“We must not descend to ‘an eye for an eye’ logic”. Human rights activist Sergey Babinets on why torture is unacceptable, even after Crocus attack
Павел Васильев
“We must not descend to ‘an eye for an eye’ logic”. Human rights activist Sergey Babinets on why torture is unacceptable, even after Crocus attack
25 March 2024, 22:05

Saidakrami Murodali Rachabalizoda had his ear cut off during his arrest. Photo: Alexandra Astakhova / Mediazona

Yesterday in Moscow, the Basmanny district court arrested four men accused of the horrific terrorist attack on Crocus City Hall. Photos and videos from the courtroom clearly show that they had been brutalised and subjected to torture: one had the remnants of a plastic bag around his neck, another had a bandage over his severed ear, part of which had been cut off by security forces during the arrest. Moreover, Telegram channels close to the security forces openly circulated photos of the possible torture of one of the accused, showing him lying with his trousers pulled down and wires from what looked TA-57, a Soviet-era field telephone commonly used by the FSB for electric shock torture, leading to his groin. Russian authorities refused to comment on the torture of the detainees.

The Crew Against Torture human rights defence team denounced the violence against the suspects. We spoke with the head of the organisation, Sergey Babinets, about what such demonstrative and public violence against suspects could signify, how security forces justify torture, and why it is unacceptable to use torture—even on terrorists.

— I’m not the only one who was shocked by the videos of torture inflicted on the suspects in the terrorist attack on Crocus. Why do you think there was such demonstrative brutality, and why did the security forces feel the need to publicise footage of an ear being cut off?

— Until the last two or three days, law enforcement agencies tried to conceal torture, never making it public. And if any video recordings accidentally leaked, they tried to distance themselves from it. As you probably remember, they distanced themselves from the video archive from the Saratov tuberculosis hospital and other recordings. They said it was something out of the ordinary. Moreover, high-ranking state officials, including the president, have stated that torture is unacceptable.

Why has this approach suddenly changed now? I think it’s primarily because Russia hasn’t had such large-scale, high-profile, brutal, and horrifying terrorist acts in the last 20 years. And many were simply not ready for this—not emotionally ready, not psychologically ready, not ready on various fronts. And people’s nerves may have started to fray because of this. Therefore, statements began to appear about the need to bring back the death penalty, the need to find all the perpetrators and execute them, for example.

— Has such blatant brutality during arrests happened in Russia before?

— The security forces quite often swept traces of torture under the rug, telling us there was no torture, that it was all nonsense. But as of yesterday, it seems as if a path has appeared to make torture a little more open.

In our practice, there have been many cases where people were not just beaten, but beaten to death. In my experience, for example, there was a case in Solnechnogorsk near Moscow, when a man was detained on suspicion of committing violent acts of a sexual nature against a young girl. He was arrested, brought to the police department, and simply beaten to death. He was beaten by three police officers, who broke 13 of his ribs, and he died because he simply couldn’t breathe. His corpse was taken from the police department the next morning. All three were convicted and sent to prison. And there are quite a few such cases.

In the Caucasus, particularly in Chechnya, we often received complaints about beatings, torture, and the extraction of confessions of aiding terrorists. There, people also more often disappear after unknown uniformed men without identification come for them. There are lots of cases, and I will say: what we saw in the video recordings is something out of the ordinary. Similar cases have occurred in Russia before, but there was no footage.

The footage makes a big impression on people. And I will not presume to say what kind of impression the footage has made now: oppressive, disturbing, and unsettling, or a feeling of some kind of superiority and satisfaction. I am sure that there are some people who will indeed perceive these videos as a kind of retribution [for the suspects]. But for a large number of people, it is simply shocking content that they would not want to see at all, ever in their lives. I certainly would not want to see such a thing.

— How do you think the war in Ukraine, the methods of interrogating prisoners, or, for example, the public image of the Wagner Group, whose fighters could kill a person with a sledgehammer and then post it on social media, might influence Russian security forces and their torture practices?

— Torture does not exist because our police officers are bad and they torture people. Torture exists because complaints are not effectively investigated. Only when every complaint of torture is effectively investigated, rather than sabotaged, will law enforcement officers and other officials vested with power stop torturing. Then they will understand that if, God forbid, they beat someone, connect a field telephone to their fingers or genitals, or cut something off, an investigator will come for them and send them to prison that very day. Then I think there will be no torture.

But for now, nothing happens after torture in our country. Dozens of decisions are made to refuse to initiate criminal proceedings. As long as some are given medals, others receive congratulatory certificates, and some get new stars and ranks for solving crimes, we will continue to face torture flourishing. Approval from higher-ups and the inaction of investigators will only lead to an escalation of this problem. And you and I will suffer a lot more, we will get our fill, because I do not see any attempts to combat this problem.

— Is the publication by the security forces of such explicit footage of torture a signal from the authorities, who are thus approving such methods in a sense? Or is it an isolated case of violence that has gotten out of control?

— It is very difficult to say why it suddenly became necessary to show everyone, young and old, what we will do to terrorists. Although, in principle, it’s the classic “if we find them in the outhouse, we’ll waste them in the outhouse.” Perhaps this is simply a continuation of the same direction of activity that was dictated many years ago.

I really want to see the reaction of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights to the entire situation related to the terrorist attack and the detention of suspects. And I would also really like to know the reaction of the Commissioner for Human Rights in the Russian Federation, Tatyana Moskalkova.

