Dmitry Utoukin: "People who come to the organization want to change this world. They are idealists to some extent"

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19 February 2016

Dmitry Utoukin, Head of Investigative Department of the Committee for Prevention of Torture, speaks about himself on the pages on «Human Rights Defenders. Who Are They?» project.

Around seventy percent of my classmates chose to study humanitarian subjects: international relations, history, cultural studies. I used to have a similar mind-set but it seemed to me that one cannot earn living in this fields. And I did not feel like living from hand to mouth. That is why the law department of a university turned out to be a compromise. I did not have to take any entrance exam in math and I liked the list of subjects that we studied later on.

When I entered the law department of a university I was interested in the legal investigator career, but later on I had some training in the investigative department where I had to work alongside with the acting investigator, so I lost the thrill I had felt to this profession. I worked with the cases on insulting the police officers. Such standard cases which were easy to bring to court. When I was a trainee, there were still detoxication centers in place. Almost every time when people were sent to this center, someone insulted «poor» police officers.

«My father, Internal Forces Colonel, always wanted me to be a police or FSB officer»

Once there was a standard interrogation where you just need to change the surnames, names and dates; a standard interrogation of a physician assistant, where you also change the surnames of criminals and the date; a standard policemen interrogation. I gathered the information and filed it myself, the investigation officer only put his signature everywhere and interrogated those guys. The text was already prepared, so the interrogation was just a formality, everyone put their signature and I collected the statements. It was clear that it was no investigation but a sham. The investigation officer had real raping and murder cases but the progress was rather slow, while he needed badly to take these two criminal cases to court, and it seemed to me that it was not the job I wanted to do.

Financing was not the same as it is now in the Investigating Committee. The investigation officer was wearing a shabby sweater and his office was located in the former kindergarten which had not been repaired for a long time. There was even a faded rainbow painted there.
An image of a Soviet investigation officer fighting the criminal world vanished. Cases that are taken to court are produced at a mass scale. It is clear that these people committed a crime but this is not the gravest crime that could be committed. Investigation of truly dangerous cases takes a lot of time and effort and they have poor prospects.

I was a trainee in an old human rights organization. Once a teacher came to our university and we were discussing the international law, afterwards we were invited as trainees. They were not engaged in social inquires but only performed monitoring, and our task as trainees was to write responses to the convicts’ letters and gather information. I found this useless: you gather information, send it to the state authorities and they replied that everything was all right. That was all.

I was greatly disappointed in the law career; I felt that choosing the law department was a mistake for me. I started working in the commercial organization as a manager in logistics, and I wanted to go on in this field and get the second higher education in economics to be in business. I did not really like company I was working for, that is why I was seeking for a new job.

(Dmitriy Utoukin, giving his speech for the students of the law department at the university)

I had a fellow student, his mother was a deputy of Legislative Assembly, his step-father was an FSB officer, so this guy was quite dashing. When no one of our group had a driving license he was already driving with his brother’s driving license through they did not look alike and even had different fathers. When we met a year after the graduation I asked him: «How are you?». And he said: «Well, I’m working for the Committee Against Torture». I asked what was that: «Is it something well-known?» At that time he called the whole organization a Nizhny Novgorod branch of the UN Committee Against Torture, and he was fibbing a little. He told me about constant business trips abroad, the salary paid in dollars, scandals, intrigues and investigations. I got interested in it and asked him to keep me informed if there were any vacancies. Then I forgot about this but a year later I received a call and I was invited to the office.

As I thought I would be engaged by the «UN Committee Against Torture branch», I imagined the doors with photoelectric devices, a secretary with hand free set, all state-of-the-art and nanotechnology. In the end I entered an old office, 19th century building repaired at the Soviet times, with wooden panels on the walls (the same as at the Regional Internal Affairs Directorate), ripped off linoleum, old safes and en employee with a laptop featuring letters of its logo wiped-off long time ago, the room is dark and the lamp light is the same as in NKVD. Keeping his cigarette in his mouth he looked at me and asked: «What are the reasons that brought you here?» At that time I thought «Well, damn it». Then, in the course of the conversation I realized that this Committee had of course no direct relation to the UN.

At first, Head of the organization Igor Kalyapin seemed to be some businessman with a half-criminal look. He was wearing a leather jacket, smoked in his office and started with frightening me at the very start. Having looked through my CV he asked: «What do you want here with your university? Why did you come? We have no career opportunities, the salary is low and investigation officers are always putting pressure on us. Our job is dangerous and boring». That was the way in which he was testing me.

«It seemed interesting to me that people were trying to do something, they were not just elaborating reports and monitoring, they were checking the law breaking cases trying to find out the truth, that was something that lured me»

 
My views were influenced by the trips to Sochi and Chechnya. I spent over two weeks together with Igor Kalyapin and Oleg Khabibrakhmanov. At that time Chechnya feathered the recent war traces: damaged roads, «Minutka» Square destroyed by Grad systems, there was no electricity or normal sewage system. Local people told us a lot of stories about the war.

(Members of the Free Mobile Group near the Committee office before their trip to Chechnya)

When we were in Sochi, we investigate the case of the local Special Police Force (OMON). Some officers of this department were having a rest at a local pub and there was a conflict with some Armenian people. The next evening the whole Special Police Force squadron went to look for the offenders. Without thinking twice, “the spacemen” beat up all those Armenian people who had been in the café that day, and the youngest of them was about 14 years old. We investigated this case, there were a lot of witnesses there: people on vacation, the owners of the café, visitors. People were so shocked by this cruelty that the people’s militia gathered. Some parents organized committees. And even the district police officer helped to find witnesses. The Investigating Committee also took part in this case. That was the first case when we cooperated with the Investigating Committee and they did not confront us as «foreign agents». We gathered witnesses, took them to the investigation officer, he questioned them and finally the case had a successful result. Six people were convicted, five of them got prison terms.

