Elusive torture. Only 58 law enforcement agents convicted in 18 months under a new article of the of the Russian Criminal Code
Анна Павлова
Elusive torture. Only 58 law enforcement agents convicted in 18 months under a new article of the of the Russian Criminal Code
23 November 2023, 0:09

Art by Anna Makarova / Mediazona

The definition of police torture finally made its way into the Russian Criminal Code in the summer of 2022. However, instead of creating a separate criminal rule for it, the lawmakers incorporated torture into the already existing articles like abuse of power and forced confessions. Over the last year and a half, 32 cases related to torture made it to trial. The majority of those charged were police officers, with only one being an FSB officer. Mediazona reviews these cases in more detail.

Lazarev and Gerasimov, two of the residents of the village of Dyullyukyu in Verkhnevilyuysky District of the Sakha Republic (Yakutia), were detained in August 2022 on suspicion of assaulting another person they were drinking with. The detainees were transferred to the local town hall where they were shortly visited by a group of police officers from Verkhnevilyuysk, including junior lieutenant Andrey Gavriliev.

According to the verdict, Gavriliev decided to interrogate Lazarev and Gerasimov one after the other. He took them into a separate room, where he beat them, demanding that they confess to hitting the victim on the head with a hammer. Details of the physical assault on Lazarev include two blows to the liver area, no fewer than ten strikes to the ribs from both sides, as well as in the hips and buttocks, and no fewer than ten strikes to the head with the lower part of the palm. Gavriliev threatened to smash Lazarev’s testicles and urinate on his face.

Gerasimov remembers hearing Lazarev yell “Ayaka!”

Then, enraged by the fact that he had to cancel all his plans for this and that his wife was probably mad at him at this point, Gavriliev ordered the detainees to be handcuffed to the stairs and left them like that for the whole night, denying them sleep or access to the restroom. The men had to wait until the next morning to be released. According to Lazarev, Gavriliev would later call him several times to apologize and ask why Lazarev hadn’t told him right away that his sons also worked in the law enforcement.

Junior lieutenant Gavriliev ended up being sentenced to four years in prison and became the first one to be charged with torture in Russia, which was added to the Russian Criminal Code only a month before.

How a separate penalty for torture came to be in Russia

For many years, human rights activists had been pointing out the lack of a specific rule on torture in Russian Law. Whenever cases of violence committed by law enforcement officers reached the court, they were often prosecuted under vague charges of "abuse of power with the use of violence" (Part 3 of Article 286 of the Russian Criminal Code).

Among other things, this hindered the efforts to collect adequate data on how tortures were investigated in the country. The same charges were used, for example, for the cases of criminal hazing or crimes committed by civil servants. The number of convictions under this article consistently decreased, from over 1800 verdicts in 2010 to approximately 450 in 2022.

Members of the State Duma decided to introduce the concept of "torture" into the Criminal Code only in December 2021, shortly after the Gulagu.net project published videos of rape and physical assaults of prisoners in a Saratov prison hospital. However, instead of introducing a separate article on torture, the lawmakers added two new parts to the existing Article 286 of the Criminal Code: one that punishes for abuse of powers "with the use of torture" (Part 4), and another for torture leading to death or grave injuries (Part 5). Similar amendments were also made to the article on forced confessions (Parts 3 and 4 of Article 302 of the Criminal Code).

Despite criticism from human rights activists, who urged the creation of a separate article on torture without any statute of limitations, Vladimir Putin signed this legislative initiative into law in July of 2022.

32 cases over 18 months

Cases involving torture started trickling in at the end of 2022. Having searched through various court websites, Mediazona found 32 such cases, counting those that are still being investigated, or tried, and those that have already resulted in sentences. The latter category includes 11 cases.

58 law enforcement agents have been charged with torture. Some offenders were grouped together in one case, while others are tried individually.

“Now that cases involving torture started coming in, it will be very interesting to see what tactics the prosecution will use, and what kind of evidence it will rely on to prove torture,” says Sergey Babinets, the head of the Russian-based human rights organisation Crew Against Torture. “To legally qualify as torture the assault should have a motive of getting some sort information out of the victim or of forcing them to confess to something. I believe it’s often going to be difficult for the prosecution to establish that motive.”

Article 302 of the Russian Criminal Code detailing sanctions for forced confessions has been rarely used even before the recent amendments. Sergey Babinets notes that this situation is unlikely to change. People who are typically charged with a forced confession are detectives and interrogation officers; tortures, on the other hand, are usually committed by field investigators. Sergey doesn’t believe that detectives or interrogation officers are likely to participate in torture, adding that there are almost no cases opened under Article 302.

Mediazona was indeed unable to find any cases of forced confessions opened in the past two years. In addition, according to the Supreme Court data, nobody has been sentenced for this type of crime since 2013.

