A night at a Russian police station nearly cost Alexei Yakimov his life: police strung him up with his hands cuffed behind him, beat him for five hours and then tried to drown him in a river.
It is the sort of brutality that police reforms set out by President Dmitry Medvedev are supposed to prevent to improve public trust in a force that many Russians believe is worse than the criminals it is supposed to apprehend.
Yakimov’s tormentors were jailed. But lawmakers, rights groups and victims of police violence say police largely act with impunity, and the reforms have broadly failed and are unlikely to stop beatings such as the one Yakimov received in 2009, Reuters reports.
“They had lots of beer and every time I lost consciousness, they poured beer on my face and then continued,” Yakimov, 37, a karate teacher and former part-time cab driver, told Reuters.
He said two policemen, acting as paid muscle in a practice Medvedev has vowed to stamp out, detained him as part of a turf war with rival taxi drivers over who controlled a stretch of pavement.
The policemen repeatedly put plastic bags over his head to restrict his breathing until he passed out. He says the officers later tried to drown him in the icy waters of the Volga river in the city of Nizhny Novgorod, 400 km (250 miles) east of Moscow.
When he pleaded for his life, he recalls them saying: “Do you think you’re the first to die here? Don’t waste your breath.”
Yakimov survived because the officers took back their handcuffs and the freezing water gave him just enough strength to drag himself out of the river.
POLICE ACKNOWLEDGE THERE IS A PROBLEM
In hospital, Yakimov faced daily threats from police not to lodge a complaint and fled after one week while recovering from a dislocated shoulder, broken arm and internal bleeding.
He can no longer drive because of his arm injury but he lived to see a police captain and a lieutenant sentenced to three years in jail last year for abuse of office.
Nizhny Novgorod’s police chief, General Major Ivan Shayev, argues that victims exaggerate the reports of ill treatment but acknowledged there was a problem.
“There are such incidents. It is a result of a lack of discipline and professionalism,” he said.
The Interior Ministry’s own statistics show 125,000 violations by officers were reported in 2010 but only 4,000 criminal investigations were opened.
Tours of duty to Chechnya and the North Caucasus, where Russia faces an Islamist insurgency, have compounded brutality in recent years, human rights campaigners say.
“They (troops) come back and make war on their own people,” said Natalya Taubina, who heads the Public Verdict Foundation.
Another man who suffered in custody, Alexander Dmitryev, still has deep red scars on his wrists two months after police crushed his body into a position called the “envelope.”
In a manoeuvre designed to force a quick confession, the victim’s head is forced between his bent knees and his feet and hands are trussed together, folding him impossibly in two. Dmitryev, who now wears a back brace, said: “After 15 minutes, I would have confessed to anything they wanted.”
Taken from his flat by plainclothes police and held overnight, he admitted stealing construction tools from an employer. The charges were withdrawn when he lodge a complaint, but rights lawyers fear the policemen will not be identified.
TRYING TO ERADICATE “EVIL”
Medvedev has said he will eradicate “evil” in the police force by shaking up the 1.4-million strong Interior Ministry that controls the police and sacking many senior officers.
He hopes to reduce corruption by raising salaries, preventing those with a criminal record from serving in the force and cutting Interior Ministry staff by one-fifth.
A recent poll by the independent Levada centre showed 70 percent of Russians say they fear the force, even more believe the reform will change nothing and nearly a quarter are certain it will increase police “lawlessness.”
Lawmakers say Medvedev’s bill, which came into force on March 1 but was gutted in parliament, reflects his inability to deliver on reform promises before.
His presidential term ends next year and he has not said whether he will seek a second term, increasing the questions about how far his reforms can go.
Most changes are seen as cosmetic, such as renaming the force “police” from the Soviet-era “citizens’ militia,” and the bill offers little public oversight.
“Nobody wants to take political responsibility for such a reform, but Medvedev has staked his image on it,” said Gennady Gudkov, a deputy with the pro-Kremlin Just Russia party and deputy chairman of the parliament’s security committee.
“There is no public oversight — the same corrupt officials will oversee the reform. This law doesn’t solve anything.”
Rights groups say the bill cements crime-solving quotas and promotions that encourage police to deliver confessions at any cost.
Amnesty International said in its annual rights report that Medvedev’s reforms were “piecemeal” and would fail unless Russia also tackled corruption and collusion among police, investigators and prosecutors.
“You still have a climate where they can act with impunity,” Amnesty’s Europe and Central Asia director Nicola Duckworth said. “It’s one step to put reforms on paper but quite another to change the whole mindset.”
Alexei Mikheyev, who waited eight years for justice confined to a wheelchair after he jumped out of a third-floor window to escape electric shocks and beatings by police, said: “Many people simply don’t survive or sit silent in jail.”
Mikheyev had confessed under duress to killing a girl but she later came home, alive and well. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that he had been tortured and ordered Russia to pay him 250,000 euros (221,000 pounds) in damages.
The court, based in the French city of Strasbourg, says every third complaint it receives from Russia is over the use of torture during interrogations.