“Russian Yoga School”: how law-enforcement officers torture people in Russia. Project of Zebra Hero creative agency and the Committee Against Torture


09 August 2019

Elephant. Russian Yoga school. Vladi. One of the videos on torture problem in Russia Zebra Hero

Every tenth resident of Russia was subjected to violence or threat of violence by law-enforcement bodies. They torture people, break their bones, stretch their bodies, stick sharp objects in their bodies, pour boiling water on them, choking them. Almost all tortures are related to penal institutions and law-enforcement bodies. For some tortures law-enforcement officers invent original nicknames: for example, “Elephant” and “Swallow”.

It is important not to forget that there are people tortured right here and now. It’s no less important to understand who helps the people tortured by law-enforcement officers. Such organization in Russia is called the Committee Against Torture. In order to remind of torture problem and help human rights defenders, Zebra Hero creative agency issued a series of videos “Russian Yoga School”, where actors and musicians vividly explain how most popular tortures look like.

“They brought me on the floor pronate, and put handcuffs on my hands behind my back. One of them was pulling my hands up to the back of my head, I felt my bones cracking”
Valery Malakhov, 44 years old, long distance trucker, lives in Severny settlement of the Kurganinsky Distict of the Krasnodar Territory.

In the night from 13 to 14 April 2018, my wife Olga and I were returning home from Pyatigorsk — we came to visit our daughter, she gave birth to our granddaughter. At about 10 a.m. the police came to search our house. After that the neighbors told us that during these several days when we were not at home, about 20 police officers were walking around our yard. The search lasted from morning to four o’clock in the evening, after that my wife and I were taken as witnesses to the police department of neighboring town of Gulkevichi.

Old woman named Lyuba lived across the street from us. She disappeared on 4 April, someone murdered her. The police wanted my wife and I to take responsibility for that. In addition, they separated us: my wife was in one room and I was in another. At first they tried to make a conversation. They told me that if I confess I get six years of jail time, if I don’t – I get fifteen. I asked: “How am I supposed to write about actions that I did not do”? They replied: “It does not matter, we will tell you. You’ll be writing, we will tell you what to write”. But I told the truth answering all questions – I was at work [on that day], I also have evidence — the way-bill, confirming that I was on the cruise. They did not like my answers so they started to beat me up.

My wife was beaten up, too. I cried of pain, they [police officers] opened the door for my wife to listen. Then it was visa versa. I was told: “If you accept your guilt, she will stop crying, if not – it will be even worse, she’ll be crying even worse”. I was replying that I won’t accept someone else’s guilt, even if they shoot me. I should not be punished for someone else. “You go and look for them, it’s your job”. But it does not matter to them whom to convict, they just break people, that’s all.

At first I was sitting on a chair. They were hitting and kicking me at my head and my sides. Then they placed me pronate, and handcuffed my arms behind my back. One of them was pulling my arms up to the back of my head, I heard my bones cracking.

The rest of them — there were about 8–10 of them, I don’t know for sure, — were kicking me. At the same time, they were hitting my head with a door. I don’t know for long it lasted. Then I was put on a chair again. I felt dizzy like I was doped. Some officer wanted to have tea, the kettle boiled, and I felt boiling water pouring on my head. Blisters on my neck appeared immediately. It was very painful and unpleasant. The police officer said that boiling water is poured on chicken for grazing, and they will pour boiling water on my head and my hair will fall out on its own. And he added: “We’ll skin you alive, you’ll be bald like Fantomas”.

By three in the morning they [police officers] went away and returned only by nine. We [my wife and I] were taken for examination. Then to hospital so that we breath in a plastic tube for alcohol check. Then — to the investigator. He interrogated us, and at half past nine we were taken home. Every single day the police officers were in the settlement, they were walking around yards. They were coming [in vehicles] without number plates, picked up some people, put them inside the car and took them away. They took about 20 people from our settlement like that — beat them up, broke the fingers of some of them with pliers. But everyone is afraid to provide evidence [against the department officials].

