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'After I Fell, He Hit Me...And It Snaps': Journalist Tells How Russian Police Broke His Collarbone As He Covered Vote On Constitution

Journalist David Frenkel in a St. Petersburg hospital following his four-hour operation
Journalist David Frenkel in a St. Petersburg hospital following his four-hour operation

Journalist David Frenkel was surfing social media on June 30, looking for reports of suspicious activity surrounding the ongoing voting in a national plebiscite on Kremlin-backed constitutional amendments that, among other things, would enable President Vladimir Putin to seek two more terms and possibly remain in the Kremlin until 2036.

"I saw a report about the voting station at Fontanka 22," he told RFE/RL, referring to an address in the center of St. Petersburg. "They were purportedly trying to remove a member of the polling-station commission, which according to the law can only be done with a court order. Since this was a serious violation, I naturally went there to find out what was happening."

About half an hour later, Frenkel, who reports for the independent MediaZona website, was lying on the polling-station floor, writhing in agony. Video posted on social media showed how a police officer attempted forcibly to remove him, audibly breaking a bone in the process.

Russian Police Break Bone Of Journalist Covering Constitutional Vote
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Frenkel spoke with RFE/RL’s Russian Service and Current Time -- the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA -- from his hospital room where he is recovering from surgery to repair a broken right clavicle.

"Most likely they will release me in a week," he said. "The bone has been fixed. I have a broken clavicle, if I’m not mistaken, and they have put a pin into it. It will grow back together. They aren’t putting me into a cast. The bone should be completely healed in about eight weeks. It is hard to say now, though, how long it will take until I have full use of my arm.

"In the video, you can see perfectly how the police officer grabs me by the arm," Frenkel said. "He twists it around my back and begins to push me. He pushes me in the direction of the wall and I fall down. After I fell, he hit me with his fist or something else in the arm. It snaps and I scream out in pain."

St. Petersburg police and the Investigative Committee have both said they are investigating the incident at polling station No. 2191. Police have said that Frenkel was being removed for an unspecified "administrative violation."

I didn't expect that I would go to a polling station and have my arm broken. But in my experience, anything can happen to an independent journalist or an independent election monitor."

On July 1, MediaZona published Frenkel’s own video of the encounter, in which he can be heard calmly but insistently asking the police officer to identify himself and to explain why he was being removed. The badge number of the police officer is clear in the video and he has been identified as Police Sergeant Denis Dmitriyev.

In another Mediazona clip from June 30, Dmitriyev is shown without his badge. He tells a journalist he "lost it in the struggle" and refuses to identify himself.

Immediately after Frenkel's collarbone was broken, a man in a blue shirt approached him and grabbed his injured arm, calling him a "faker." The man was identified as former city lawmaker from the ruling United Russia party Dmitry Abramov. Abramov later told MediaZona that Frenkel "broke his arm himself by striking it against the door handle."

"After I had fallen and I had shouted for someone to call an ambulance, I was on the floor holding my broken arm when he walked up to me and said that I was an 'artist' and a 'faker' or something like that," Frenkel said. "Then he pulled me by the broken arm. It really hurt and again I heard it snap. I was out of my mind with pain and he simply laughed and walked away."

Frenkel says he does not know what was going on at the polling station.

"We had indications for several days from this polling station that something unusual was going on," Frenkel told RFE/RL. "Either someone was being removed or not being allowed in. It was clear that there was some unhealthy, aggressive atmosphere there. There were some suspicious, beefy young men who were apparently there to, as they say, maintain order and make sure that no independent members of the polling-station commission didn't hinder the falsification.

"It is hard to say what was going on," he added. "They clearly had something to hide."

Frenkel said his lawyers have requested that a criminal case be opened on charges of hindering the lawful work of a journalist and exceeding a police officer’s authority.

"As far as I understand, investigations have been launched," he said. "Today, a court medical expert came to my room and she documented the condition of my arm and asked me questions about how I received my injuries.

"An investigator of the Investigative Committee also tried to see me, as well as someone from the police," he added. "But they tried to see me without the presence of my lawyer, so I refused to speak to them. I am prepared to talk to them only in the presence of my lawyer."

Although Frenkel has covered elections in the past and has been involved in incidents with the police, he was surprised by what happened to him.

"I didn't expect that I would go to a polling station and have my arm broken," he said. "But in my experience, anything can happen to an independent journalist or an independent election monitor."

Frenkel said he had planned to cast his own ballot against the controversial package of constitutional amendments on the last day of voting on July 1.

"On the last day, there is the biggest chance that my vote won't be changed or stolen or whatever," he said. "But unfortunately, because they broke my arm, I wasn't able to vote."

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Mark Krutov and correspondent Irina Romaliiskaya of Current Time
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    Iryna Romaliyska

    Iryna Romaliyska is a correspondent for Current Time, the Russian-language channel run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

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    Mark Krutov

    Mark Krutov is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Russian Service and one of the leading investigative journalists in Russia. He has been instrumental in the production of dozens of in-depth reports, exposing corruption among Russia's political elite and revealing the murky operations behind Kremlin-led secret services. Krutov joined RFE/RL in 2003 and has extensive experience as both a correspondent and a TV host.

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    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe.

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