Igor Kalyapin: “I served three months in jail, and then by accident it was found out that I was innocent”

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22 November 2018

Human rights defender, Chairman of the Committee Against Torture speaks on a personal choice between physics and human rights defense work, professional risks and unpreparedness of the state to acknowledge the torture problem.

Igor Kalyapin is nominated as a candidacy for Egor Gaydar Prize for 2018 in nomination “For outstanding actions contributing to civil society formation”.

How often in your daily life do you think about your own safety, about the fact that by defending other people from humiliations, torture and persecutions, you are putting yourself to risk?

A couple of times per week I think about it.

Why don’t you stop doing this? How do you compare the risk and the benefit?

The fact that I think about it twice a week does not mean that I have some concerns about it twice a week. Many professions involve professional risk. For example, a driver can have a traffic incident any time, and he thinks about it from time to time. But this does not mean that this man thinks: “Maybe I should just quit?” This is his profession. Just the day before yesterday I was in Grozny and met people exactly at the same spot where I was attacked one year and a half. And once again I thought that had I stayed there for more than half an hour, then, most likely, some hoodlum group would have arrived, which could throw something, pour something, hit in the abdomen. My quite rational approach was that we had to leave in about 20 minutes, otherwise there would be a scandal and Mikhail Aleksandrovich Fedotov will be angry: “You can’t be allowed to go anywhere, you create scandals everywhere”. But this does not have anything to do with the question whether I continue this activity or not. I regard this to be beneficial and necessary. To say more, I love my job and I don’t feel myself a slave at the galleys.

Were you one of the first in the new Russia who said aloud the word “tortures” and started to deal with this subject?

But for sure I’m not the first person who pronounced the word “tortures”. In the end of the 80s and in the 90s there were a lot of discussions about the compliance of new Russia with those international agreements and international obligations which emerged back in the times of the late USSR. I remind that the UN Convention against torture was ratified by the USSR and we inherited it together with the nuclear weapons. The other thing is that in 1987 it was not accepted much as a topic for discussion, but in the beginning of the 90s discussions started on the topic related to the fact that there are some very adequate international norms and Russia, as a successor of the Soviet Union, which was preparing itself (then it was quite relevant) for entering the Council of Europe, should fight torture, too, among other things. But the stance of the officials was the following: torture does not exist here. I even have some official documents signed by the Prosecutor of the Nizhny Novgorod region, where he writes that for 1987 not a single fact of torture was detected. That’s when he replied to me and Mr Shimvolos, as to the people who worked in the Monitoring Commission under the Nizhny Novgorod Regional Executive Committee. That is, it was a commission which monitored the confinement conditions in detention facilities. And the response that was provided was: “You should take up something more useful. We don’t have any tortures”. Then I just realized for myself that there are problems which the state acknowledges – and some which it does not. For example, it acknowledges that the prison cells are overpopulated. It says: “Well, yes, four square meters per person is assigned, it is significantly less with us, but what can we do. The crime is rising, we don’t have enough prisons”.

It was related to the fact that in the beginning of the 90s the capital punishment prohibition was ratified?

You know, in fact, we did not have such a queue standing in line for execution, so I don’t think that it is these people that overpopulate the prisons.
When I was making a film in Butyrka, there was such a crowd standing.

It Butyrka — maybe. I happened to serve some time at the Nizhny Novgorod Investigation Cell — by the way, under the Article that provided for capital punishment at that time. The cell for 4 accommodated 11 convicts. We slept in three shifts. And it is not even very appropriate to describe the living conditions that we had there. Lice and bedbugs were like ants in an ant hill. All the walls were alive, covered in insects. Naturally, humidity was very high, because it was winter, small vent window, 11 people breathing. And no one was planned for execution there, that is, all were potential long-timers. It means that the prisons were overpopulated not because the moratorium on capital punishment was introduced. They were overpopulated because the crime was increasing exponentially. And the law-enforcement system was not at all ready for this, including the penitentiary system. I served three months in jail, and then by accident it was found out that I was innocent and I was released.

It’s also a meaningful story.

The story is, indeed, very meaningful. If the culprit had not been caught, I could have…

And what article it was?

It was Article 93 prime, embezzlement of state property in especially large amount. When in 1992 I was put to Investigation Cell under this Article, it provided for capital punishment. The moratorium was introduced in 1993. And I was warned several times that if I don’t cooperate with the investigation, they might apply brilliant green on my forehead (prison slang for capitally convicted, comment by translator).

That is, by chance you know torture from inside and outside?

Yes. I basically experienced it all first-hand a bit. Probably, this personal experience also contributed quite a significant part to the fact that I started to do this professionally. But personally, I was enraged by the fact that the word “torture” was not accepted to be pronounced. Everyone knew people are beaten up by the police – though personal experience, through the experience of their friends, relatives, acquaintances.

And all of this was considered normal and still is?

Not maybe normal, but not something to be surprised by. Well, yes, the cops beat up people – that’s what they are.

All the seasons of “Streets of Broken Lights” are dedicated to this.

