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Former Cherkessk Police Commander Tried For Third Time Over Detainee's Death

  • Liz Fuller

At a conference in June 2014 organized by Russia's Public Chamber, law professor Vladimir Shcherbakov described the trial as a blatant example of manipulating expert testimony to achieve the verdict the investigators wanted.

Ruslan Rakhayev went on trial in late April for the third time on a charge of beating to death a man detained by police on suspicion of theft. After each of the two earlier trials, the Karachayevo-Cherkessia Supreme Court ruled that the prosecution failed to prove adequate evidence to corroborate that charge.

Independent experts have testified that the injuries of which Dakhir Dzhankezov died in the Cherkessk city police precinct in October 2011 were sustained hours before he was taken to Rakhayev's office for questioning. Dzhankezov died an hour after that encounter.

The police officers who initially detained Dzhankezov and in whose custody he spent the last hours of his life claim Rakhayev beat Dzhankezov and jumped up and down on his chest, then after his death solicited their complicity in a cover-up. Rakhayev's lawyers argue that it was those five officers, on whose testimony the case against Rakhayev is based, who inflicted the fatal injuries.

There is more, however, to the Rakhayev case than simply determining who was responsible for a death in police custody. Rakhayev, 36, is a Balkar and a former veteran of the Federal Security Service (FSB) who was sent from his native Kabardino-Balkaria to the neighboring republic to impose order and raise standards within a police force widely regarded as both incompetent and corrupt. Some Russian analysts and human rights activists are convinced that Rakhayev was framed for Dzhankezov's death to prevent him from carrying out that planned purge.

Rakhayev fled from Cherkessk to Nalchik as soon as he got wind of the bid to incriminate him, and was apprehended by the FSB in February 2012 following a shoot-out that the independent Russian paper Novaya Gazeta has suggested was intended to eliminate him as a witness to Dzhankezov's death.

Rakhayev's first trial opened in October 2012. In July 2013, the Cherkessk municipal court found him guilty and sentenced him to 13 years in prison. But the Karachayevo-Cherkessia Supreme Court overturned that verdict three months later on the grounds of egregious procedural violations. Specifically, the court ruled that the prosecution had not adequately assessed the written evidence available (which included five mutually contradictory pathologists' reports) or demonstrated how that evidence corroborates Rakhayev's guilt. In addition, a court spokesman told the news portal Caucasian Knot that video footage from before Dzhankezov was taken to Rakhayev's office showed injuries to his face, suggesting he had already been roughed up.

At a conference in June 2014 organized by Russia's Public Chamber, law professor Vladimir Shcherbakov adduced Rakhayev's trial as a blatant example of manipulating expert testimony to achieve the verdict the investigators wanted.

The second trial began in June 2015. The prosecution produced a sixth pathologist's report that corroborated earlier findings that Dzhankezov sustained multiple broken ribs and damage to his internal organs some four to six hours before he died; i.e., several hours before he was taken to Rakhayev's office. That report failed, however, to clarify who inflicted those injuries. The testimony of many of the 38 witnesses for the prosecution, including the original five police officers who accused Rakhayev, proved inconsistent or implausible. Two pathologists who testified confirmed previous findings that the injuries of which Dzhankezov died were sustained hours before he was brought to Rakhayev's office.

The prosecution nonetheless proclaimed Rakhayev's guilt proven and asked in October 2016 for a 13-year sentence. But the Cherkessk municipal court refused to hand down a guilty verdict on the grounds of the dubious credibility of the testimony by Rakhayev's subordinates who, the court noted, had an interest in incriminating Rakhayev. Instead, it sent the case back to the prosecutor's office. The office appealed that decision to the Karachayevo-Cherkessia Supreme Court, asking for the trial to be resumed. In late December, the Supreme Court rejected that request and insisted that the indictment be reworked to eliminate the discrepancies.

Less than three months later, however, the same court annulled all its previous rulings and sent the case to the Cherkessk municipal court for a retrial under a different judge. The rationale cited for that decision was that the Cherkessk municipal court exceeded its authority by formally suggesting that people other than the accused could have been responsible for Dzhankezov's death.

Lawyers for Rakhayev took issue with that statement. Dmitry Yegoshin, a legal expert for the NGO Public Verdict that had provided advice to Rakhayev during his second trial, and his public defender Lidia Zhabelova both argued that the Supreme Court judge who signed the ruling was not empowered to affirm that Rakhayev's guilt was proven. No evidence was cited in support of that claim.

Rakhayev's lawyer Pyotr Zankin for his part pointed out that failure by the prosecutor's office to continue lobbying for a third trial would be a tacit admission of professional incompetence. Zankin also recalled that in the course of the second trial the prosecution had openly admitted the possibility that Rakhayev's subordinates were responsible for Dzhankezov's death.

Since Dzhankezov died in late 2013, at least two other detainees have died suddenly after being apprehended by police in Karachayevo-Cherkessia. The first, Artur Aydinov, died in January 2014 in custody in Cherkessk. The lawyer representing his family believes he was tortured, while investigators said he died after ingesting an unidentified toxic substance. The republican prosecutor declined to open a criminal case.

The second was Murat Borlakov, who died an hour after being taken to a police station in the Ust-Dzhegutinsk district in early February 2014. A police officer was jailed for seven years in March 2017 on a charge of torturing Borlakov to death; four of his colleagues were acquitted.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.

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