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Russian police reform steps backwards

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The last few years have seen an ongoing programme of reform of the Russian police. But the latest proposed measures cannot be called an improvement.

 

Natalya Taubina
15 August 2014

Just a week before it broke up for the summer, the State Duma decided to introduce amendments to various laws governing the work of the police. Many of them are strictly technical, tidying up inconsistencies or contradictions with other legislation, but others could have a real effect on how the police carry out their duties in regard to both security matters and crime prevention. 

Forced entry 

In the first place, this is a question of extending police powers of enforcement. The amendments would, for example, increase the number of grounds on which officers could enter buildings and property. At present, the law allows forced entry for the purpose of saving life, preventing a crime, investigating the scene of an accident, and apprehending suspects in the course of committing a crime. MPs are now proposing the addition of a fifth situation in which police officers could force entry: to arrest persons found on the scene of an act which could be interpreted as a crime, or attempting to leave such a scene. In other words, we are talking not about a proven crime, but something rather more nebulous; and not about people suspected or accused of committing a crime, but a wider group.  

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The Duma recently introduced amendments to laws which effectively extend police powers of enforcement. Photo CC: Daniel Belinson

The amendments would make it easier for police to force entry to buildings and property.

Given that the law already allows forced entry to arrest suspected criminals, the aim of the amendments is evidently to allow the police to enter private property, and make arrests when there is insufficient evidence to regard the people detained as suspects; and indeed no proof that there has even been a crime, just an act that might be construed as a crime. 

Use of firearms

One proposed amendment would change the law to ban the use of firearms only against women showing obvious signs of pregnancy, rather than all women, as is the case at present. And another relating to firearms would also allow a looser definition of situations where their use is permitted. At present, the law states that, ‘a police officer may not open fire where there is a large crowd, if innocent bystanders may be hit;’ the proposed amendment would add, ‘unless conditions justify the risk, or in other situations stipulated under Russian Federal Law’. 

The draft goes into no further detail, so there is no explanation, for example, of what might constitute a justifiable risk, and how this might be defined and monitored. The present law already contains an exhaustive list of situations where police may use firearms if they encounter armed resistance while carrying out an arrest; and now it seems, this is to be further extended to include situations where someone being arrested may carry out ‘other actions that could be reasonably considered resistance to arrest.’ Once again, it is unclear what these ‘other actions’ might be. Not to mention the fact that in the heat of the moment things can happen very fast, and the law gives officers wide discretion over the use of firearms. 

No checks or balances

The proposed amendments extending police powers also fail to introduce any measures to provide closer monitoring of how they use these powers, the introduction, for example, of at least an internal, and ideally an external, inquiry each time firearms are used. On the contrary, the Duma wants to guarantee a presumption of trust in the police on the part of the state, and support for members of the police force in the performance of their duties. The proposed changes would, in addition, clear the police of any responsibility for any physical harm or material loss caused to anyone who has committed a crime, through the use by officers of physical force, impact munitions such as tasers, CS gas and so on, or firearms; and also for any harm caused by police to members of the public and organisations while carrying out their duties. In other words, if a suspect is beaten up while in custody, but an investigation of the incident concludes that the police did not abuse their powers (the usual outcome when detainees claim to have been tortured), then the amendment would relieve them of any responsibility. 

The increase in police powers could be seen as a necessary evil if it were accompanied by a corresponding increase in accountability.

Obviously, the police often face situations where they need to act quickly and have to use varying degrees of force. This increase in their powers could be seen as a necessary evil, if it were accompanied by a corresponding increase in accountability, and the provision of effective monitoring of police work. However, there is nothing about this in the draft amendments. Given current law enforcement practice, and the difficulties involved in calling police officers to account for abuse of their powers, the proposed changes, taken as a whole, merely risk an escalation of infringement of the public’s civil rights by the police. 

Civil rights abuses

There is no shortage of evidence for this. You have only to look at what happens when police break up a public meeting and arrest people taking part in it. The human rights NGO ‘The Public Verdict’ has been trying for over two years to bring a case against the police officers who beat Turana Varzhabetyan with truncheons at the ‘March of Millions’ in Moscow on 6 May 2012, leaving her concussed. There is photo and video evidence that Turana did not resist arrest, presented no danger to people around her and showed no signs of aggression. However, there is already a presumption that all actions by police officers while arresting protesters are right and reasonable; and no attempt to assess the validity and degree of the force used by police on these occasions is necessary. One can imagine how this abuse of power will increase if this presumption is enshrined in law. 

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There is concern that extensions to police powers could lead to civil rights abuses. (c) Demotix/Yury Goldenshtein

To take another example, a Sochi builder by the name of Demerchyan, working on the Olympic project, was illegally arrested in June 2013 while trying to collect his wages, and then badly beaten up at a police station. The cops hit him with an iron crowbar in an attempt to make him confess to a crime he hadn’t committed. They didn’t succeed, but when Demerchyan lodged a complaint he was then charged with making a false denunciation against the police officers. The case is now going through the local court, which has refused to release relevant materials – video of the officers being questioned using a lie detector - to the defence. Meanwhile, the local investigative committee is ignoring Demerchyan’s complaint about his torture. Examples like these are likely to multiply if a presumption of governmental trust in and support for the police becomes law, without any effective system of monitoring and accountability.

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