On 29 April I was taken again, but this time they did not beat me up, but exerted psychological pressure. They told me they would find drugs on my 16-year old son and he will be convicted for 10-15 years. Or that he won’t reach home after studies (he studies in a construction college), because he’ll be hit by the car. But I did not sign anything. I am a common working man, a Christian, they can do whatever they want, they can made a cripple out of me, but I will never take someone else’s guilt on myself.

My wife and I took the documents [about our battery] to the Prosecutor’s Office and the FSB Department for Krasnodar. But they forwarded us to Gulkevichi. The investigator called us and questioned us. I asked him what’s next. She goes: “I will call for investigative officers and will have a talk with them”. I resented: “And that’s all? And at that you’ll just put the case file under the carpet”? He did not answer. No progress whatsoever. Although we wrote to Moscow after that – to the Prosecutor’s Office and to the Ministry of the Interior. But Moscow keeps forwarding everything to Krasnodar, and Krasnodar – back to Gulkevichi.

After they poured boiling water on me, something happened to my eyes. They turned red in one day, as if some sand was poured in them. I felt gripes all the time. For a year I suffered like that, applied to doctors — they prescribed some drops and ointment. Now it’s better, my health is fine. But anyway, it gets on my nerves. Last April the court put my wife behind the bars for two months [as a suspect in her neighbor’s murder case], but thanks to our defense lawyer she was released after 10 days — the investigators did not have anything against us. A month ago, on 2 July, the situation repeated — my wife was taken into custody again and sent for two months to the Krasnodar Pre-Trial Detention Facility. There again pressure was exerted on her. How can I not feel nervous, for God’s sake? Next year it’s a silver anniversary of our wedding. How am I to live through these sufferings? How are we to survive all these intimidations and batteries?

“They pressed on my spine so that my head was between the boots and my arms behind my back, handcuffs on. Then they tied my feet and tied the rope to the handcuffs through my shoulders. I was lying bent like that, could not do anything”.

Vener Mardamshin, 49 years old, unemployed, he is under state protection

It happened in 2016, on 10 November — on a Police Day. At that time, I lived in Neftekamsk [in Bashkiria]. My wife fell ill. In the morning I took her to hospital, and took my son to school. I came back home at about 10 in the morning. I was tied up in my yard, the police officers pulled a hat over my head and a plastic bag and I was taken to some unknown direction. For about 30–40 minutes we were riding around the town. Then I was handcuffed with my hands behind my back and brought to some room on the second floor. They made me sit on the floor, pressed my spine so that my head was between the boots and my arms handcuffed behind my back. Then they tied up my legs and tied the rope to the handcuffs through my shoulders. I was lying bent, I could not do anything.

At first they badly beat me up with hands and feet. Due to that I did not feel everything — then they started to apply electric shocker. Most likely, due to these beatings [because of them I stopped feeling pain] I was able to withstand the electricity shocks. They were very strong — a man passes out after one shock. And I had over a hundred of them. My son (he was eight at the time) counted 64 points on one foot [electric shocker traces] — not counting the other foot, arms, head and palms of my hands. I was all burnt, even my hair burnt.

The police officers wanted me to confess of a crime that I did not do. I was not even in the Republic on that day [Bashkortostan]. They also wanted me to bear false evidence against the director of a big company where I worked. They wanted me to provide evidence that at her [director] order I abducted a man, a competitor. I don’t know how I did not break. But I did not falsely accuse a person, taking into account I did not really commit it [the crime].

While they were beating me up, in the neighboring room the police officers were celebrating the Police Day. After four hours they got drunk, became bold. One of them was the head of Criminal Investigations, I knew him. I recognized his voice, and asked him, “Are you afraid of me or what? Remove the plastic bag”. He said he was not afraid of anything and the plastic bag and the hat were removed from my head. Then I saw everyone.

