Robert Khusnutdinov, the police chief of the city of Nizhnekamsk in Russia's Republic of Tatarstan, was removed from office earlier this month in the wake of the headline-grabbing case of a young man who recorded a video alleging brutal police torture moments before committing suicide by leaping from the roof of a high-rise building.
Khusnutdinov's deputy has been demoted and 10 unidentified police officers have also been disciplined as the growing scandal has captivated the city. Twenty-two-year-old Ilnaz Pirkin said in the video that he had been suffocated and beaten for nearly a full day by officers pressuring him to admit committing 47 robberies from parked cars.
Three officers were charged with abuse of office shortly after the video was made public, and are now being held awaiting trial. On November 16, the head of the city's police unit for combatting organized crime, Rinat Akhmetshin, was ordered held for trial after prosecutors told a local court he participated in the beatings of two men who allegedly were being pressured to confess to responsibility for Pirkin's suicide.
Prosecutors are reportedly conducting a far-reaching investigation into brutality among Nizhnekamsk police officers and into the reasons why earlier complaints were not prosecuted. Human rights activists say Akhmetshin's name has come up before in recent years as people have leveled allegations similar to Pirkin's. Until now, though, prosecutors have been unwilling to file charges related to most of the claims.
Tales Of Brutal Torture
Local resident Ildar Kamaleyev is one person who says his story has been swept under the rug.
"On October 9, 2016, a police officer came up to me and told me to go to the station with him," Kamaleyev recalled to RFE/RL's Russian Service. "I was a little concerned when I asked him if I needed to bring my documents with me. 'No, you don't need anything,' he told me. And I was even more concerned when we entered the police station and no one registered my presence in the visitors' log."
After perfunctory questioning about a fight that had happened near his home in March, police allegedly took Kamaleyev to a special room and began beating him.
"First they used handcuffs to attach my hands to the legs of a table," he said. "Then one officer sat on the table and put a plastic bag over my head."
Later, Kamaleyev said, one officer sat on his legs on the floor, while another beat him on the chest before quickly again placing the plastic bag over his head as he gasped for breath.
After a while, a third, more senior officer came in.
"When he found out that I hadn't confessed, he continued the beating," Kamaleyev recalled. "They beat me in the head, in the kidneys. They kicked me. After I said again that I had nothing to say, [the senior officer] became outraged. 'Stuff the largest rag you've got in his mouth and kill him,' he said. Then he left. The other two found a dirty rag and began stuffing it in my mouth. I said: 'Guys, you don't have to do that. I will sign whatever you want.'"
Kamaleyev filed a complaint, but the criminal investigations into his allegations have been shut down repeatedly, most recently in August 2017. Although the three officers involved were not wearing uniforms, Kamaleyev later identified them. One of them, he says, was Akhmetshin.
Also in October 2016, Nizhnekamsk police picked up Ilnaz Yunusov. Yunusov has said officers beat him in an effort to get him to confess to stealing some paint from a construction site.
"They put me on the floor face down," he told the Vechernyaya Kazan newspaper. "They put a plastic bag on my head and started to suffocate me. I bit a hole in the bag, but they noticed it and started trying to block my mouth with an old rag. Then they just taped my mouth shut. Then they brought in a gas mask."
"'Do you know what the Little Elephant is?' they asked," Yunusov said, referring to a widespread police torture method of putting a prisoner in a gas mask and cutting off the flow of air. "And then they showed me what the Little Elephant is. They tortured me and tortured me, but I didn't give in."
Although a medical examiner filed a report while Yunusov was in custody claiming he was "healthy" and "feels fine," he got an independent doctor to document his contusions and lacerations. Prosecutors say they are looking into Yunusov's complaints, but no criminal case was ever opened and no conclusions have been reached. The most recent investigation was concluded on October 26.
A History Of Violence
The Nizhnekamsk police force has compiled a notorious record in recent years. In 2015, two police officers were sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison each for torturing a prisoner in September 2014. The court ruled the two officers had struck the man at least 20 times and tortured him with electric shock.
In January 2015, a local man named Gamlet Mazmanyan was picked up by police, and he died in custody. The autopsy found that he died of hemorrhaging in the brain and lungs. He had six broken ribs and several broken fingers, as well as other injuries.
"No one was ever held responsible," says lawyer Bulat Mukhamedzhanov of the Zona Prava (Rights Zone) nongovernmental advocacy organization.
Mukhamedzhanov and other activists attribute the uptick in alleged police abuse to a new approach following the November 2015 resignation of Airat Sadykov, the head of the regional Interior Ministry branch, after official statistics revealed that crime had jumped 30 percent in nine months.
When the new head -- the recently removed Khusnutdinov -- was presented, Tartarstan Interior Minister Artyom Khokhorin emphasized he wanted to see the city's crime rating "back where it was before."
According to official statistics, the percentage of "solved crimes" in Nizhnekamsk rose by 13 percent in 2016, the highest rate over the previous five years. Those closed cases, activists fear, were largely the result of brutal and illegal methods.
But some of the suspicions about the Nizhnekamsk police go back even further. In December 2013, police across Tatarstan arrested 10 men on suspicion of targeting local Christian churches in arson attacks. Two weeks later, one of the suspects, Rafael Zaripov, was hospitalized in Nizhnekamsk with fractured limbs and other injuries. Three days after that a representative of the Investigative Committee in Nizhnekamsk announced that another suspect, Almaz Galeyev, had "cut off his sex organ with a razor blade that he found in his cell."
After these facts became public, representatives of the Tartarstan public oversight commission conducted an investigation and sent a report to Investigate Committee head Aleksandr Bastrykin and the head of the presidential human rights commission, Mikhail Fedotov.
"Nonetheless, no criminal cases were filed against the police of Nizhnekamsk," lawyer Mukhamedzhanov says. "And we think that this gave rise to a culture of impunity and illegality among local law enforcement."
Written by Robert Coalson on the basis of reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service correspondent Mark Krutov