MOSCOW — Systematic torture to extract confessions is a widespread practice among Russian police and occurs in as many as half of all criminal cases, according to a study by Human Rights Watch to be released today.
During initial questioning of suspects, police commonly beat their captives, apply electric shocks, nearly asphyxiate them or hang them by the arms or legs to produce admissions of guilt that almost always hold up in court, the study found.
One pervasive form of torture is to force a suspect to wear a gas mask, then cut off the flow of oxygen until the victim passes out, the group said. The procedure is repeated until the suspect signs a confession, which can lead to years of imprisonment.
The findings suggest that Russia's criminal justice system has changed little since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union despite the formal adoption of laws and constitutional protections ostensibly designed to build a democratic society.
As a result, ordinary citizens and criminals alike are subjected to police brutality and coercion that can lead to wrongful conviction, serious bodily injury and, in some cases, death, the report said.
"Police know that if they are able to secure a confession, the person will almost certainly be convicted," said Diederik Lohman, the Moscow director of Human Rights Watch and author of the report. "As soon as they have a confession they think is sufficient, the torture stops."
The 198-page report was based on more than 50 interviews with torture victims and dozens of interviews with judges, lawyers, prosecutors and former police officers. The report makes 49 recommendations, including that Russia should adopt a bill of rights, enact a law making police torture a crime, post lawyers at police stations to represent anyone brought in for questioning, thoroughly investigate brutality complaints and form a high-level committee to examine the problem of torture and draw up a plan to eradicate it.
The judicial system is a Cold War relic: Most judges sitting today have held their posts since Soviet times. Jury trials in Russia remain rare. As under Communist rule, the court process is not adversarial and is weighted heavily in favor of the prosecutor, who generally wields more power than even the judge.
Human Rights Watch found that judges usually ignore evidence of brutality and seldom order investigations into defendants' claims that they were tortured. Similarly, doctors faced with evidence of beatings often are reluctant to report their findings because of fear of retribution by the police.
In court, a signed confession almost always carries more weight with a judge than contradictory evidence presented by the defense. A defendant who attempts to overturn a confession by claiming it was coerced seldom succeeds.
"For all practical purposes in Russia," Lohman said, "signing your confession is signing your own conviction."
Brutality is a convenient tool for police who are under pressure to produce confessions quickly, the report concluded.
In one case, Sergei Mikhailov, then 21, was arrested in 1994 in Arkhangelsk for petty hooliganism and was beaten until he confessed to raping and killing a 10-year-old girl, the report said. He received the death penalty, which was later reduced to 25 years in prison under a general amnesty. In 1996, another man was arrested after a nearly identical slaying and confessed to both crimes, but officials refused to overturn Mikhailov's conviction and he remains in prison.
The report documents four cases in which suspects being tortured in various police departments jumped out of windows to end their suffering. One died from the fall, two others were paralyzed, and the fourth suffered numerous broken bones.
Beating is the most common form of police torture, but it is often combined with other methods. Some victims reported that they were suspended from the ceiling or manacled in contorted positions while police beat them.
Another common police tactic is to attach electrodes to a suspect's ears and administer electric shocks. Igor Akhrimenko told Human Rights Watch that after his arrest in the Siberian city of Irkutsk, he was handcuffed to a radiator and subjected to electroshock administered by a small machine with a handle cranked by an officer.
"One [police officer] still held me by the legs, another by the head," he recounted. "They asked me questions and turned the handle around. At first they turned slowly, then faster. When they turned [it] quickly, I just lost consciousness. I lost consciousness five times."
Perhaps the most terrifying method is the slonik, Russian for elephant because the hose of a gas mask resembles an elephant's trunk. Oleg Fetisov told Human Rights Watch that he was 15 when he was subjected to the slonik after he was arrested in Yekaterinburg and accused of stealing a jacket from another boy.
"At first they just beat me," he recounted, "then they handcuffed my hands behind my back, sat me down on a chair and put a gas mask on my head and cut off the pipe. That was repeated about four times."
In the republic of Mordovia, Oleg Igonen died during questioning about the theft of a tractor when police using the slonik deprived him of oxygen for too long. It was one of the rare cases in which police were prosecuted and convicted of torturing a suspect.
In its report, Human Rights Watch (http://www.hrw.org/) decried the government's failure to address the problem of torture despite overwhelming evidence that it is "an integral part" of police practices.
"With the exception of a few particularly grave cases in which public exposure led to prosecutions, police carry out torture with complete impunity," the report concluded.