Общественное расследование

О деле Алексея Михеева и КПП ("The Wall Street Journal", апрель 2006 года)

Man, Tortured to Admit Crime That Never Was, Tries Rights Court in Europe ---

`Murder' Victim: Alive and Well ---- By Guy Chazan

 The Wall Street Journal via Dow Jones

 NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia -- One September afternoon, traffic cop Alexei

Mikheyev was summoned to a police station for questioning about a local girl

who'd gone missing. Nine days later, he was carried away on a stretcher,

paralyzed from the waist down.

 For years, Mr. Mikheyev tried and failed to bring his tormenters to justice.

In despair, he turned to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg,

France. It "was my last chance -- my only chance -- to reveal the truth about

what happened to me," Mr. Mikheyev says.

 Often called "the conscience of Europe," the Strasbourg court handles alleged

violations of the European Convention on Human Rights, a 1950 treaty set up on a

wave of soul-searching after World War II. But in Russia, the European Court has

become a last resort for thousands of citizens who've lost hope of obtaining

justice at home. More cases against Russia are pending in Strasbourg than

against any other country -- 13,945 at the end of 2005. Last year alone,

Russians filed 8,500 complaints there, a sixth of all it received, according to

a Kremlin official. While Russia is a large country, this still reflects a big


 The complaints include many that don't fit the human-rights mold -- things

like unpaid pensions -- as frustrated Russians treat Strasbourg as a kind of

general court of appeal. Russia's representative at the court calls the high

number of cases misleading, because "around 96% are declared inadmissible."

Russian applicants, he says, could just as easily rely on their own appellate

courts but file in Strasbourg hoping for a big cash award. "People are in fact

more disappointed by Strasbourg than they are by the Russian courts," says the

Russian representative, Pavel Laptev.

 Yet the outcomes of the small number of Russian appeals the court has

adjudicated are telling: Over the past six years, 111 out of the 115 cases

decided have gone against Russia, a higher percentage than for most other


 The rulings are binding on Russia, since it has signed the Convention on Human

Rights. And Russian authorities have tried to correct problems exposed by the

court, such as by improving conditions in notoriously overcrowded

pretrial-detention centers and reducing delays before trial.

 But they're also putting pressure on some applicants and organizations that

help people file petitions in Strasbourg. A Russian human-rights group that

represented Mr. Mikheyev found itself accused of taking funds from British

spies. A lawyer for other appellants says her phone calls are routinely cut off.

 Russians' confidence in their courts has risen and ebbed under President

Vladimir Putin, who came to power in 2000 promising a "dictatorship of law." At

first, he launched an overhaul of the criminal-justice system, curbing the

powers of prosecutors and raising the status of defense attorneys. But faith in

the courts has waned again in the past few years amid cases such as the

prosecution of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has been jailed for tax

evasion and his company dismembered. Many in Russia and the West believe Mr.

Putin misused the courts to railroad the politically ambitious businessman.

 Mr. Khodorkovsky, now serving an eight-year sentence in Siberia, has appealed

to Strasbourg. He's not the first prominent Kremlin critic to do so: One early

appellant was a fallen business tycoon, Vladimir Gusinsky, who was briefly

jailed in 2000. In 2004, the European Court agreed with Mr. Gusinsky's claim

that authorities had forced him to sign over his media empire in return for

getting out of jail.

 The court awarded the former oligarch a small recovery, but couldn't get him

his business back. While it can rule that a person has been denied a free trial,

whether the court could free someone from a Russian jail remains unclear.

 In another politically sensitive judgment, the European Court awarded damages

last year to six Chechens who had relatives killed by the Russian military. One

plaintiff, Magomed Khashiyev, says troops hunting for rebels killed his brother,

sister and two nephews in 2000. "In Strasbourg I felt I'd gone to heaven," he

says. "For the first time, I felt safe enough to say what happened to me without

fear of retribution."

 Initially, the Kremlin paid little attention to rulings from the European

Court, while quietly abiding by its judgments. But as the volume of filings has

risen, so have complaints by plaintiffs and their advocates of harassment.

Karinna Moskalenko, a human-rights lawyer who has represented Mr. Khodorkovsky,

says every call in her Moscow office is disconnected after about three minutes.

"I'm tired of this," she said during an interview there, as her line went dead


 Bill Bowring, a British law professor who helped Mr. Khashiyev and other

Chechens, says he was barred from entering Russia after arriving at a Moscow

airport last November. He says guards gave no explanation.

 The pressure can rangefrom intimidation of appellants and witnesses to even

instances of people being killed, says Philip Leach, head of the London-based

European Human Rights Advocacy Centre. He cites the case of Zura Bitieva, a

Chechen whose complaint of arrest and detention in Chechnya was pending in

Strasbourg. He says the woman was shot dead in her house, along with two family

members, in 2003.

 Mr. Laptev, Russia's representative to the European Court, dismisses the

claims of harassment. They are "nonsense," says the official, a former Soviet

functionary, seated in a Moscow office decorated with a portrait of Mr. Putin in

a white judo robe.

 People seeking a hearing in Strasbourg must exhaust their remedies at home

first. The 45-judge court drops applications that don't meet its criteria. For

those that do, it first asks for written observations from the defendant --

which is the government of the country from which the appeal comes. Only after

receiving these do the judges decide whether to take the case. The process can

take years.

 In Mr. Mikheyev's case, Russia declined to provide the European Court with any

legal records, saying proceedings were still continuing. The court, which

doesn't do its own investigating, initially had to piece together his story from

affidavits provided to it by a local nonprofit called the Nizhny Novgorod

Committee Against Torture.

