Though the news is a couple of weeks old, it’s worth calling attention to a unanimous decision by the European Court of Human Rights Court that the Russian Federation violated the European Convention on Human Rights by allowing local police to torture a Russian citizen, Aleksey Mikheyev, and by subsequently failing to adequately investigate his allegations of mistreatment. The court awarded Mikheyev €250,000 ($304,000) in compensation.
Mikheyev v. Russia is one of the most extreme cases in the short history of post-Soviet policing. On September 10, 1998, Mikheyev, a traffic cop, was arrested and charged with the rape and murder of a teenage girl whom he and a friend had given a ride. Mikheyev said he dropped the girl off at a bus stop near his flat and never saw her again. His friend, however, told the police he saw Mikheyev rape and kill the girl. (It later became clear that that the friend had been coerced into making the statement.) The police then extracted a written confession from Mikheyev by torturing him for nine days. Wires were attached to his earlobes and electric shocks administered, a police interrogation technique known informally as zvonok Putinu (“a phone call to Putin”).
On September 19, Mikheyev decided he could take no more. Left by himself for a moment, he broke free from the chair he was tied to and threw himself out of his cell window. He landed on a police motorcycle and broke his back, rendering him a paraplegic. Soon afterwards, the “murdered” girl turned up unharmed and said she had been staying with friends.
On September 21, 1998, a criminal investigation was opened into the Mikheyev’s fall from the window. The criminal proceedings were discontinued two months later, however, for lack of evidence. The case was subsequently reopened and closed numerous times. On September 5, 2002, the prosecution service discontinued the investigation, finding that no criminal offense had been committed. The case was then again reopened and closed a number of times.
Three years later, in 2005, two policemen who had participated in the questioning of the applicant on 19 September 1998 were prosecuted for mistreating Mikheyev. The police officers were convicted of abuse of official power associated with the use of violence. As of this date, however, the judgment is not yet final.
The Court vindicated Mikheyev on all counts. To begin with, the Court concluded that Russia had violated Article 3 of the Convention, which provides that “[n]o one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” The Court noted that throughout the official “investigation” Mikheyev had provided a consistent and detailed description of who had tortured him and how. He also had witnesses to support his allegations. Moreover, Russia had no plausible explanation of why, if he had not been tortured, he would commit try to commit suicide even though he knew he was innocent. Finally, the Court noted that there was evidence other detainees had suffered, or been threatened with, similar ill-treatment.
The Court also held that the deliberate ineffectiveness of Russia’s investigation violated Article 3. It noted, for example, that many investigative measures were carried out after a significant lapse of time – for example, the forensic report on Mikhevev’s injuries was dated more than five weeks after the alleged ill-treatment – and that there was a clear link between the officials responsible for the investigation and those allegedly involved in the torture. It also emphasized that that it took seven years for the case to reach trial.
Finally – and of critical importance to future cases – the Court dismissed Russia’s claim that Mikheyev’s failure to wait for the formal completion of its investigation barred him from bringing his case to the Court.
One can only hope that the ECHR’s decision will help deter future police and governmental misconduct in Russia. Mikheyev v. Russia, unfortunately, is only the tip of the iceberg; according to Amnesty International,
Incidents of torture and ill-treatment in prisons and detention centres throughout the Russian Federation as well as poor conditions there continue to be reported on a regular basis. Impunity remained the norm for serious human rights abuses in the context of the Chechen conflict, where authorities are implicated in the torture, abduction, secret detention and "disappearances" of civilians… Measures against human rights violations are seldom taken and as a rule police and army act within a climate of impunity… The Russian Federation is the only member state of the Council of Europe that still does not allow for the full publication of reports of the Council of Europe's Committee against Torture.