Beatings, threats and 'war' against rights monitors: Group alleges siege mentality in Russia
By ROBYN DIXON | The Washington Post | Published: February 27, 2021
MOSCOW — Authorities call it "Plan Fortress" - a secretive emergency protocol to lock down Russian police stations in case of armed attack. Now it's being used with a new goal: to keep out human rights lawyers trying to aid Russians held after mass arrests during pro-opposition demonstrations.
The effort to freeze out the lawyers - detailed by the independent police watchdog group OVD-Info - conveys the siege mentality of Russian authorities after sweeping crackdowns on protesters and others backing jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
But the Kremlin's effort to portray the protests as foreign-fomented violence to undermine the country is beginning to erode.
As some of the more than 11,000 detainees emerge from crowded detention centers, they tell of the violence, fear and potential rights violations.
Many detainees were beaten with truncheons or shocked with Tasers and described going up to 16 hours without food, water, access to toilets, according to reports compiled by OVD-Info, rights lawyers and interviews by The Washington Post. Some women were threatened with rape, according to Grigory Durnovo of OVD-Info.
Police have filed more than 90 criminal charges and more than 9,000 misdemeanor charges among those arrested across 125 cities during waves of protests calling for the release of Navalny, who returned to Russia from Germany on Jan. 17 after being treated for a near-fatal nerve agent poisoning in August in Siberia.
There have been no acquittals, OVD-Info reported.
It is unclear how rights groups and others will pursue the claims by the detainees. But, in the past, similar allegations against Russian authorities have brought appeals to the European Court of Human Rights, which has repeatedly condemned Russia's crackdowns on the right to protest, unlawful arrests and detentions.
The State Department last month strongly condemned Russia's "use of harsh tactics against protesters and journalists."
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there have been "no repressions." He described specific accounts from detainees of abuses as inventions or distortions.
The cases, however, have started to build a compendium of alleged abuses that could add fuel to expected opposition protests in the spring and summer, with Russian authorities eager to quash protest movement before parliamentary elections planned for September.
According to OVD-Info accounts, some protesters were taken to special rooms for beatings in police stations in Moscow and St Petersburg. Detainees said they were not allowed have their phones to call lawyers or family. Those who tried to stand up for their rights were denied access to a toilet for many hours, or were given longer sentences, Durnovo said.
The reports by OVD-Info, lawyers and detainees could not be independently verified by The Post, but they conform with videos, accounts by local media and human rights groups and evidence to the European Court of Human Rights from previous protests.
"Now we see a war against human rights lawyers or organizations like ours," Durnovo said. "They are hiding people from human rights lawyers or making the situation tougher for them than it would be if there was no lawyer."
He said an opposition volunteer, Alyona Kitayeva, reported that a policeman put a plastic bag over her head, kicked and beat her and threatened to shock her unless she unlocked her phone.
Detainees describe police cells without mattresses, heating or pillows. Some told of being waked in the middle of the night for no apparent reason, loaded into vans and driven to other stations.
"Tightening the screws. That is what is happening right now," said St. Petersburg lawyer Sergei Loktev, who represented some protesters. "If someone has a different view to the authorities, that opinion must be destroyed."
A speech by President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday to the board of the FSB, the domestic intelligence agency that succeeded the KGB, underscored the Kremlin's unease. Putin described the pro-Navalny movement as Western campaign to "provoke internal instability" and "ultimately weaken Russia and put it under external control."
His words echoed the warnings of neighboring Belarusian dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, when he faced mass protests last year. He jailed the main opposition figures, unleashed brutal police violence against peaceful protesters and clung to power, in what some analysts see as a road map Putin is following.
Judges have refused to allow accused protesters to call witnesses, rejected evidence and threw out appeals according to detainees and lawyers. Russia's Investigative Committee published at least eight Chinese-style video "confessions" in criminal cases, with humiliating public apologies.
Every well-known member of Navalny's team who did not flee the country was arrested and later put under house arrest. All but one of his 38 regional coordinators was arrested.
In the rush to arrest and convict, the system at times became absurd.
Yevgeny Agafonov, a 45-year-old deaf man, was arrested by riot police in St. Petersburg on Jan. 31. In a written statement, Agafonov said he was only on his way to an art supply store. He was charged with protesting, blocking traffic - and chanting slogans. He is not able to speak.
Agafonov's lawyer, Sergei Loktev, was stunned when Judge Yulia Ushanova went ahead and convicted him, slapping on a fine.
Political analyst Vladimir Pastukhov, honorary senior research fellow at University College of London, wrote in the independent news and commentary website MBKh that Putin has abandoned legal procedures with the protesters "even as a decoration."
Timofei Krit, 34, a Moscow State University physicist, said he was not protesting and presented video evidence of his Jan. 31 arrest standing under a railway station clock at 12:45 p.m. The charges against him say he was yelling slogans in another part of Moscow at 3 p.m. He was convicted and was sentenced to 10 days in prison.
"You can be arrested for just walking out, doing your own thing. It's like living under a military curfew that no one announced," he said.
He described frigid, crowded cells. "It was so cold we could not sleep. We knocked at the door trying to call somebody, but no one came."
Dmitry Yepishin, 22, expelled from university in St. Petersburg for participating in a 2017 protest, said he was interrogated without a lawyer at 3 a.m. and spent 40 hours being ferried around before being put in a cramped detention center for migrants at Sakhorovo, about 40 miles southwest of Moscow.
"There were about 200 of us trapped. The OMON [riot police] surrounded us, pushing from both sides. We shouted that we didn't have weapons, but they started beating people," he said, describing his arrest. "It was frightening and horrifying."
Conditions in detention were "absolutely unacceptable and aimed at humiliating people and intimidating them," said Alexander Golovach, 30, who investigates corrupt state contracts at Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation and spent four days behind bars for protesting. He fears he will be arrested again.
"I'm not going to lie. I'm worried. But I can't step back. These unprecedented measures of restraint and attempts to intimidate people and frighten them do not work."
In mid-February, as the temperature sank to -15 degrees, relatives of convicted protesters lined up outside Sakharovo detention center to deliver food parcels.
"Russian authorities are trying to scare people as much as they can and to remove the most active people and get them out of the picture. It's a totalitarian and authoritarian turn in the country," said one person in the line, Yelena Gabelaya, furious that the court rejected video evidence that she believes proved that police charges against her son were false.
Sergei Kozakov, 50, waiting with a food parcel, vowed to join the next protest, angered by repressions and falling living standards.
"There is no feeling of hope now. We don't see any light. It's total darkness. It is as if we are in a prison camp. There are no laws. There is no truth, only lies," he said.
Vlad Melikov, 19, a student arrested at his first protest, said conditions were terrible, but the camaraderie during five days detention reminded him of childhood summer camp. His cell mates included a prominent scientist, a doctor working with covid-19 patients and a PR manager.
"We laughed the whole five days. Before, I was not interested in politics, but now I'll always go to protests," he said. "These are my kind of people. Everyone there was cool."