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September 25, 2003 by AK

Bad news from Russia

No Internet connection either from home or office today. They say the rain is to blame. The cables got swamped or something. Sounds like a new urban legend to me. Dialup works, though.

[Update: it’s all right now. Connection’s up. Yes, that was an urban legend.]

Let’s talk about news then, as seen on TV. I watch the box randomly, but occasionally stumble on interesting and/or disturbing stuff. A week ago or so, police in Kabardino-Balkaria, a Russian republic in the North Caucasus, discovered a terrorist base. A fight ensued; a few policemen were killed, some of the Wahhabis (Chechens?) fled. The republican government responded by clamping down on mosques: some are open only at prayer time now. A Russian TV report (RTR or NTV) showed a mullah accompanied by a policeman on his way up the stairs to the minaret top. Then a young man, his face hidden, complained of police abuse: after a prayer, the local police picked up all the young men in a mosque, brought them to the precinct, searched and beat them up, jeering: “Where is your Allah now? Why isn’t he coming to protect you? He must have run out of gas!” All this in a mostly Moslem republic; I don’t know if the police force is ethnically different from most of the residents. Another young man talked about the restrictions on worship that would soon reach Soviet proportions; the faithful would have to meet at home, not in mosques. He did not hide his face from the cameras; “I have nothing to fear any more,” he said. A reporter’s voice commented: “His brother went to Afghanistan to fight Americans; he is now imprisoned in Guantanamo.” It could be Putinist propaganda — linking Chechens and North Caucasian extremists to international terrorism, but if it is true, how come I did not hear about Russian citizens in Guantanamo Bay? On the one hand, I feel safer knowing the guy is locked up over the sea and can’t take a train or plane to Moscow. On the other one, I’m not that happy the Russian government is doing nothing for a citizen held for an indefinite time on heck knows what legal grounds. When a bunch of Russian pilots get arrested in Africa, it makes news; the embassy intercedes and helps them out. (It seems that all planes in sub-Sakharan Africa, whether they carry guns or humanitarian aid, are piloted by Russians or Ukrainians.) When some Kabarda Islamocrazy gets in trouble, who cares? Still, he’s a Russian citizen, whether we want it or not; he is entitled to his country’s protection.

Speaking of police brutality, it is a matter of national importance. Everyone seems to believe that Russian police is, to put it very mildly, light years away from perfection. Newspapers write about it; talk show guests talk about it on national TV; even Duma deputies mention that at times (Russia has a parliament that is strikingly indifferent to the needs of common people.) But what has come out of it so far? Not much. Punishment for torture was extended to 20 years. But that still does not take care of incentives. The police minister, Boris Gryzlov, is also the unofficial leader of the Unity party, a generally pro-presidential establishment organization. Duma elections due in December, Gryzlov launched an anti-corruption campaign within his own ministry; we’ve seen a few big shots arrested — but not tired yet — on charges of bribery, racket, extortion, abetting organized crime and so on. Presumably, a police officer with a house worth $1 million is extremely unlikely to be an honest cop. But trials are to start after the elections, when the government will have other priorities than prosecuting a bunch of politically insignificant thugs. It would be logical for Gryzlov to announce his measures against police brutality — at least in its extreme forms, such as torture of suspects. The farther from Moscow, the wilder their mores. Torture victims are usually young men who are unfortunate to get suspected of a felony; police detectives are keen on having as many crimes — especially violent ones — “solved” as possible: their bonuses depend on that number. A few days ago, I heard a mother’s appeal on TV Center (the Moscow City gov’t channel): her son signed a murder confession after they tortured him with electricity and filed off his teeth. (The Illinois cop who nearly suffocated a black teenager with a plastic bag and used the “confession” to send the fellow to death row looks pretty decent in comparison.) I first read about teeth filing practiced by police in the late 1980s, in a Soviet journal — how much has changed since? Either torture has spread through the system, or the knowledge of it has spread though society, — I do not know; I only know the citizens are concerned but silent. There is no grassroot democracy in Russia, hence no channel for citizens’ concerns. Come to think of it, the only party close to having a grassroot network is the Communists. If only they did champion the rights of the working class in earnest…

Getting back to the incentives, further changing the legal procedure to put more emphasis on cross-examination at trial and less on evidence from the “investigation” should help. But still, what kind of bonus would make you use a file on someone’s teeth? It’s obvious those cops’ value system is so fundamentally screwed that regular incentives just won’t work for them. Only a threat of going to jail — a real, tangible, credible threat of going down to a labor camp; in the most extreme case, not a camp for corrupt cops but a regular one where former “pigs” can’t expect much fun, — only a threat of physical violence can deter them, for these types must be cowardly. Russia’s army, with the help from police, is fighting a brutal anti-guerilla war in Chechnya where similar atrocities are, apparently, run-of-the mill; no matter who is right and who is wrong, or which side is more cruel, the war diffuses latent violence around the country as soldiers return home. Someone who got used to punching Chechens’ kidneys can easily switch to pushing an electrode up fellow Russians’ anuses. But still, most cops have no war past; initially, they are just ordinary kids, not that well educated or super-bright, but not monsters. Is it the “system”? I can’t imagine a guy next door doing anything like that, no matter what the system. But who can tell? A boy who lived below me (we had once went to the same school) was convicted of stabbing, together with a pal, a schoolmate of theirs, and his granny after him. Perhaps he didn’t do it; but you never know what to expect of people. Or do latent sadists self-select for police work?

Russia needs an independent investigation into police abuse in its entirety — the system of abuse, if it exists. There are enough respected and trusted people to do the work. The public needs to know the real extent of the ugliness; if it is non-systemic, fine; if it is, at least we would know what to fix.

UPDATE: Yes, there are Russian citizens in Guantanamo, no doubt about it. Please read Mike Tykanov’s comments below.


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