Neither electrical shocker nor batteries helped [The police officers], that is why they took a stick for linen and hanged me on that between the two tables. I don’t know how much time I had to suffer in that position. I kept passing out. I don’t even want to remember it, it was like a nightmare. Every part of the body gets numb and aches. Then I was like a piece of meat. I was untied, two young operative officers were assigned to stay with me throughout the night.

At some moment they [the police officers] said: “If you don’t confess than give us the person who would confess of this crime and tell that the company’s director ordered it”. I said that an acquaintance of mine knows such a man. They found and delivered him. He saw me and promised to bring the appropriate person, — he needed to get out [of the police department]. When he went out, he spread the news, he told my wife, too [what happened].

In the morning they had me sign the explanatory note, that allegedly I was drinking with my buddies [was apprehended] and did not have any claims against the police. I was taken to my yard. From there I was picked up by the ambulance — my wife called for it. I could not walk. My spine was broken, my kidneys were badly beaten, there was something wrong in my hip-bone because I had to lay down for so long at the police department. I had traumatic rhabdomyolysis developed — it occurs when a man is pressed for several hours and his blood does not circulate in all body areas. I nearly died. I also had extreme swelling of the whole body, due to that after several days I was taken to Ufa where I was put in intensive care for three days. Then I stayed in hospital for 27 days.

On 11 November my wife submitted a complaint to the Investigative Committee that the police officers tortured me and forced to confess of armed robbery, abduction and carjack. The police officers came to me in hospital, asked me that I did not identify them. And after 40 days — at that time I was in the Orenburg health retreat — the operative officers from the Neftekamsk Criminal Investigations came to me and accused me of armed robbery and abduction. Things like that can happen only in Russia!

I was taken to the police department. There was a whole volume of the criminal case with the evidence of my guilt. They [the police officers] provided cigarettes from the crime scene, my hair, attesting witnesses. The court put me under arrest for two months. My defense lawyer appealed against it on my behalf, and in 10 days the Supreme Court [of the Republic of Bashkortostan] released me. After that we started to sort out the provided evidence of my guilt. The cigarettes were indeed mine, but the crime was committed in 2015, and the expert examination showed that the cigarettes were manufactured in 2016. The hair which was found at the crime scene were cut. And with all the evidence the picture was the same.

At first I was afraid not only of the ones who was beating me up, but of all police officers, as such. I was shaking from fear when I saw a policeman. The police officer who was passing by was like a dog to me. But nevertheless I got to court [as a victim in torture case]. It would not have been a big deal if they had hit me once on the head or stomach and just asked “Did you or did not do it [commit the crime]?” — but I was indeed tortured. Now I am under the state protection. My case was investigated in Ufa. The court proceedings lasted for years, and as a result, the Neftekamsky court issued the verdict where it said that I was indeed inflicted a medium severity damage. It is proven that I was hit with electric shocker, but it is not proven the police officers did it. The head of the Criminal Investigations who served one and half years in the detention cell by that time, was released. We appealed against the ruling at the Supreme Court [of the Republic], it quashed this ruling and submitted the case for new examination. In January [2019] the court proceedings started again, they are ongoing, and there is no end in sight.

I identified six people who were beating me up, but only two are involved in the case. There is another case — against some unidentified police officers. Why unidentified, is beyond me. The acquaintance of mine also gave evidence against the police [the one who was called at the police department when I was tortured]. They planted drugs on him and arrested him. At the detention cell he changed his evidence, and then, when he came out, he told how it really happened, in the Investigative Committee. As a result, he was sentenced to three years’ jail time over drugs. He served one year and seven months and was released not so long ago. That it what’s happening.

I hope that the justice will prevail, but I don’t know whether it really will. The police officers resort to tortures because of their impunity. Everything is allowed for them. They did not think that things may turn like that for them this time.

