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In Kazakhstan, Court To Consider Landmark Torture Case

Aleksandr Gerasimov in a photo taken at the hospital
Aleksandr Gerasimov in a photo taken at the hospital
In 2007, Aleksandr Gerasimov, a construction worker living in the northern Kazakh city of Qostanai, went to a local police station in search of his stepson, who had been rounded up with dozens of other young men following the slaying of an elderly woman.

Within minutes, Gerasimov found himself under interrogation by police who claimed his stepson had accused him of the crime. They beat him and forced a plastic bag over his face, repeatedly bringing him to the point of suffocation and demanding that he confess.

Gerasimov and his stepson were eventually released without charge. But 44-year-old Gerasimov, who was hospitalized with severe head and kidney injuries, says the beating has left lasting health and psychological problems.

"I spent almost a year and a half in treatment," he says. "Some injuries are still gradually healing even now. My eyesight also got much worse after the beating. They beat me in the head with a book."

WATCH Gerasimov reenact his torture at the hands of police:

The use of police torture is depressingly common in Kazakhstan and other Central Asian states, where Gerasimov's lawyer Anastassia Miller says it is viewed as the "simplest" way to extract false confessions.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), in its new world report released this week, notes that while Kazakh authorities have moved to adopt laws preventing torture, more than 200 complaints of ill-treatment were registered in the first half of 2013, and perpetrators continue to go largely unpunished.

But Gerasimov's case has proved unique. After Kazakh prosecutors repeatedly refused to open a substantive investigation into his torture claims, Miller and other lawyers from the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law used his story to file Central Asia's first case before the United Nations Committee Against Torture.

Kazakhstan ratified the UN Convention Against Torture (UNCAT) in 1998, a step that formally obliges signatory states to recognize international anti-torture laws and act on judgments issued by the 10-member torture committee.

In May 2012, the committee found Kazakhstan responsible for several violations of UNCAT and urged officials to properly investigate Gerasimov's beating, compensate him for his suffering, and prevent similar violations from happening again.

Police officials continued to ignore the case. But in an unprecedented ruling in November, a city judge in Qostanai ordered local police to pay Gerasimov 2 million tenges (about $13,000) in damages.

Gerasimov's lawyers were surprised but delighted, saying it is "highly unusual" for Kazakh judges to follow the recommendations of international bodies like UNCAT, especially since Kazakh law currently makes no provision for compensation in torture cases.

"In practical terms, we came to understand that there's no better way to punish the state than by hitting them in the pocketbook," said Miller, adding that the ruling made authorities sit up and take notice after years of indifference. "Two million tenge is a sum that's pretty significant in Kazakhstan, particularly when it comes from the budget. And I think these kinds of cases are changing the relationship [between police and citizens]."

WATCH more of Gerasimov's testimony: 'Now we'll play piano on you.'

Police officials are now set to appeal the case, arguing the Qostanai court overstepped its bounds by applying international law in a local ruling. The appeal goes before a regional court on January 23.

If history is any indication, acknowledges Miller, the police may ultimately win their appeal. But if the court upholds the compensation ruling, it will be a watershed case for rights lawyers in who have long sought a successful legal mechanism for defending torture victims in court.

Masha Lisitsyna, a lawyer working on anti-torture litigation with the Open Society Justice Initiative, which helped bring Gerasimov's complaint before UNCAT, says the case is "extremely important" not only in Kazakhstan, but other Central Asian countries as well.

"To see the success of an ordinary man like Mr. Gerasimov, who isn't an activist -- just a typical worker who got really unlucky and suffered through very serious abuse that he continues to suffer from today -- the possibility that he might be able to get some justice would be very important for many other victims," says Lisitsyna.

Miller says she's prepared to appeal the case if the police are successful in overruling the $13,000 compensatory award. Gerasimov, whose family has come under repeated pressure during his seven-year search for justice, says he's prepared to fight as long as it takes.

"My own father worked as a police officer for more than 50 years. And he raised me to be honest," he says. "Even now, people I've worked or socialized with treat me with respect because of my father. I was raised to be honest, to achieve my goals, to work and study honestly. My father told me never to use his position to get what I wanted, but to achieve things on my own. That's why I'm fighting."

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