Generally, yes. However, on the television it is shown with a little humor, even. In “Cops” TV series, for example, there was a scene when some horrible man comes in, in a dirty smock smeared in blood, with a concussor, and in reality he is not going to beat anyone, but the cops show him to the suspect and tell him that he would deal with him, the suspect is frightened and starts to give the testimony they want from him. Apparently, in this episode, as the film director sees it, the audience should smile.

Do I understand it right that the first problem is to explain to the society that this is wrong, this is not a norm, rather than to break this system?

I will be honest with you; I always considered the task to explain anything to the society to be completely unsolvable, both twenty years ago and now. I realize that in order to change something for the long haul one has to achieve that through the society changed attitude to the problem. But I am very skeptical to the possibility to change something in the society. My objective is a lot less ambitious. I am only trying to put to work the laws that we have. They have a lot of holes in them, they are not very adjusted to be applied in real life, but in general they are not bad. And even the laws which prohibit tortures and make it possible to fight them, that is, to bring to responsibility those who engage in them, could be working fine. But they are not working at all. That is, it’s not that they don’t function systematically, but rather they malfunction systematically. And for this, as I see it, there are very specific root causes and specific culprits.

Which ones?

First and foremost, the main law enforcer — what twenty years ago was called Investigative Department of the Prosecutor’s Office, and now is called the Investigative Committee. It means these are the people, perfectly known investigators, who realize pretty clearly that there was a crime, the man was tortured, and if there is no ready-made evidence on a silver platter, but then at least it is clear what investigative activities should be performed in order to collect this evidence. But they do something completely the opposite — conceal crimes, destroy evidence, fail to send the person to forensic medical examination in time, realizing perfectly well that they will have to do it anyway, but they would do it in a couple of months when either all the traces of bodily injuries are be gone or not a single expert would be able to indicate precisely the time and mechanism of their appearance. Investigators deliberately bide the time, until everything important from the view of the forensic science is gone. They evade from questioning witnesses, even those whom the applicant directly indicates. The applicant says: “I was beaten up and this one and this one were present. My nose was also damaged, I was bleeding, there are traces on the walls. And also, when I signed the protocol, I dropped some blood somewhere. Pay attention, that I was telling about these and those circumstances under torture, but this just cannot be true, they were dictating to me and I was saying this. In fact, I have this and that evidence available, proving that it could not be so”. And it all can be easily checked. But investigators don’t do that.

But there is a very important issue. In order for the person to even claim to have been tortured, he needs to understand that something wrong happened to him. It may be a silly example, but still. For many years women in this country were giving birth while the midwives shouted at them: “Rough it”! The person who is being tortured should understand that he is right and the one who is torturing him is wrong. This is also a question to the society.

Yes, this is a question to the society, too. You are right. And, as far as I know, based on polls, and I don’t have any grounds not to doubt them, most of the citizens support torture as such. Not only they consider them acceptable, but also necessary. To the question “Can people be tortured”, they answer, “it depends which people”. Which implies that there are some categories of criminals to whom tortures may be applied. Terrorists, pedophiles, doctors-saboteurs— depending who this campaign is waged against now, who is in the focus of the public hatred. At the same time, people, although they are not lawyers, but still they more or less understand that it’s only the court that can decide whether a person is a terrorist or not, and he is tortured to confess that he is a terrorist and only then he will be tried in court. And then you start to explain to the people that if one is tortured, then any person, you, your friend, your son, any one, can be declared a terrorist. As a specialist, I can tell you that it is possible to force anyone to confess of any crime. The question only is how much time and effort will it take and how qualified the torturers will be. And people agree to that, at the same time they think that one would not be beaten for no reason. It means, if a terrorist is caught, it needs to be tortured a bit so that he confesses, because if you don’t torture him he won’t confess. In general, there’s a strange aberration in people’s mind, notably, with quire intelligent people, too.

Can torture practice be beaten without winning over these prejudices of an average Russian citizen?

I don’t know. I don’t see an alternative here. I think that in any case we need to try to put the laws that we have to work. Every time when we manage to prove with legal tools in court that tortures were applied and that someone is being tried for them, it is necessary to tell about it to the people. It is necessary to show to representatives of legal professional community which problems we have in legislation, which laws are not working, how the office crime flourishes and not stopped. It is necessary to talk with society about the problem with specific examples, because it is important for the people to hear these stories that someone somewhere was tortured. More importantly, it is very important to hear that someone was punished for this, still. Because I don’t really know any stories of easy victories in torture cases. Usually it is easy to bring someone to responsibility for torture only if the victim was beaten up to death…

Or there is a video. Like it was in the Yaroslavl story.

Yes. It became a high-profile story. You see, it takes not only the video to exist; it should have been published in “Novaya Gazeta”. Then it would be on everyone’s lips. And now…

By the way, speaking of “Novaya Gazeta”. No matter which way you look at it, you need to cooperate with mass media. You can’t interact with 140 million population of the country via small outlet of human rights defense websites. How do you communicate with such a huge country? Do you have any contacts with the media? Do the state-controlled media accept any contact at all?