 Things changed in October 2004 after the European Court told Moscow it was

accepting Mr. Mikheyev's complaint. Thereafter, authorities in Nizhny Novgorod

launched two criminal investigations into police conduct in the case, and last

November a court in the city convicted two of Mr. Mikheyev's interrogators. The

guilty verdict, which gave a detailed description of the torture they inflicted

on him, was passed on to Strasbourg and played a crucial role in establishing

the facts of the case.

 Mr. Mikheyev's story began in September 1998 when the traffic cop, then 22

years old, and a friend gave a lift to a girl in her late teens whom they'd met

in the town of Bogorodsk. Two days later, her mother reported her missing. Mr.

Mikheyev was called in for questioning. Without concern, he put on his uniform

and drove off to the station.

 The abuses began almost at once, it is clear from the verdict in last year's

Nizhny Novgorod trial. First, police in Bogorodsk made Mr. Mikheyev sign a

backdated resignation. Then they kept him in custody through charges of being

disorderly in a rail station. In fact, on the day one Russian investigator of

the case said Mr. Mikheyev had been picked up at the station, he was already in


 Police questioned him round the clock, mostly without a lawyer, Mr. Mikheyev

said in a sworn affidavit given to the European Court. After eight days he was

transferred to a detention center. There, when he kept denying he had raped and

murdered the girl, officers attached metal clamps to his earlobes and, at the

flick of a switch, he was convulsed by an electric shock.

 "I thought I'd have a heart attack," Mr. Mikheyev says in an interview at the

cramped apartment he shares with his mother. "My whole body shook. All my

internal organs went into a spasm."

 Officers showed him the written statement of the friend who was with him when

they picked up the girl. It said that Mr. Mikheyev had raped and killed her.

Continuing to deny it, he was given a second shock, longer and more powerful,

according to the verdict of the 2005 trial of two officers. He screamed and

tried to break away but was restrained.

 Unable to stand the pain, he orally admitted rape and murder and agreed to

write a confession. His handcuffs were removed and a policeman gave him a pen

and paper and began dictating. But after one sentence, he changed his mind and

stopped. The police delivered a third shock, according to the 2005 trial

verdict. Mr. Mikheyev broke free, smashed a window and leapt through, landing on

a motorbike and breaking his spine.

 The same day, the girl he was accused of killing returned home, the trial

verdict said. In testimony to the Nizhny Novgorod court, she said she'd stayed

with friends without telling her mother.

 Authorities opened a criminal investigation into Mr. Mikheyev's fall.

Investigators closed it three months later "for lack of evidence." In fact, a

fellow hospital patient had told them Mr. Mikheyev had earlobe burns and

abrasions. A welder by profession, the man said they looked to him like burst

blisters from burning-hot metal. The hospital report didn't mention these,

although it noted wounds on top of his head, scratches on his forehead and marks

on his tongue.

 In succeeding years, regional prosecutors repeatedly reopened the case and

sent it for new investigations, 15 times in all. Some were what the European

Court called "mere formalities," while others probed a little more deeply. Yet

they continued to close without action, after various investigative

shortcomings. For example, in one case a policeman assigned to talk to a witness

was among those accused of the torture. He said he couldn't locate the witness.

Some of the investigations concluded that Mr. Mikheyev had a "weak" personality

and jumped out the window to kill himself.

 The local Committee Against Torture took up his case in 1999. Its head, Igor

Kalyapin, says that "the prosecutor's office wrote to us saying there's no such

thing as torture in Russia, that we were slandering the state." The letter hangs

framed in his office.

 Mr. Kalyapin says the missing girl was a relative of a local bigwig and the

case had come to involve senior figures in local law enforcement. Supervising

the interrogation was the deputy prosecutor of the Nizhny Novgorod region. Mr.

Mikheyev says that when he complained to that supervisor about the torture, the

response was: "Take him away and continue to work on him."

 That deputy prosecutor is now dead. The Nizhny Novgorod prosecutor's office

wouldn't comment on the case.

 The Committee Against Torture took the case to the European Court in 2001, and

three years later that court declared it admissible. The Russian criminal

investigation launched thereafter discredited both the backdated resignation and

the charge of disorderliness. The court in Nizhny Novgorod convicted the two

interrogators of abuse of power associated with the use of violence. Each was

sentenced to four years in prison.

 In late January, a seven-judge panel in Strasbourg found a violation of the

Human Rights Convention's ban on "torture or . . . inhuman or degrading

treatment." It also found the Russians had denied Mr. Mikheyev his right to an

effective investigation and remedy. It ordered Russia to pay him <euro>250,000,

or about $310,000. About half was for medical treatment and lost income and half

"non-pecuniary" damages, "given the exceptionally serious consequences."

 Mr. Laptev, Russia's representative to the European Court, said publicly that

the judgment "should be studied carefully in police stations across the

country." In an interview, he added that "it was an odious case, but it was also

not unique to Russia. There are bad cops everywhere."

 Mr. Mikheyev's damage award, which he still hasn't received, should make a big

difference for him. He and his mother have a combined income of only $100 a

month. Needing constant nursing care, he is essentially confined to their

one-bedroom apartment.

Meanwhile, the authorities have refused Mr. Mikheyev's request for a police

disability pension. The reason: Having been forced to sign a backdated

resignation at the start of his interrogation, he says, "I wasn't on duty when I