KALININGRAD, Russia – Prosecutors in this western Russian city have opened a criminal investigation into an unspecified number of police officers on suspicion of fabricating a drug-possession case in order to inflate their job performance.
The case has once again cast the spotlight on what rights activists say is a widespread practice among Russian law enforcement of planting drugs on people and compelling confessions from them for a variety of reasons, such as the desire to meet case quotas, to settle business disputes or personal scores, to quell political dissent, or to silence inconvenient journalists.
“Planting drugs is often used for political pressure or simply to improve one’s performance statistics,” said Kaliningrad defense lawyer Maria Bontsler. “‘If there aren’t enough cases, now let’s make one.’ But these cases are truly terrifying. It is very easy to ruin a person’s life. A few grams [of drugs] and a person can go to prison for many years.”
The officers suspected in the Kaliningrad case are attached to the narcotics department of a special Interior Ministry section covering the transportation sector. Only one of them – Senior Lieutenant Ruslan Yakovenko – has been identified, according to lawyer Vladislav Filatov, who is defending the 22-year-old local man who is the alleged victim in the case. His name is also being withheld.
“According to the case materials, officers of the narcotics department…with the assistance of an informant, found a person on whom the drugs could be planted in order to improve their service performance record,” Filatov told RFE/RL.
After the young man was arrested in January, police said they found 1.2 grams of amphetamine in his backpack.
The alleged victim, a student who completed his military service in the National Guard, was threatened with a prison term of three to 10 years if he were charged with being part of a “criminal group.” As a result, he signed a statement he said was written by the officers saying that he had purchased the drugs as a result of a random opportunity and that he was alone.
After he signed the statement, Filatov said, the young man was released on his own recognizance pending trial.
The officers involved allegedly fabricated documentation indicating that they had been investigating and surveilling the young man prior to his arrest.
“I was sure the drugs had been planted and I appealed to the Federal Security Service (FSB),” Filatov said. As a result, a criminal case was opened on March 13 against the officers and the civilian informant who was allegedly working with them.
“You can’t just call this abuse of power,” Filatov said. “It is actually a monstrous provocation with the falsification of evidence. Any law-abiding citizen could have ended up in my client’s position. This is the first case I’ve ever had where we have managed not only to establish that the case was a provocation but also that the drugs were planted.”
Critics believe such cases are quite common in Russia. Every year, more than 100,000 people are convicted under Article 228 of the Criminal Code, which outlaws the production, possession, or sale of narcotics and prescribes prison terms from three to 10 years.
The phenomenon made national and international headlines in June 2019 when investigative journalist Ivan Golunov was arrested in Moscow and charged under Article 228.
In the wake of ardent protests -- including by prominent journalists and cultural figures -- prompted by strong indications the evidence in the case had been fabricated, officials dropped the charges and dismissed several police officers and Interior Ministry officials involved in the case. Five former police officers are currently facing trial in connection with the case.
But activists point to many other dubious cases. In December 2019, a young man in the Siberian city of Omsk named Dmitry Fyodorov was arrested on drugs charges. After he was released on his own recognizance, he released a social-media video in which he described how the drugs had been planted on him and how he’d been held by police incommunicado for almost 24 hours.
A few days later, his decapitated body was found near a local railway. Police said the death was either an accident or a suicide, but supporters and relatives believe he was murdered.
In November 2019, Karelia regional activist Yekaterina Muranova, who was accused of “extremism” and “justifying terrorism” for her public comments about an explosion at the Arkhangelsk FSB office in October 2018, described how police allegedly fabricated a drugs case against her in order to intimidate her. Police held her in isolation for 16 hours before she was fined 4,000 rubles ($54) for possession of marijuana.
“Now I’m afraid to leave my house,” she told RFE/RL at the time. “They might come up and say that I killed or robbed someone. They want so badly to put me in prison, to ruin my life somehow.”
In March 2018, Kaliningrad resident Aleksandr Zakamsky, who was facing amphetamine-possession charges that he denied, died in a pretrial detention jail. Before he was found hanged with a bedsheet, he’d complained of brutal torture by jail guards. The 25-year-old’s widow is convinced he was murdered.
Defense lawyer Bontsler believes there are many such cases and advises citizens to be vigilant when approached by police.
“I always tell people that the most important thing is that they have no fingerprints,” she told RFE/RL. “When they ask you, ‘What is in your pockets,’ do not under any circumstances reach in there. If they find something, say, ‘It isn’t mine,’ and do not touch it.”