WASHINGTON -- In March 2007, Aleksandr Gerasimov went to a local police station in Kostanay, a city in northern Kazakhstan, to ask about his stepson, who had been arrested.
But instead of responding to his inquiry, police took Gerasimov into custody, accusing him of murder and beating him brutally in an attempt to force Gerasimov to confess.
Those are the claims made in a complaint filed today by a New York-based group before the United Nations Committee Against Torture.
James Goldston, excecutive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI), says in addition to head and kidney injuries sustained during the 24 hours he was held in custody, Gerasimov was subjected to a vicious torture technique called the "dry submarino."
"His hands were tied, he was held down on the floor, and one officer was repeatedly jamming his knee into Mr. Gerasimov's back," Goldston says. "All the while, his head was covered with a plastic bag so he was suffocating. And they would repeatedly make him go to the point where he couldn't breathe anymore, then remove the bag, and then reapply the technique with the bag on."
Gerasimov was eventually released without charge. But his injuries were so severe he was hospitalized for 13 days and has suffered from profound psychological distress ever since.
An initial police inquiry was quickly dropped, and Gerasimov's repeated appeals for a proper investigation were all rejected.
His case has now been filed before the United Nations Committee Against Torture. The OSJI, working together with the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, filed the complaint in New York.
'Meaningful Legal Redress'
OSJI routinely works with local rights organizations in Central Asia to document incidents of torture and police coercion and helps carry cases to the domestic court systems in those countries, or to international bodies if those attempts are unsuccessful.
Goldston says the patterns of police abuse appear to be repeating themselves throughout the Central Asian region.
"It really is not news that torture is a problem in Central Asia," Goldston says. "What we're trying to do is see if over time we can actually secure meaningful legal redress for victims who make complaints."
Goldston says he is hopeful the UN complaint will result in monetary compensation for Gerasimov, and that the international scrutiny will pressure Kazakhstan into re-examining its court system and what he says is the widespread practice of using torture to force confessions.
"We're asking that the government of Kazakhstan really accelerate its efforts to take a hard look at its criminal justice system, at its system of police custody, to reform some of the practices that it is pursuing when its police operate and conduct investigations," he says.
The Gerasimov complaint comes in a year when Kazakhstan is maintaining a high global profile as chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. While Goldston says the timing of the case is coincidental, Astana's current responsibilities on the world stage should prompt it to purge its playbook of repressive techniques like torture.
"I think the fact that Kazakhstan does occupy this prestigious position suggests that it is an appropriate time to consider that it is assuming certain responsibilities as an international actor on the world stage," Goldston says. "Part of that means that it's got to pay some increased attention to the manner in which its criminal justice process operates. And eliminating torture ought to be a high priority."