Policemen make up more than half being charged with torture

Last year, the Committee Against Torture received a complaint from a 41-year-old Aleksandr Sharfutov from the town of Vyksa in the Nizhny Novgorod region. Last fall, while being intoxicated, Shafutov was detained by police and kept in a cold jail cell the whole night. When he repeatedly asked a guard for a blanket or a jacket to get warm, the policeman entered Aleksandr’s cell and started tasing him. The assault was caught on CCTV.

Aleksandr Gutov, the policeman who attacked Sharfutov, was initially charged with abuse of power with the use of violence. However, the lawyers succeeded in getting the case reclassified as torture. Later, they also helped charge Gutov’s colleague, who did not intervene to prevent the beating of the detainee, with criminal negligence. He tried to explain his refusal to intervene by his lack of familiarity with the Police Law.

Babinets says that the Committee did not meet much resistance from the investigators when trying to get the case reclassified as torture. According to him, the only hesitancy the investigators showed was due to their unfamiliarity with the new law and its proper procedures.

Out of the 32 cases found by Mediazona, 17 are against police officers. Occasionally, several offenders are grouped into one case, so that out of the 58 people charged with torture, 32 are policemen.

For example, in the case of the death of a detainee, seven policemen from Makhachkala were charged with torture. In another case, seven people including policemen, National Guardsmen, and Customs officers are being charged with electric shock torture in the Kaliningrad region.

Who else is being charged: military, prison guards, and even an FSB officer

Mediazona managed to find only two cases of torture initiated against Federal Penitentiary Service officers.

Five employees of the Federal Penitentiary Service are being charged with torturing two convicts from Dagestan. The two convicts, who killed one guard in an escape attempt and injured seven more, claimed that they had decided to escape because they were prohibited from reading the Quran and praying. The Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) officers reportedly beat the convicts for several hours and poured boiling water on them.

One of the lawyers representing the victims told Kommersant that the torture was so intense that one of the convicts had virtually no areas on his face or body that weren’t injured. She added that the torturers used a toilet brush and boiling water. They handcuffed the victims, hung them by their hands, and cauterized wounds with salt and cigarette butts. One of the convicts had a cross burned on his stomach.

One more case is currently being investigated in the Irkutsk region. The former chief of Angarsk Correctional Facility No. 15, Sergey Shvedkov, along with two other prison staff members, is being charged with abuse of power with the use of torture that led to death. According to Sibir.Realii, the case was opened as a result of the death of a convict, who was beaten by other inmates, who were working for the prison administration in the spring of 2023.

Officers from other law enforcement agencies are also being charged with abuse of power. Eight National Guardsmen and four military servicemen have already found themselves on the defendant's bench.

There is even a rare case of an FSB officer being charged with torture. Vladimir Kozak, an agent from Rostov-on-Don, has been arrested after a detainee died from being tortured during an interrogation.

First sentences

Four police officers have already been sentenced, with 5 years in prison being the highest term (the maximum allowed punishment in torture cases that didn't result in death is 12 years). In another case, a police officer from Kirov was acquitted when the court deemed that he “had the right to use physical force” and did not commit a “significant violation of the victim’s rights.”

In some cases, courts can decide to reduce charges, concluding that the violence that took place cannot be qualified as torture. For instance, two police officers from Kamchatka, Barbos and Shushpanov, received suspended sentences because the court deemed that they only threatened the victim with "force to inflict multiple bodily injuries” while their colleague was beating the victim.

This summer the Novocherkassk Garrison Military Court gave three National Guard special forces officers suspended sentences, while two of their colleagues, who were sergeants, received actual prison sentences for assaulting their subordinates, whom they suspected of drug use. The victims were beaten, subjected to electric shocks, hung on a horizontal bar for several hours, and forced to do push-ups, squats, eat a pack of cigarettes, and wash it down with soapy water.

* * *

“The fight against torture has ended at making a few amendments to the Criminal Code,” summarizes Sergey Babinets. “A systematic review and overhaul was never even planned. Based on the cases that we track, we do not see any inclination to initiate proceedings under the newly added sections of the law. Judging by our communication with investigators, there is no such directive for them either.”

Initially, human rights activists insisted on the introduction of a separate article on torture, a measure that Babinets refers to as “just a tiny portion of what actually needs to be done.”

“An introduction of a separate article would have allowed us to track and collect data that we could use to advocate for necessary changes and improvements,” explains Babinets. “Now, having to navigate all the new amendments made the situation more complex even for investigators themselves. A separate article on torture that absorbs the other million articles currently in use would have made life for both the investigators and the courts much easier.”

Editor: Yegor Skovoroda

Translator: Andrey Obukhovich

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