What happened on the night of March 9 in a jail in a Kazan suburb isn't such a rare occurrence. But what happened next might be a sign of changing times in Russia, as President Dmitry Medvedev's long-simmering efforts to reform the country's police finally gain traction.
Although the facts of the case are still being established, the outlines are emerging. Sergei Nazarov, a 52-year-old resident of the Tatarstan capital, was detained on charges of petty hooliganism on March 9.
The next day, he was taken to a local hospital with rectal injuries. He told doctors he had been beaten by four police officers and raped with a champagne bottle. He underwent emergency surgery that day, but died the next afternoon.
Meanwhile, police at the station deny that Nazarov was abused. They say the six-time convict was hostile and abusive, that he complained of pain in his stomach and was "given an injection" at the jail. They say that any injuries he sustained were self-inflicted.
Such incidents are far from unheard-of in Russian jails. In fact, after the Nazarov case hit the headlines, a woman came forward and said that her husband had also been tortured to death with a champagne bottle in the same police station last summer.
But, in the Nazarov case, the official reaction was immediate. Tatarstan Interior Minister Asgat Safarov convened a meeting of senior officials first thing on March 12, reviewed the case, and promptly suspended the police chief of the station in question and five subordinates. About a dozen other Interior Ministry officials were subject to disciplinary action.
On March 14, four police officers were charged with abusing their positions and deliberately inflicting serious bodily harm that led to the victim's death, joining a fifth officer who had been indicted a day earlier.
In a video statement, Safarov said the case was being minutely scrutinized. "The Investigative Committee has opened a criminal case. At the same time, an internal probe has been launched, which is headed by Deputy Interior Minister Colonel Dinniulov," he said.
"I will personally ask the investigative and judicial organs to take the severest possible measures of punishment for these scoundrels -- if the facts are confirmed," Safarov added.
A Sign Of Progress?
Investigators in Kazan announced on March 13 that five officers had been arrested in the case, the same officers that Safarov had suspended. Gazeta.ru quoted an unnamed Tatarstan official as saying at least one of the detainees had confessed.
The unusually prompt and aggressive reaction could be a sign that efforts to reform Russia's police -- a hallmark of the presidency of lame duck Dmitry Medvedev -- have had some effect. In January, a 15-year-old boy was beaten to death in police custody in St. Petersburg, prompting the resignation of city police chief Mikhail Sukhodolsky.
The Kazan human rights NGO Agora has already written to Medvedev, asking him to dismiss Safarov over the incident, despite his proactive handling of the case. An Agora spokesman doesn't see anything new in what in Safarov has done so far.
"Firing a few employees is the standard reaction of the regional branches of the Interior Ministry. In this particular case -- so far, no one has been fired. We are only talking about suspensions," Bulat Mukhamedzhanov said.
"But we are also talking about a man's death and the consequences should be more serious," he added. "And I think they will come, since according to our information, the national Interior Ministry has also demanded that the Interior Ministry of Tatarstan carries out a thorough investigation of this case."
In comments to the Regnum news agency, Duma Deputy Vladimir Vasilev of the ruling United Russia party was quick to endorse Safarov's handling of the case, saying he was sure the investigation would be thorough and objective. Vasilev added that the case was evidence of the success of Medvedev's ongoing reform efforts.
"Within the system a lot of work still needs to be done," Vasilev said. "Police salaries were raised. Control over the activity of law enforcement organs by public organizations has been established. The media don't miss any chance to report on police acting illegally -- and that is very correct."
Nonetheless, he added, such systemic reforms take years, not only in Russia, but around the world.
And similar cases keep emerging. Last month, at another Kazan police station, Pavel Drozdov, deputy director of a local railroad technical school, died in custody. Drozdov's father said his hands and feet were bound together when he died -- but the local investigative committee has taken no action.