“They connected wires to my fingers. I had such strong spasms, that at first I hit against the wall several times. To avoid the traces of battery they moved me away from the wall”

Sergey Lyapin, 55 years, unemployed, Nizhny Novgorod

In the night from 24 to 25 April 2008 I was collecting scrap metal near the garages blocks in Ilyinogorskoye settlement (located in the Nizhny Novgorod region). A lot of metal is thrown away there, so I was collecting it for sale. At that time, I worked as a security, but I needed more income, because I have a big family, seven daughters. One, from the first marriage, lives in Moscow, others – with me. Some police officers approached me, presented themselves, explained that I had to go to the police department with them. I had my passport and driving license on me, everything was fine. I went with them. They were addressing me in a polite way. At the police department there was a criminal investigations inspector — everything started from him.

I did not even realize what they wanted. He [inspector] brought me to the room, tied me up with a belt, made me sit on the floor. Started to stretch my body using force. My arms and feet were tied up, so it was painful. I asked him what he wanted. I thought I would sign anything. He said he did not want anything: “This is not painful so far; now gestapo will come”.

After some time, he called someone — as I understood, it was a duty officer from another settlement. He brought an electricity generating unit. They connected wires to my fingers. I had such strong spasms, that at first I hit against the wall several times. To avoid the traces of battery they moved me away from the wall. I cannot describe the state I was in — when my muscles are contacting, and the body is tied up. The pain is terrible. The police officers found it interesting, apparently. One of them said to another: “Let me do it [start electricity]”. Then the first one suggested that they poured some water on me — it means they learnt physics at school and know that water is a better electricity conductor. So they continued to apply electric shocks to me.

To my question what they wanted from me they explained that they wanted to educate me — I came from another district. I still don’t know what they wanted from me. Apparently, nothing, just to abuse. I don’t know for long they tortured me, because I passed out several times. In order to bring me to my senses they were hitting my face — I got some bruises after that. To prevent me from screaming loudly they gagged me with a rag or a towel.

At some point they brought me to detention room. In the morning the duty officer changed. He saw what condition I was in and he did not want to take responsibility. He called an ambulance, which brought me to the first aid station. They did not want to accept me there at first, because I had no passport. And then they sent me to hospital. There they described everything that happened to me: heat burns on my arms, brain concussion, chest rig contusions. I spent about 20 days in hospital.

On the day when I was discharged from hospital, one of my torturers came. I hid in the ward, but heard him talking to doctors “How could you treat such a bad person!” After hospital I went home. The police officers started to ring the door bell. My wife did not open. They continued to force inside, threatened that would meet me when I’d go to kindergarten to pick up my kids. They left only when my wife called to the Prosecutor’s Office.

Now Sergеy Lyapin is a disabled person of group I. He speaks and moves about with great difficulty. His wife, Liliya, helped Sergey to complete his story.

Liliya: I learned that Sergey is apprehended from his defense lawyer. I don’t remember when exactly he called. I was in the state of shock. I want to erase this time period from my life. I was with two months’ old child. During the search they took away the baby carriage and I had to go for a walk with my daughter, carrying her in my hands. By the way, after the search they returned more items than they took. At my mother’s datcha I laid some paving stones, there was one wooden hammer. They returned three wooden hammers. On the contrary, they never returned the inflatable pool, even though we attached the cashier’s check.

They gave him these documents, he signed them without looking after these tortures. He confessed of 17 thefts. If he did not confess of something, they “reworked” him. For all the cases the court ruling was the same – voluntary settlement. It means that even the people who realized that someone stole from them, knew that this person [Sergey] was a scapegoat.

Do you know how many letters I wrote? [with torture complaints] And all I only received back were formal replies. If not for the Committee Against Torture I don’t know how I could save my husband from this. I am a naïve Soviet person. I hoped for the rule of law, and it turns out the rule of law does not function for us, ordinary people. The law functions only for the privileged ones — for those who steal a lot, who is guilty of many things.

Several years ago we won the case at the European Court — Russia acknowledged that tortures exist. Now we are trying to punish the people who took away my husband’s health. He regularly stays in hospitals. Our medicine is cautious; the doctors are afraid to provide a diagnosis. But in April Sergey at last got the first category of the disabled. I am not a medic, and I can’t tell [if the disability was caused by the torture]. It is not established. After he was tortured, he drank a lot and injected anesthetic — it is bad for liver. At the present time his liver functions very badly. I’m not afraid [to strive for justice], I just understand it’s no use. In our country justice is not for ordinary people. In April of this year the man who tortured Sergey was convicted to three years of conditional term. Only one of the three! Only the one!

