Arrest and custody, Russian-style

RIA:Konstantin Rodikov.jpg

Police custody, violence, trials and imprisonment have been all to common features on the Russian protest landscape since December 2011. A grassroots monitoring project called OVD-info has kept realtime data on the arrests; co-founder Grigory Okhotin shares their findings. 

Grigory Okhotin
22 February 2013

Right from the birth of Russia’s protest movement in December 2011, our organisation, OVD-Info [‘Police-Info’] has collected realtime data on the nature and number of political arrests in Moscow. During the period 4 December 2011 to 31 December 2012 we recorded 5169 such cases. But our data are not just dry statistics; they are, more importantly, the stories of the people detained who have told us how arrests are made and what subsequently happens at the police and in the court. 

Political arrest

Readers who are not perhaps completely up to date with political life in Russia might well be surprised to learn that protests in Moscow take rather a different form than in other European countries, the US or the Middle East. All the demonstrations we have monitored have been emphatically peaceful: Moscow protesters simply don’t hurl Molotov cocktails, smash neighbourhood shop windows or turn cars over.  Despite their peaceful nature, however, the meetings rarely end without arrests. Helmeted police in bullet-proof vests and armed with truncheons (and sometimes tasers) regularly treat the demonstrators as though they were at the very least enraged football hooligans.

Distribution of political arrests in Moscow

All arrests at public street demonstrations with a political theme in the widest sense of the word (we include defence of social rights or sexual minorities in this) are considered political if the arrest contravenes the law, i.e. if basic human rights or procedural rules have been flouted. These arrests take different forms, depending on the mood of the police.  On 5 March 2012, for example, after an opposition rally protesting about the rigged presidential elections, the police were very rough (according to evidence given by witnesses), using tasers and submission locks.  One of the 250 detainees on that day recounts: 

‘They didn’t mess about.  A gloved hand grabbed my face from behind and started feeling my mouth. My neighbour shouted a warning and I turned my head away, but the hand got hold of…my hat. Yes, that’s the police submission lock.  My hat came off and I tried to turn and get it, but received a blow on the chin. No answer to that! I took a few steps forward, but a riot cop appeared from nowhere and tried to knock me over. He got hold of my clothes and grabbed my camera. It was trampled by the crowd which was being corralled.  I was tasered in the knee from behind.  It was so unexpected that I fell over.’

‘Demonstrations have been emphatically peaceful: Moscow protesters simply don’t hurl Molotov cocktails, smash neighbourhood shop windows or turn cars over.’

We regularly record that detainees have been beaten up: they are taken to hospital from the police station. The 28-year old composer Georgii Dorokhov, who died recently in hospital, was a campaigner for ‘The Other Russia’ and featured regularly in our reports. 

‘We have been informed by his mother that Georgii Dorokhov was arrested today at Chistye Prudy [central Moscow].  His mobile phone was removed, so we have no information as to which police station he is in.  During the arrest his teeth were knocked out and he is in need of medical attention.’

The police are completely uninterested in the sex or age of the detainees. On 26 November 2012, at a picket ouside the Federal Penitentiary Service building in support of detainees at Penal Colony no 6 in Kopeisk, Vera Cheremisova (66) lost consciousness:

‘Cheremisova became ill while she was being arrested. Witnesses recount that she fainted, but the police still dragged her into the riot van and refused to wait for an ambulance. She did not improve inside the van, according to those detained with her, but was only granted medical attention after 40 minutes when the detainees had been taken to the Yakimanka police station. Cheremisova is currently in hospital.’

These examples are just illustrations.  The brutality and excess use of force, resulting in traumas, and the targeted beatings are daily police practice in their dealings with political activists in Moscow, if one believes the testimonies of the detainees themselves. I have no grounds for not believing them: these cases are usually well documented on video or photo, or they take place in the presence of witnesses.

Why do such things happen again and again, while the perpetrators continue to work in the police?  To gain some understanding, it might be helpful to consider the sequence of events and they ways in which they are connected. 

At the police station

People arrested at political meetings are usually charged with infringing the rules for holding such meetings (Article 20.2 RF Code of Administrative Offences) or with failure to comply with police orders (Article 19.3 RF Code of Administrative Offences). The difference between these two infringements is that the first is a fining offence (since June 2012 a serious offence: up to 30,000 roubles [$995]), whereas the second can lead to police detention for a period of up to 15 days.

When a detainee is at a police station, he is completely in their hands:  no one is at all interested in what actually happened at the demonstration. Detainees’ accounts reveal that charges of failure to comply with police orders are used as additional punishment or as a deterrent; if, for instance, detainees start ‘standing up for their rights’ i.e. demand that the police observe the law. A beating can also be added to the mix. If the activist suffers injuries during the course of arrest, he can be accused of failure to comply and isolated from society for 2 weeks. 