«Anyone could be a victim of the police violence no matter how pompous it may sound. There is statistics that in Russia every fifth person suffered from the police actions»
 
Quite different people address us. For example, there was a scientist from the Russian Academy of Science, a nuclear physicist, who was beaten up by the police in the street in the evening because they took him for somebody else. There was an old man who the district police officer suspected in breaking his window. The pensioner wearing only his underpants and slippers was dragged out of his home and driven to the police office. Then it became clear that he had nothing to do with this case and he was kicked away into the street without any clothes when it was February and it was minus 20 degrees outside. The old man wearing only underpants and slippers had to walk two kilometers to get home and it was a miracle that he did not die. Also terrible criminals come to us, people with eight previous convictions and two of which were for murder.

We have no map of tortures of the whole country because this specific statistics is not kept in all the regions. It is clear that in the areas where we can be present or there are people like us, the number of such crimes is a bit less. For example, there is no statistics in Ulyanovsk and we have no information on the violence level there. But I assume that this level is not the same everywhere. It is just that in some areas this problem is open for discussion and the police officers are brought to trial and in other areas everything is kept secret.

«The level of tortures decreased during the preliminary investigation and at liberty, but in prisons and penal colonies the level of violence remains the same» 

There is an annual tendency revealing that the amount of claims is reducing in Nizhny Novgorod region, but the amount of claims from places of detention is not.

People have no clear idea what a torture is and that tortures are common in Russia. We know that and see heaps of publications in media, a well-known case of the police department «Dal’ny», all these stories, but they remain unknown to common people. People cannot believe that in the 21st century in Russia the police still use violence. This is the key problem.
We are not the leaders among the countries where tortures are used. Take such countries as Sri Lanka, Uzbekistan and countries of Latin America; the level of violence there is much higher. The main difference of Russia from the Western countries is that people there do not avoid discussing this problem. Crimes in Guantanamo (the USA) became known to the public due to the investigation of the colleagues from the American Human Rights Watch organization. The quality of such cases investigation is much higher if these cases reach the investigation stage. The investigation is more efficient because independent bodies are in charge of it.

(At the local running competition)

The main problem of Russia is that the investigation officer and police officers working with major cases work as one team. The investigation office detains criminals, but he is responsible only for drawing up the documents. He does not gather information, he has no agents; he gets this information from Criminal Investigation detectives. Let’s assume that an investigation officer has ten cases in progress. Nine of them are cases about rape, murders, something else and only one is a torture case. The investigative officer realizes that if he starts a criminal case against a detective he drinks vodka with on Fridays and puts him in prison tomorrow, then the day after tomorrow his colleagues will stop sharing the information on criminal cases and his performance results will be poor. This link – an investigation officer and a detective is the major problem.

This problem is already being solved. A special investigation department has been established, and it deals only with investigations of crimes committed by officers. But, unfortunately, there are only about 38 operating investigation officers of this kind for all regions in Russia. Of course this is only a drop in the bucket. They investigate only most notorious and significant cases. It was a kind of the government response to stop the scandal caused by the «Dal’ny» police department case, that story with a bottle of champagne. It became a trigger, so this action was taken to calm down the situation. I would not say that this department is not efficient. Qualified investigation officers work there, the problem is that there are very few of them.

We have developed quite complicated relationships with the government. On the one hand we twice won «the President Grant» for big amount of money, on the other hand we are acknowledged as «foreign agents». The State represented by the Constitutional Court and the President say that the status of «a foreign agent» does not diminish the image of a non-commercial organization, but de facto people respond quite fast and abrupt to this «brand mark».

Many just do not know what it is. They are sure that if you are included in this list, then you will be closed down. A lot of questions are asked even by colleagues-lawyers: «Haven’t you been closed down? Are you still working?» Once even at the trial the accused policemen filed an application on my disqualification with arguments that I am a member of the Committee Against Torture, and this Committee is acknowledged as «a foreign agent», which means its activity is prohibited.

They interpret this fact only negatively. This is a sign for state authorities that someone’s activity is not wanted by the government and it is better not to cooperate with them. We had joint project with Nizhny Novgorod court. And I do not know if this cooperation will continue after these events. We trained state officers at our expense, we provided annual training courses. Let’s see how the situation will be developing, but the relationships are quite complicated.

«I think that people that come to the organization have an active life position and they want to change this world. They are idealists to some extent»

As for the young people interest in the matters of human rights, I can say that we twice started our search for standard positions in the organization. I interviewed 80 % of candidates. People think of human rights as «something good» and say: «Human rights are everything». For them this is not interrelations of the state and a unit, not some quite narrow segment, but «just all good against all evil». People that come even cannot state it for themselves what human rights are, saying nothing of the generally accepted terminology.

I think that this is the government’s fault, because human rights are associated with some liberal Western values that are alien to us or with the situation when «human rights are remembered when gay people are defended». Earlier, at the law departments «human rights» discipline was given very few hours, but two years ago this discipline disappeared at all. Future lawyers get miniscule knowledge about conventions, and in fact, they know nothing about the idea of human rights.

Source: «Human Rights Defenders. Who Are They?» project