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Torture and ill-treatment

Olga Staroverova was four months pregnant in December 1999 when she was reportedly tortured by police with electric shocks, beatings and cigarette burns. Her injuries and subsequent miscarriage were officially recorded in a medical statement, yet there has never even been an investigation into her allegations of torture.

Anyone, even a child, who is taken into police custody for questioning is at risk of torture and ill-treatment. Such gross violations of human rights are widespread throughout the country. One reason why these abuses are so persistent is that those responsible usually get away with their crimes.

People are at greatest risk of torture and ill-treatment in police custody during the hours immediately after arrest, before they are charged.

Methods of torture commonly reported include beatings, electric shocks, rape, the use of gas masks to induce near-suffocation, and tying detainees in painful positions.

The victims come from all walks of life, but members of ethnic minorities and the poor are most at risk.

Torture and the law

The Russian Federation has promised to uphold numerous international treaties that prohibit torture in all circumstances, including the UN Convention against Torture. The Russian Constitution states that international law takes precedence over domestic law. Despite this, the courts adhere to domestic law, which fails to criminalize certain acts of torture set out in Article 1 of the UN Convention against Torture. In February 2002 the Duma (parliament) voted against amending the criminal code to include a specific crime of torture.

Why torture happens

The poorly paid and inadequately trained police are under pressure to obtain confessions quickly. The authorities and society at large demand swift and tough action in response to rising fear of crime.

There is little to dissuade police from using torture. They often question suspects, including children, without a lawyer or any other witness in the room. The law does not require a lawyer to be present when a confession is signed. Suspects are rarely offered a medical examination before or after interrogation, and little is done to ensure that detainees are informed of their rights or that the constitutional requirement for a judicial review of detention within 48 hours of arrest is enforced.

In court, judges often in effect reward the police for their abuses by accepting confessions extracted under duress as valid evidence and dismissing allegations of torture out of hand.

Prison conditions

Inmates of Women's Prison No. 15 in Samara return to the prison from the sewing factory where they work. Up to a million men, women and children are in prisons and pre-trial detention centres in the Russian Federation, many held in conditions that amount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Conditions are particularly harsh in the pre-trial detention centres owing to chronic overcrowding. Cells are filthy and pest-ridden, with poor lighting and ventilation, and contagious diseases are rife (over 100,000 inmates have tuberculosis). Food and medical supplies are inadequate and women are reportedly not provided with sanitary supplies. Prisoners are also beaten and otherwise abused by guards and fellow inmates.

No justice for the victims

Victims of torture rarely see justice done. Those who wish to lodge complaints must turn to the procuracy. However, the procuracy has had conflicting roles which has meant in reality that most victims have been denied the right to a fair and thorough investigation of their complaints and, ultimately, to justice.

The procuracy has been responsible for ordering arrests and pre-trial detention, conducting criminal investigations, and bringing cases to court. It is also responsible for ensuring that the rights and freedoms of suspects are respected. In practice, the latter role is subordinated to the first. There have been many allegations about collusion between the police and the procuracy to secure convictions using illegal means and to cover up complaints of torture and ill-treatment.

A new Criminal Procedure Code (CPC), due to be introduced on 1 July 2002, contains provisions that address some of these problems, such as the removal of the procuracy’s power to order pre-trial detention. However, it remains to be seen what impact the new code will have in practice.

According to reports, only a small percentage of complaints of torture and ill-treatment submitted to the procuracy reach the courts. Most are rejected by the procuracy at the initial, informal investigation stage.

Torturers can also get away with their crimes because:

• Some victims do not make complaints because they do not know they can or because they fear retribution if they do.

• Delays in the complaints procedures mean that forensic and other evidence becomes unavailable or is lost.

• Officers accused of torture or their colleagues sometimes destroy or tamper with incriminating evidence.

• Witnesses as well as lawyers pursuing complaints about torture sometimes face intimidation by police.

All these factors combine to create a climate of impunity that allows torture to persist.

Some aspects of the new CPC may help to combat torture if the code is implemented as promised. What is needed is the political will to push through and monitor the necessary reforms to laws and institutions to ensure that the right of victims of torture and ill-treatment to an effective remedy is fully respected in each and every case.

Next: Chechnya – human rights under attack >