BLAGOVESHCHENSK, Russia -- In this town in central Russia, last Dec. 10 was a cold, snowless Friday opening the holiday weekend when Russia celebrates its constitution. The rights enshrined in that document, as well as many residents of Blagoveshchensk, were about to take a beating.
At 11 p.m., the main street, a long drag of crumbling apartment blocks and street-level stores, seemed eerily quiet to Anastasia Rozhenkova when she emerged from a friend's apartment. In the darkness, Rozhenkova, 19, hurried to a store to buy some cigarettes while her husband lingered over his farewells.
"From nowhere, people wearing black masks grabbed me and twisted my hands behind my back," Rozhenkova recounted in an interview. "They pushed me onto the ground and kicked me."
In those first moments, Rozhenkova said, she didn't know if she was being mugged by thieves or kidnapped by terrorists: "I was in shock, terrified." But as she was dragged to a nearby bus, her lip and nose swelling from the kicks, her calves and thighs burning from baton strikes, Rozhenkova realized she was not in the hands of bandits.
She had been arrested.
Between Dec. 10 and Dec. 14, hundreds of Blagoveshchensk residents were arrested and beaten by local police and masked special forces from the regional Interior Ministry, according to people and officials here. The sweep, designed to crack down on what the authorities said were assaults on police officers and a spiking crime rate in the town of 30,000 people, turned into a police riot.
The violence ranks among the most graphic illustrations of the failure of Russian police to embrace the rule of law since the fall of the Soviet Union, and the state's inability or unwillingness to impose it on them. The abuses have fueled a profound crisis of public confidence in the criminal justice system, at a time when the government of President Vladimir Putin seeks to galvanize citizens to fight terrorism, crime and corruption.
The events in Blagoveshchensk have drawn widespread condemnation, led to the dismissal of three senior police officers and a prosecutor, and prompted local and federal investigations. Nine police officers have been charged with abuse of power.
"The necessity of conducting such an operation was not in doubt, but the way the operation was executed was really bad," said Ruslan Sharafutdinov, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry in the Republic of Bashkortostan, where the city is located. "What I mean to say is that they overdid it."
The regional prosecutor's office has accepted more than 200 complaints from residents and so far has found that 120 residents are "injured parties" entitled to legal redress, according to the Interior Ministry. Most of those detained, like Rozhenkova, were held for one night.
A Not Uncommon Story
For human rights groups and legal scholars, Blagoveshchensk is unusual only for its scale and the fact that the regional Interior Ministry admitted to widespread violations. Every year, in huge numbers, Russians are beaten, tortured and sometimes killed by the police, according to reports by human rights and government agencies, opinion polls and revelations from high-profile cases.
According to a nationwide survey published this month by the Levada Center in Moscow, 71 percent of respondents said they didn't trust the police at all while 2 percent thought the police act within the law. That number approaches zero when people working in law enforcement and their families are factored out of those likely to have been surveyed. In a separate poll this month by the Public Opinion Foundation, 41 percent of Russian respondents said they lived in fear of police violence.
"The violations are so gross and the problem is so deeply penetrated that it's going to take years to correct," said Vladimir Lukin, Russia's ombudsman and a former ambassador to the United States.
Police brutality extends well beyond the breakaway republic of Chechnya, where widespread human rights violations have been documented in 10 years of armed conflict.