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Russia: 'My Only Thought Was To Escape The Torture'

Aleksei Mikheyev was left paralyzed by police torture and his attempted escape (Courtesy Photo) October 24, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- It took nine days of police torture for Aleksei Mikheyev to confess to a crime he never committed.

No longer able to stand the blows and electric shocks, he admitted to raping and killing a 17-year-old woman to whom he had given a lift in his Russian hometown of Nizhny Novgorod.

Mikheyev later retracted his confession at the prosecutor's office. So he was taken back to the police station for another round of torture. There, he managed to break free from his captors and threw himself out of the window.

"The perpetrators were convicted, those who physically tortured me. But the fact that this is the fault of the government, of the whole system, was never addressed." -- Aleksei Mikheyev

"My only thought was to escape the torture," says Mikheyev in his matter-of-fact voice. "When I jumped, I was sitting on a chair, a police officer was holding me by the shoulders, and my hands were handcuffed. I sat some three meters away from the window. I jumped so hard that I smashed through a double-pane window head first."

Mikheyev, who is now 31, broke his spine in the fall. He will never be able to walk again.

The woman he had confessed to murdering returned home the next day. She had gone to visit friends without informing her relatives.

In Search Of Justice

In a country where torture remains a pervasive interrogation method, stories like Mikheyev's are depressingly common.

What makes Mikheyev's case remarkable is his determination to seek legal redress, and his success in doing so. Last year, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in his favor and ordered Russia to pay him 250,000 euros ($355,000) in damages -- one of the largest compensations ever granted to a Russian citizen at the Strasbourg-based court.

It was a hard-won victory. Mikheyev had to endure numerous anonymous death threats and a grueling seven-year battle with Russia's judicial system. "It was like a game of ping-pong," he says. "I would file an application for the case to be investigated, the case would be investigated, no evidence against the policemen would be found, and the case would be closed. I would appeal, and the case would once more be investigated."

In total, local investigators opened and closed the probe 23 times. Only after the European Court of Human Rights agreed to hear the case was Mikheyev finally able to bring his story before a Russian court.

In November 2005, more than seven years after his ordeal, a local court sentenced two police officers to four years in prison for abuse of power.

Mikheyev says the pair has already been released. But he sounds neither surprised nor particularly upset. What he most wanted, he says, was for his country's leadership to be brought to account. "The perpetrators were convicted, those who physically tortured me. But the fact that this is the fault of the government, of the whole system, was never addressed. Only the European Court ruled that the government, rather than individual people, is to blame," he said.

Thousands Of Cases

Frustrated by often corrupt and indifferent courts at home, Russians are turning to the European Court of Human Rights en masse.

Last year, Russian citizens lodged some 12,000 complaints with the court -- one-fifth of all the cases filed that year. Ill-treatment at the hands of police is one of the most frequent grievances.

Torture is so common in Russian police stations that the method used on Mikheyev even has a name: the "phone call to Putin." It consists of inflicting electric shocks through wires attached to the victim's earlobes.

There's also the "crocodile," when police pin the victim face down on the floor and pull on his limbs, or the "swallow," when the person's arms are painfully twisted behind his back. The most notorious is perhaps the "little elephant," when police strap a gas mask onto the victim's face before shutting off the air supply.

However blatant the abuse, filing a case at the European Court of Human Rights -- let alone winning it -- is no easy feat. And, as Mikheyev points out, not a cheap one either. Mikheyev says he largely owes his victory to a local rights group called the Committee Against Torture, which offered him precious legal and financial support.

Only a fraction of cases lodged with the court actually result in a verdict; the others are rejected for procedural shortcomings or lack of evidence. The tide of applications also means plaintiffs must wait years for a judgment. Mikheyev, for one, waited seven years.

But he says these difficulties should not deter victims from seeking justice. "Don't be afraid, fight for yourself," he says. "Winning is possible."

Winning his case against Russia will not give him back the use of his legs. But it has given him a new sense of dignity as well as much-needed cash to foot medical bills. Before the ruling, he was surviving on a monthly pension of less than $100.

Nonetheless, Mikheyev met his legal victory with a mix of joy and bitterness. "On the one hand, I understood that not everything in Russia is hopeless. On the other hand, I resented the fact that this had to be settled at the European Court instead of here," he says.

Has his example helped curb police torture in his city, or in Russia? Hard to say, Mikheyev says, citing the case of another young man in Nizhny Novogorod who last month threw himself out of a police station's window to escape torture.

The Committee Against Torture says charges of police abuse in the city soared following Mikheyev's victory at the European Court of Human Rights. But the committee says this doesn't mean police torture is growing. What is growing is the number of victims who, thanks to Mikheyev, now know that those responsible can be held to account.

Further articles in this series: Taking Your Country To Court and Judicial Reform Under Way, But For The Right Reasons?

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