“I don’t know what a sadist one should be to do this to a person”

Albert Kuznetsov, head of the investigations department with the Committee Against Torture

Tortures are applied selectively. As practice shows, the police officers or other law-enforcement officers who apply torture, at first make sure that the person would not apply any complaints. This may be a prejudice, some intuition: they feel the person will not prove anything and the man himself realizes he won’t. That is why he doesn’t apply complaints, he does not report. All this leads to the fact that the percentage of those who report torture is very far from the real number of people who suffered from it. Their real number may be dozens of times higher.

Our main clients are the people of not very appealing social status. People who suffer from alcoholism, who live below the poverty line. They are those whose appearance is disapproved by the society, they are not “good guys”. That is why the police officers, judging from the point of view of common logics, see that they are dealing with outcasts, and they think: “Why don’t we beat him up, why don’t we apply electricity torture, why don’t we pin a pile of cold criminal cases on him?”

This is the main group of risk, but quite often rather nice people get into this, too. For example, Sergey Lyapin, a father of seven kids, a rather active person, who runs his own business. The torturers do not have any filter – anyone can suffer from tortures. Torture victims include absolutely innocent housewives who never had any legal problems, and even former law-enforcement officers.

Due to the fact that the torturers thoroughly conceal their crimes and strongly intimidate their victims, only the most desperate people, principled straight-shooters, or the ones who got serious injuries turn to us. In the last case it really can be proved, because the fact of grave injuries is hard to conceal. As well as the fact of death. It may sound cynical, but death is a grave incident which cannot be swept under the carpet.

The fate of the case often depends on how active the applicant is. That is, if the applicant performs actions to register what happened to him, remembers everything, can reproduce the incident picture in detail, can name people who can prove his words. People whom our lawyers turn for confirmation to are often afraid and say nothing. When they see the applicant they may change their decision.

Sometimes, the fact of torture is so evident that purely formal technical actions suffice to bring the case to court. As a rule, that’s what happens if a person received his injuries when he obviously was at the police department, the injuries so grave that it is impossible to justify the legality of applying physical force. Or if accidentally the circumstances of the torture are recorded with video cameras. In the past several years, the high-profile cases which were quickly brought to court relate to the tortures which were recorded, where it is uncompromisingly seen from start to finish: the person arrived and was beaten up.

The cases with people who obtained injuries during apprehension are a lot more complicated. The police officers may apply force legally during apprehension. In this case it is very hard to prove that the person was tortured later on at the police department. The police officers put in their report that they applied physical force during apprehension, that is why the person has bodily injuries. They say everything was legal: he tried to escape or offered resistance. Such cases usually are investigated for a very long time, and we have to apply to the European Court.

How do we understand that there were tortures? We perform investigations, study documents, get the experts involved. Medical experts establish whether the person’s injuries could be obtained under the circumstances of applying physical force which are indicated in the report. Or they could only be obtained under the circumstances which he himself reports. But the investigators do not always acknowledge such medical data as sufficient evidence. They can invent some crazy excuses, for example, that the man got possessed by the demons and he started to hit against everything around him, convulsing in a most unnatural manner.

In my opinion, the main reason why tortures in Russia are so widely spread, is the absolute reluctance of the Investigative Committee to investigate such cases. We regularly face the facts when the investigative authorities cover up the investigation: criminal cases are not opened for years, dozens of rulings are issued which are declared illegal, quashed, but it does not stop the investigators — they continue to issue identical rulings, ignore a lot of evidence and believe the words of the torturers rather than their victims’. All this leads to the situation when dishonest officers’ feeling of their own impunity and permissiveness strengthens.

