In Russia, justice for victims of torture may be hard to find, but human rights defenders – like those at the Committee Against Torture – work together to ensure the government can’t ‘soft-pedal’ on the cases
Editor’s note: This is the second post in an ongoing series from Russian member centre Committee Against Torture on their use of a Joint Mobile Group to investigation human rights violations, such as torture. See the first post here.
The first time Committee Against Torture used a Joint Mobile Group (JMG) method was in January 2005 in Blagoveschensk, Bashkiria. The creation of the JMG was triggered by a report about a massive human rights violation in that Bashkirian town. At that moment, we learnt that according to preliminary estimates, more than 300 Blagoveschensk district residents had been unlawfully detained and ill-treated by officers of the Blagoveschensk Department of Internal Affairs and Special Police Task Force (OMON).
Local human rights NGOs were obviously lacking resources to provide legal assistance to all victims. Having assessed the severity and scale of unlawful violence, several human rights NGOs simultaneously decided to send their representatives to Bashkiria. The task was to conduct a public investigation within the shortest term possible and gather proof of human rights violations.
The situation in Blagoveschensk was aggravated by the fact that law enforcement agencies were trying to conceal the crime, and later, when that became impossible due to wide publicity, to justify law enforcers’ actions and diminish the scale of the crime. Interior Ministry representatives called their action a raid which had been allegedly triggered by a sharp increase in the number of crimes in that Bashkirian district. The regional prosecutor refused to register crime reports. The district municipal authority also contributed to stalling the investigation – it turned off the electricity and central heating in the community centre where the meeting between human rights defenders and victims was to take place.
Nevertheless, the JMG succeeded in its task. In the space of five days, JMG lawyers questioned dozens of victims, obtained medical records describing injuries, and identified and questioned eye-witnesses. Thus, it did the job that should have been done by prosecutorial investigators in accordance with law.
All materials collected were submitted to investigative authorities together with crime reports. Simultaneously, the results of JMG activities were covered in local and federal mass media. The Prosecutor’s Office had nothing else to do but instigate criminal proceedings and start an investigation.
Human rights defenders monitoring the official investigation progress and representing victims faced numerous obstacles. However, the evidence collected by the JMG did not allow the authorities to soft-pedal the case. It reached the court, and a number of Bashkirian police officers were found guilty of grave crimes.
Lessons from Bashkirian
The Blagoveschensk experience demonstrated the high efficiency and potential of the JMG approach. The skills and methodology developed there were later improved and used in other Russian regions. Joint Mobile Groups were formed to investigate grave and systematic human rights violations in Tver region, Stavropolsky and Krasnodarsky krays, Chechen republic and Republic of Chuvashia. Each time employees of the Interregional Committee Against Torture took active part in JMGs as representatives of the only Russian NGO professionally using the public investigation method.
One of the most high-profile cases investigated by the JMG is the so-called Sochi OMON case. The JMG worked in the Lazarevsky district of Sochi, where, in July 2006, Special Police Task Force officers had carried out “an action of vengeance” in response to their colleague’s defeat in a mere fight that had taken place in a seaside café. The retaliatory blow hit several dozens of people. OMON officers with all their ammunition arrived at Nizhneye Makopse where they detained and ill-treated more than 30 people who by chance found themselves in the unfortunate café. Among the victims there were local residents, Druzhba Children’s Camp staff and vacationers from other cities.
Within two to three days the Committee Against Torture formed a JMG consisting of representatives of Nizhny Novgorod, Mariy El and Krasnodarsky Kray human rights NGOs. For three weeks, JMG lawyers thoroughly investigated the incident and gathered the required evidence, working alongside Regional Prosecutor’s Office investigators. The joint effort of the JMG and prosecutorial staff resulted not only in collection of proof of the crime, but also identification of specific officials involved in it. The investigation led to the instigation of criminal proceedings, while 35 people were acknowledged victims. Following the investigation, the case went to court and ended in the conviction of eight OMON agents, including commanders, each of whom was sentenced to long-term imprisonment.