No, now they don’t. But earlier on the times were better. Before 2012 journalists, including from state media, including TV journalists, eagerly cooperated with us. At least, in my native Nizhny Novgorod, where our activity began, we were newsmakers on police subject, and journalists eagerly made TV spots, came to court trials, not necessarily to courts where some torturer was tried, but also in courts where we in litigation with the Investigative Committee. This is the most widely spread procedure with us. We are constantly suing the Investigative Committee, appealing against their another refusal to initiate criminal proceedings or dismissal of a criminal case, of dismissal of a motion to perform some investigative activities. As practice showed, judges remember the law a lot more often and is a lot more inclined to take legal rulings if there are press representatives in the court room. Even in case of short trials about our specific complaints, where, for example, we submitted a motion requesting that the investigator seized the video records from the video camera, and he failed to find the time to do it for a whole month, and we request to declare his inaction to be illegal, journalists came and among other things gave us opportunity to explain why it is important. Why it is important to conduct investigation of this complaint, why it is important to timely perform this specific investigative activity, why it is important to send a person for forensic medical examination in time, why it is important to timely seize the video record from the video camera.

To what extent it helps you to be a part of the Council under the President?

In fact, we were quite effectively performing our function to investigate specific cases, bringing them to court and bringing the torturers to responsibility even without the Presidential Council. And now not a single torture case that we manage to get to court, does not have anything to do with my membership in the Presidential Council. It means, I never addressed the court as a member of the Presidential Council. But the Council is important in order to be able to communicate with journalists. Because sometimes, I still manage say something and voice some problems related to torture, not only in “Novaya Gazeta”, but also in “Izvestia”, “Kommersant”, TASS, RBK and etc. At the same time, they always write that Kalyapin is a member of the Presidential Council, and, as I see it, they write it not only because it is important for their readers. The things that I’m saying… Actually, for twenty years I keep saying the same things. All the problems and reasons why these problems exist did not change a single bit. The court practice changed a little bit, the Investigative Committee’s work started to improve a little bit. But this “a little bit” is so much at odds with the rate of the civilization development – sorry for the pathos, that the sun will die out before we start to comply with the current European level.

How many times for the last twenty years you thought that you had better become a physicist?

Often. In fact, I do think about this quite often. But, speaking frankly, I did not have much choice, because I was fired. Although, it needs to be mentioned, that, of course, when I went to a rally with a tricolor I realized that I would have to say goodbye to physics after that for good. In general, I think I don’t regret it, although sometimes I look at it and see that I can’t say there are no results, but these results are pretty small. Although we were doing everything right, and one hundred and fifty cops were sent behind bars, and many victims survived only thanks to us, and the saboteurs from the Investigative Committee were punished. Because the Investigative Committee resisted on every case, we were in litigation many times, and in the end these cases came to trial – either in domestic or European courts, and we mandatorily named the investigators who dismissed the cases and explained why we had to work on this case for eight years before it came to trial. And the prosecutors were punished, investigators, too, let alone the ones who we send behind bars. And, probably, there is some impact, including this inelastic deformation, as they say in physics, that is, we, probably, changed something a little bit. But when I remember that twenty years of my life were spent on that… Once again, I don’t feel like I’m a slave on the galleys, this choice corresponded to my needs. But the other day my colleagues brought me a badge from Geneva, from the European Nuclear Research Center, I looked at it and thought that I might have performed some experiments on that collider, but instead I was busy with God knows what.

Are you in contact with the families of those whom you helped? Or you help and then the person just carries on after that?

It can be in different ways. But generally, the person who lived through terrible tortures, a standard psychological reaction is observed. After some time he tries to forget about it all. More than that, there is a very specific type of amnesia, when a person cannot recall some details related with circumstances of tortures, and we have to bring these memories from his subconscious using some special means. We have psychologists, who do that, because a person just does not remember how it all went about. This is a healthy reaction of the brain. And after some years the person tries to forget the work with us altogether, as well — not because his attitude is bad, not because he is ungrateful, but because it is connected with unfortunate period of his life. However, we keep friends with some. For example, Lesha Mikheev, the character of my first case, which probably was the reason I got involved in this activity, every year visits our events. Sometimes we meet, share some news. But in general, people tend to move away from us. And I don’t take offence, I completely understand.

If we imagine that the investigative, penitentiary and other horrible systems change by a wave a magic wand or through your efforts, and become enlightened, European, no one tortures anyone anymore, what would you do?

You know, I have a lot of unrealized dreams, and I’d take up something else with pleasure, something, related to law, or maybe not. Before I became involved in all that, I used to be quite a prosperous businessman. I still have some small companies, which continue working, and from which I keep reaping my rewards, as befits the bourgeois. That is, maybe, it was not that badly organized, after all, if it keeps working for fifteen-twenty years virtually without my participation. In general, I’ll find what to do. And as to tortures… If one day there are none, then I was invited, for example, to carry out this work in Kyrgyzstan, under the axis of international organizations, for example, the OSCE. I don’t think I’ll go to Kyrgyzstan, because it’s too hot, but I could work in some other country.

Katerina Gordeeva
Source: Egor Gaydar Foundation