In a Russian bathhouse, where heat from a sauna opens pores and vodka from the bottle loosens lips, Rodion, a smuggler by trade, showed off the faded welts on his rib cage and a bent little finger.
They were souvenirs of an ordeal at a Moscow police station where, he said, officers beat him to try to force confessions for crimes he didn't commit.
"I am no saint. But I have never run into criminals like these--our police," he said. "Humiliation is not enough. They want to hurt. I think they made me a worse criminal than I was. If I had a chance, I would kill them."
Police brutality and, in cases like Rodion's, torture to gain confessions, are growing problems across Russia. Years of pledges to curb abuses, repeated complaints from human rights groups and the pleas of common citizens have put no dent in either practice.
Judges rarely look into allegations of torture and readily accept questionable confessions as the quickest means to a conviction, according to a two-year study released yesterday by Human Rights Watch, the New York-based watchdog group.
Police have refined methods to disguise their assaults. Sometimes, they place a book between the nightstick and the victim's head to administer a beating without leaving marks. To asphyxiate victims--to soften them up and get them to talk--they place plastic bags or gas masks with the air supply blocked over the heads of detainees. They force suspects to sit bent over, hands handcuffed to ankles, in a position called "the envelope." Or trussed and hung like a bird from a pipe, a posture called "the swallow."
Human rights observers suspect that of all criminal suspects in Russia, half are beaten or tortured while in custody.
The atmosphere for judicial and police reform seems unhealthy. In the run-up to December's parliamentary vote, civil rights is a rarely mentioned issue. With crime rates rising, Russians seem unmoved by complaints from common criminals.
"Brutality is a problem which people want to turn their backs on. Only when it happens to someone close do they get upset," said Andrei Babushkin, director of the Committee for Human Rights, a Moscow organization that advises victims.
"Torture is epidemic in Russia today," said Human Rights Watch Director Kenneth Roth. "Nearly all cases of torture are going unpunished. The Russian government will not even acknowledge that the problem exists."
With Russia's electoral democracy almost a decade old, the persistence of torture throws into question the Western strategy of drawing Russia into multinational organizations like the Group of Eight or the Council of Europe, which are normally reserved for countries that uphold basic standards for civil rights. Russia considers admittance its due, but has not reformed abusive police practices.
At the same time, government officials dismiss criticism from abroad as anti-Russian carping. This spring, Russian prosecutors told Human Rights Watch that Russia is being held to higher standards than other countries. "There are no particular problems with respect for rule of law in Russia," they said. "We do not misuse [the law] more than American police officers. In fact, trips of our delegation to America showed that there is even more unjustified use of violent means toward citizens than in our police."
Russian police brutality occurs in a context of general penal and law enforcement abuse. Jails are overcrowded hot houses for disease. Criminal suspects are detained for months without trial. Police routinely shake down minorities for money on the streets of Moscow and other cities and accept bribes from motorists wanting to avoid traffic violations. In what amounts to extortion, police solicit money from business people on the grounds that they need the resources to fight crime.
Rodion was picked up by police last spring. He had come to Moscow from Yekaterinburg, fleeing a debt he owed to a local crime ring.
In Moscow, he got odd jobs on construction sites. One day, the police stopped him on the street. Rodion is a former boxer and thinks his bent nose attracted their attention. "They took one look and decided I must be some kind of crook," he said wrapping around himself a sheet that at the bath house passed for a towel.
He was detained in a district police station in central Moscow because he lacked proper identification--neither a passport nor a municipal residency permit. He expected to have to pay a bribe. He got worse.
"They gave me the addresses of some apartments. I didn't even know the streets. They said I had robbed them. They said I could confess or spend months in detention while they look into it," he recalled.
He refused, and one policeman hit him in the ribs with a nightstick. Its squared edges cut as well as bruised. Another investigator twisted the little finger on his left hand. His hands were tied behind a chair, he said.
"They slapped me. They said if they 'lost' me in the woods, no one would ever find me. I took it that meant they could kill me," he said.
After being left alone for about two hours, he was suddenly released. It was as if someone had forgotten about him. They tossed him out in the street. He was missing about $10 and a silver crucifix he kept in his wallet.
Rodion was perhaps lucky in sustaining minor injuries. Human Rights Watch detailed cases of deaths by asphyxiation, of suicides of prisoners so desperate to escape that they jumped out of windows, of rapes and beatings by other prisoners, who in return for favors from police, rough up new suspects. Police also commonly administer electroshocks by wiring a military field telephone to the victim's ears and cranking up the voltage, Human Rights Watch said.
Russian rights advocates suggest several easy-to-implement reforms. One would be to let detainees under investigation have lawyers. In Russia, the investigation process is frequently secret. Another would require all police to wear name tags; none do now.
The general public appears to expect little change. Over at Babushkin's civil rights center, a mother was writing out a complaint on behalf of her 22-year-old son, an accused drug dealer. She said police planted narcotics on him after a public beating that left him bruised and bloodied. "I have been complaining for a year," she said. "And now I am here, because they say this office tries to help. But in fact, I have no hope anything will be done. I simply try, but without real hope," she said.