1998, when he was arrested in connection with the disappearance of a woman to whom he had given a car ride.
Mikheyev says police officers tortured him into falsely confessing to rape and murder by attaching electrical wires to his earlobes and subjecting him to electric shocks. To escape further torture, he jumped out of the building, injuring his spine. As a result, Mikheyev, 29, is now in a wheelchair.
The woman turned up alive and well the same day, saying she had gone to visit a friend without informing her relatives.
Two police officers have been handed four-year prison sentences for torturing Mikheyev -- but their conviction came only after his case was scheduled to be heard by the European court.
Mikheyev, who lives on a pension of less than $100 a month, decided to turn to the European Court of Human Rights after exhausting his appeals in Russia.
The Committee Against Torture, a group based in Nizhny Novgorod, helped him take his case to Strasbourg.
Olga Sadovskaya, the committee's deputy chairwoman, tells RFE/RL that she is confident Mikheyev's legal victory will encourage victims of police brutality to seek justice. "The success in this case will help us show that it is possible to defend one's rights and claim compensation for torture and inhuman treatment by officials," Sadovskaya says. "We hope this ruling will also help us bring to justice those guilty of dragging out the inquiry into this case. Those people -- the investigator and the prosecutor's office -- who deliberately dragged out the investigation for seven years have not been punished."
Mikheyev's case has attracted international attention to police brutality in Russia.
In the Nizhny Novgorod region alone, Sadovskaya says more than 300 people have contacted her committee over the past five years to report brutality or torture at the hands of police officers.
Mikheyev is not the first Russian to obtain justice in Strasbourg for official brutality. Before him, the court backed nine plaintiffs who had accused Russia of breaching Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects against cruel treatment, torture, and humiliating and degrading treatment.
More Russians Filing Suits
Mikheyev, however, is the first Russian to win a torture case at the European court.
Russia will be forced to pay Mikheyev since the court falls under the jurisdiction of the Council of Europe, which Russia joined in 1996.
Olga Chernyshova, a Russian lawyer at the secretariat of the European Court for Human Rights, says the number of cases filed by Russians has risen sharply since Russia ratified the European Convention on Human Rights on 5 May 1998.
"Between 5 May 1998 and January 2006, some 28,000 complaints [from Russia] have been lodged," Chernyshova says. "Last year, in 2004,over 20 percent of all complaints received by the court came from Russia."
The court, however, only considers a fraction of these cases. In 2005, it judged 83 cases filed by Russian plaintiffs, a sharp increase from the 15 Russian cases judged in 2004.
Plaintiffs also include prominent Russian figures such Mikhail Mirilashvili, the former leader of the Russian Jewish Congress and a noted St. Petersburg businessman.
Mirilashvili was sentenced in 2003 to 12 years in jail on charges of kidnapping and attempted murder in what some have denounced as a politically motivated trial.
Mirilashvili's lawyer, Aleksandr Afanassiev, told RFE/RL that his client appealed to the European court after his legal rights were repeatedly violated. His case is currently pending.
Afanassiev believes that judicial corruption is what pushes other Russians to seek redress in Strasbourg: "Our appeal to the Strasbourg court was linked exclusively to the fact that the basic norms and principles of Russian criminal legislation were systematically violated during the examination of Mikhail Mirilashvili's case by Russian courts. I think that, in the majority of cases, people appeal precisely for this reason. In the European court, they seek truth and justice."
It worked for Vladimir Gusinsky, the exiled former media tycoon, who sued the Russian authorities for allegedly using imprisonment to force him to sell his media assets. The European court ruled in favor of Gusinsky in 2004 and ordered Russia to pay him 88,000 euros ($105,698) in damages.