Crew Against Torture has long studied the issue of police violence in Russia. How has the situation with torture by security forces changed over the past decade as a whole? Has it increased or decreased?

— Up until about 2022, we recorded a decrease in brutality by police officers—this is the main category of security forces that is the subject of our research. We see that brutality is decreasing. There have been fewer “classic” torture methods. We have received and continue to receive more and more reports about the use of physical force during arrest, beatings with hands, feet, the use of special equipment, handcuffs, and batons. “Classic” torture methods, such as connecting a field telephone to earlobes, hanging a person on a rack, doing “the swallow,” or dousing a person with cold water outside in winter—we have encountered these less often.

But great tragedies that trouble society greatly impact the entire social fabric. And the start of the special military operation and the fact that it has been going on for two years now may lead to the normalization of violence exacerbating the torture situation. We see that law enforcement officers are indeed beginning to allow themselves more.

At the same time, I do not see that the Investigative Committee has in any way changed its approach to investigating torture-related cases. Yes, a criminal article on torture was introduced recently, but unfortunately, it is not yet possible to form an objective picture of how thoroughly it is being applied.

And so, it would seem that they have kind of started to fight this problem, but it’s not noticeable that things have gotten better. The brutality decreased and was decreasing, but now we have looked at this footage, and it’s unclear what to do with it. Whether these are isolated cases or a statement to normalize the use of torture is completely unclear. If all of this is swept under the rug, then most likely, many will perceive it as a signal that it is possible to record on camera, beat someone, and torture them. I really don’t want us to slide to a place where, in response to crime and barbaric actions, it is necessary to commit crime and barbaric actions. We live in a civilized society, and no matter how painful and bitter it may be for us, and the terrorist attack at Crocus City Hall is undoubtedly a lifelong grief and mourning, it is now necessary for us to fight this in a civilized way. And torture is far from the best way to fight international terrorism.

Employees of law enforcement agencies have a huge number of means, specialized expert institutions, weapons, and everything else to combat this problem. There is no need to descend into the society and time where they lived by the law of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” There is no need to shoot in all directions.

— In people’s reactions to the attack on Crocus, quite often there’s this idea: these are terrorists who committed mass murder, and this is the only cruel way to deal with such people. In your opinion, what is behind such a lenient attitude toward torture? And what needs to be done to change this attitude?

— Too many people have suffered from this terrorist attack. It is too painful to talk about it now; it is still too early to appeal to reason. This wound needs to heal at least a little bit. Of course, we want and need to explain to everyone that the death penalty and torture do not lead to the goal that is actually being propagated—the achievement of the highest justice and satisfaction.

Under torture, you can be made to confess to anything. If I am tortured, I will also confess to what they tell me to. And if you are tortured, you will also confess to anything. Will this lead the investigation down the right path? Most likely not. Because I, for example, in order to stop the torture, can confess to killing Kennedy. One can be content with a beaten confession and send the case to court, put the suspects in prison, but in the end not find the real masterminds and perpetrators of the crime. But by using torture, you can put a big checkmark next to a solved crime.

And how can you quickly solve a crime? Beat out a guilty plea. I really want them to approach this particular case, the case of the terrorist attack at Crocus City Hall, responsibly. There are a sufficient number of methods, techniques, and specialists who can effectively investigate such crimes.

Why is it unacceptable to torture people, even those suspected of such brutal crimes as the attack on Crocus?

Torture does not provide information that corresponds to reality. Torture most often leads to the person doing the torturing obtaining the information that he initially wants to obtain. If they want a person to confess that he worked, for example, for the Armed Forces of Ukraine, they can torture him until he confesses to it. And if the person says something else, they will continue to torture him until he confirms the version most convenient for the security forces. This way it is impossible to effectively investigate crimes.

If you fit the evidence to one template, then you are going down the wrong path and will never find the real culprits. Moreover, you risk missing a large number of important details. You risk the crime being committed again due to a biased investigation and not being able to effectively prevent it in the future.

— What is the value of evidence and confessions obtained under torture?

A guilty plea is most often enough to send a person to a pre-trial detention center. While he is in pre-trial detention for the first two months, they can continue to collect evidence and clues and either confirm the version they had or refute it. Again, in my practice, there have been cases where a beaten confession did not lead to a person being sent to a pre-trial detention center and being convicted at all.

There were cases where there was a confession, but nothing else, the case simply didn’t fit together. And then the person was released. There was a case in Orenburg where three men were detained on suspicion of murdering a businessman and his young child. They were tortured, two of them wrote confessions, they were locked up in a pre-trial detention center, and a few days later it turned out that they had nothing to do with it. The men were released. Of course, no one was punished for the torture. The fact that they wrote confessions did not raise questions for anyone but us. And a few years later, the real murderers were found; they are still on trial.

— How do the security forces justify torture?

Among those police officers who have gone to prison for torture, there are quite few who admitted that they used violence. Most often they said that the person was already beaten or had fallen down the stairs. There were few who confessed. I remember one who said that he was very emotionally and physically exhausted because he had been on duty for seven days straight—and he just snapped from the too-high workload and beat the detainee. There have been cases where police officers said they simply didn’t like the person, that he insulted them, and that’s why they lost their temper. But the desire to quickly solve a crime prevails, of course.

Editor: Dmitry Treschanin

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