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Russian Supreme Court Wrestles With Question Of Legitimate Self-Defense

At what point are Russian citizens legally justified in defending themselves from the police?
At what point are Russian citizens legally justified in defending themselves from the police?
MOSCOW -- Do Russian citizens have the right to use force to defend themselves against illegal acts by the police? The plenum of Russia's Supreme Court is drafting a new instruction to lower courts that asserts they do.

"Defense against the known illegal use of force by law enforcement agents is allowable," the draft instruction states, citing existing legislation that says "legitimate self-defense is the right of everyone, regardless of their professional or other preparation or their position."

Russia's Interior Ministry was quick to object when the draft instruction was unveiled at a public discussion on June 28. They urged the presidium to revise the provision, saying it "undermines the authority of the state."

The ministry noted that 118 police officers have been killed on duty so far this year and that more than 300 were killed in 2011.

The discussion is particularly timely because of widespread reports in recent months of police brutality, including a scandalous case in which a detainee died after being raped with a champagne bottle while in police custody in Tatarstan.

In addition, there have been numerous reports in recent months of police using force to break up demonstrations. In April, then-President Dmitry Medvedev pardoned Sergei Mokhnatkin, who had been sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for allegedly head butting a police officer near an unsanctioned demonstration in Moscow in December 2009. Mokhnatkin said he was just passing by the rally when he saw police roughly detaining an elderly woman and intervened.

What Is 'Legal' Self-Defense?

"Legitimate defense is a very fine question. It's always difficult to prove in court whether the limits of necessary defense have been exceeded or not," says lawyer Yelena Lukyanova, a member of the Public Chamber, a quasi-governmental organization that advises the Russian government.

"Therefore now, with the current tense [social] situation, it would be very important for the plenum of the Supreme Court to explain to judges how to apply the law in cases of conflicts with law enforcement officers."

In November 2009, then-Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev made headlines when he asserted casually in the State Duma that people had the right to defend themselves against the police.

"If someone is attacked, there must be self-defense in any case," Nurgaliyev said. "If a citizen is not a criminal, if he is walking along peacefully and not violating any laws and some police officer begins to beat him, then, yes. What for? Is he a criminal? Of course, most likely, here there would be exactly that confusion that we are talking about. Because here we are all equal, and a citizen is doubly equal."

Lukyanova has questions about the way the draft instruction has been written but she says that raising the issue is a step forward.

"It's a complicated point. What does it mean that the use of force [by police] has to be 'known' to be illegal? It is always going to be difficult to prove what was 'known.' But how else can it be written? They are breaking the law on the police if they start beating people," she says.

"But proving this is going to be very hard. You have to establish who started things, whether the officer was defending himself or whether he attacked someone. But at least by this measure they are telling judges that in such cases, the citizen is not always at fault. I think that's very important."

Robert Coalson contributed to this story from Prague

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