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Distribution of protests by type

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Distribution of protests by topic

But a charge of failure to comply with police orders is only the first step of the deterrent. If the activist has been seriously beaten up and there is a real risk that he will bring charges against the police, then the activist can be accused of ‘using force to resist a representative of the authorities’ (Article 318 Criminal Code). This article can entail imprisonment for up to 10 years.

Campaigner Yevgeny Popov described the ‘negotiations’ between the victim of a beating and the perpetrator:

‘At all the “Russia without Putin” pickets we were arrested, but always very properly. This time they really put the screws on.  When I was thrown in the van, one OMON [Special Purpose Mobile Police Unit] man threatened me that I would be dealt with when we arrived. In the van we had an argy-bargy and I didn’t hold back from swearing at him.  He hit me. I started bleeding and the van was covered with it.  I still have the scar. While we were still in the van, I was threatened with Article 318; when we arrived, I was pulled in to the police station again, almost dragged actually, where I was threatened and interrogated forcibly, without witnesses.’  

The incident with Garry Kasparov was widely publicised.  He apparently bit a policeman when he was being arrested outside the courtroom in Khamovnichesky while sentence was being handed down in the Pussy Riot case. Kasparov was to have been charged under Article 318, but it didn’t happen. Stanislav Pozdnyakov, one of the campaigners, was, however, charged. 

On 1 April 2012 Pozdnyakov and other detainees from the White Ribbon ‘walkabout’ round Manezh Square found themselves at the police station. After the statutory 3 hours of detention, Pozdnyakov made to leave the station and in the ensuing argument one of the policemen hit him in the face. The result was a criminal case brought against Pozdnyakov, rather than the policeman.  The campaigner is still at liberty, but his case is being heard in court.

These two courses of action – administrative arrest and the threat of many years in prison – mean that detainees very rarely complain about the beatings. Understandably, as there’s little hope of justice in a Russian court.

In court

A special feature of the Russian legal proceedings in a number of cases (and always for political cases) is that the court only listens to the prosecution. The sentence will be based on statements from the police who carried out the arrest, and the detention report.  The trial, such as it is, usually lasts no more than a few minutes. 

Journalist Arkady Babchenko described what happened at his trial: 

‘My trial lasted 3 minutes in the Tver district magistrates’ court. I was taken into the corridor outside the court and saw 2 policemen sitting there.  They were “witnesses”, although they had had absolutely nothing to do with my arrest. One of them had been in the police van, but I’d never seen the other before and didn’t know him. All my arguments that I hadn’t been shouting out slogans, had taken no part in the demonstrations, hadn’t stood in the middle of the road and had not failed to comply with police orders were ignored by the judge.  He wrote that my guilt was proved by the detention report, the administrative offence report and the evidence of those two witnesses.’

‘My trial lasted 3 minutes in the Tver district magistrates’ court. I was taken into the corridor outside the court and saw 2 policemen sitting there.  They were “witnesses”, although they had had absolutely nothing to do with my arrest.’

Journalist Arkady Babchenko

The contents of the detention report, which determine the outcome in court, are entirely a matter of police fantasy.  On 31 December 2011 there was a demonstration in Triumph Square in support of Taisiya Osipova who had been arrested. Demonstrators turned out in sweatshirts with ‘Free Taisya’ on them, but the report states that they were holding banners with the words ‘Free the oligarchs!’   Prosecution witnesses often have nothing to do with the arrest and, in addition, regular attempts are made to prevent defence lawyers and barristers from seeing their clients.  The conditions for people detained in police custody do not meet any – even Russian – standards. 


With 3 minute trials, and no right to defence testimony, the Russian courtroom rarely delivers a fair trial in sensitive poltical cases. Photo (c) RIA Novosti/Konstantin Rodikov 

The court frequently refuses to accept photographic or video evidence from the defence, or to call their witnesses.  The press and citizens are regularly denied access to the court. These kinds of judicial proceedings have predictable results: detainees are rarely acquitted and 95% of appeals to higher courts are turned down.

A cause for optimism?

Despite all of the above, however, my colleagues from OVD-Info and I are still optimistic. Firstly our data are vivid proof that protest has not disappeared.  It continues as intensively, but is just becoming more varied in its forms and themes. 

Secondly, there are already hundreds of appeals from detainees at Russian protest demonstrations before the European Court of Human Rights.  This court is slow and unwieldy: it is currently considering appeals from people arrested in 2007. But sooner or later the appeals will be investigated and there are grounds for believing that the procedure will take longer than 3 minutes.

Thirdly and finally, the arrests have formed a new social group: during the last 18 months several thousands of people have been detained and have experienced the Russian police and judiciary. If Russian citizens no longer trust the police (73% ‘don’t’ or ‘probably don’t’ according to the Levada Center survey in October 2012) or the courts (66% and 23% respectively), then the group featuring in the OVD-Info records has paid the full penalty for its opinions.

Only this kind of concrete knowledge can lead to the formation of a grassroots move for reform. A move which could be turned into action. 

Read OVD’s report in English — 'Our Man In The Paddy Wagon: Political arrests in Moscow'


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