Bringing the law-enforcement officers to responsibility is sometimes hard even after the ruling of the European Court. For example, in Sergey Lyapin’s case, the criminal case was opened only eight years after the tortures, after the ruling of the European Court, although these were grave tortures. Sergey got serious injuries, and after 10 years they led to his disability. His leg does not practically function, it feels numb. He also has speaking problems. Even a few years back, when the investigative activities started, he did not have these problems at all. And before tortures he was taking up sports, he was an active man, he has a lot of kids.

After what happened to him his life changed a lot. But due to the slackitude of the investigators the case reached the court exactly by the moment when the period of limitations for bringing the culprits to criminal responsibility expired for this article. As a result, one of the defendants was withdrawn from the case and asked to stop his prosecution due to expiry of the period of limitations. The second one planned to insist on a not-guilty verdict and resume the service, but still he failed to succeed. He was convicted but he is free. The case is serious, but still we failed to defend Sergey Lyapin with the legal mechanisms that are available to us.

The Russian Federation does not have a precedent legal system and all punishments depend entirely on the will of the judge. They may be completely different. Sometimes the punishments are very mild – conditional terms. Sometimes it’s the opposite, when the punishments are too harsh, when one thinks, well, he was wrong, but still, that’s too much. Certainly, the latter case is extremely rare, and the first one is very common. But still, there is no consistency in this issue. The logics of the verdicts is absolutely incomprehensible. One and the same article, and the sanctions range is very wide, and there is always a certain degree of randomness with issuing the verdicts.

There is an evolution going on, both of the system of bringing the law-enforcement officers to responsibility for applying tortures, and of the system of applying these tortures. The police officers who apply tortures are motivated to escape from responsibility, so that there are no traces of their illegal activities. That is why they don’t use some old methods any more, for example, putting a gas mask on the face (“Elephant”) for choking, because hair, saliva, sweat often remain on the gas masks.

Then operational officers from the internal security department come, seize this gas mask, conduct an expert examination and find out that the service gas mask has the traces of sweat or some biological human traces left by the person who reported torture. Immediately the evidence in the case appears. That is why they use plastic bags instead now. They put a plastic bag on a man, choke him — and it can be thrown away without any traces left.

Electricity is also used. In the past the terminals were connected directly to the skin and damage may be easily registered. The police officers learned about it at some moment, and now many tie the limbs or other spots of electric contact with the skin with wet towel. They are now sophisticated, trying to adjust to state-of-the-art medical technologies. That is why in order to fight torture more effectively, it’s probably important that the Ministry of the Interior itself acknowledges that this problem exists. And the officers of the internal security department would work more actively on such complaints. As practice shows, if the response is quick, the clear-up rate increases.

It is difficult to tell how quickly the torture types change. Sometimes smarter officers join the force. It also varies from department to department: in some places the sadists are more progressive, in some – they are less progressive. It also varies from structure to structure — it is not only the police officers who torture. We have torture complaints against the Federal Penitentiary Service, the FSB — practically, against everyone who deals with investigations. People complain that tortures are applied against them by anyone who feels like it. Not all these complaints turn out to be true — this also needs to be mentioned.

Joints twisting are still popular, because it normally leaves no traces. We had torture cases with people being tied up, but only due to the fact that they tried to set free very actively and received the traumas of joints — that’s how torture could be proven. In the majority of cases, if a person is tied up so he cannot move, it is very difficult for him to stay in such an inconvenient position, and, unfortunately, there may be no traces after that.

One of the most sophisticated tortures was when one person who applied to us had his nail torn out of his finger with pliers. Maybe, these were pincers, but anyway, his fingers were mutilated. A completely barbarous and sophisticated method, taking into account he was accused of a sheer trifle — a theft of a bicycle or a scooter, something like that. I don’t know what a sadist one should be to do this to a person.

This material was issued in the framework of project “Golunov. Resisting the police lawlessness”. A donation for the Committee Against Torture, which supports the victims of law-enforcement officers all over Russia, can be sent from his page.

Kristina Safonova

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