Stanislav Markelov – Russia’s “Filtration System”

With the recent posthumous publication of Anna Politkovskaya’s diary, I have been reliving some of my memorable encounters with her. During one meal we shared, a wide variety of issues beyond Chechnya were discussed, and she described to me an assault on an impressive young Russian human rights lawyer named Stanislav Markelov. It appeared that Markelov had been targeted because of work he had engaged in defending the residents of a town in the regions (Blagoveshchensk, in the Republic of Bashkortostan), which had been targeted by the Russian internal militia for a “filtration procedure.” This filtration involved rounding up men and women and subjecting them to brutal assaults, inclusive of rape of severe bodily injury, in an attempt to weed out so-called threats to society. I thought that the possibility of this activity occurring inside Russia was beyond the pale even of what I knew of the regime in 2004. In any event, at Anna’s insistence, I met with Markevlov and learned of a secret Ministry of Internal Affairs Order No. 870 which actually put in writing this entire procedure. During our meeting, Markelov and I immediately recognized a number of shared perspectives, and after a more recent discussion, we have agreed to do cross postings between our two blogs (Markelov writes a popular human rights blog in Russian). I have asked him to provide us with some of the original articles and testimony with respect to this worrying Russian precedent. Below is the first of an upcoming series of articles – stay tuned for more testimony and original articles from Stanislav.

THE CHECHNYA SYNDROME AND THE BLAGOVESHCHENSK CASE By Stanislav Markelov After the end of the case of the Cadet, OMON officer S.V. Lapin, sentenced for the first time directly in the city of Grozny of the Chechen Republic to 11 years of deprivation of liberty for a crime against a peaceful citizen, I came into the case of the mass beating of peaceful citizens in the city of Blagoveshchensk of the Republic of Bashkortostan by officers of the police, as the lawyer representing the side of the victims. The “Blagoveshchensk case” turned out to be the most prominent and largest example of the spread of the Chechnya syndrome throughout other regions of Russia. Along with the length and the mass character of the crimes, the beating lasted 4 days, had an unmotivated character, extended to the entire city and nearby villages, and involved significant police forces, including some that had previously served in Chechnya. A very large number of victims (officially 342, realistically over 1000). A punitive mechanism known as “filtration”, which has been widely encountered in Chechnya, was officially used during the course of this “mopping up operation”. Officially, by order of the police superiors, a “filtration point” was created on the territory of the former Blagoveshchensk sobering-up station. All detainees were brought here, forcibly detained here, beaten and abused. The police refused to notify relatives or lawyers about the detentions. Until the “Blagoveshchensk case”, despite the wide spread of the practice of filtration, on a single official had ever admitted the existence of filtration points. For the first time, in the “Blagoveshchensk case”, a document was uncovered on the basis of which the “filtration points” were created and “police mopping-up operations” were conducted. This is the secret order of the MVD [Ministry of Internal Affairs] of Russia No. 870 of 10 September 2003. According to it, the police invented for itself the concept of an “extraordinary circumstance”, which does not exist in Russian law. This concept includes practically all events that substantially impact the lives of people, society, and the state. Such a wording allows the police to introduce emergency measures of a police character arbitrarily, at the pleasure of the MVD forces themselves, even without informing the citizenry of this. In addition to this, the order officially entrenches the concept of “filtration point”, which also does not exist in Russian law. This allows police officers to apply practically any unauthorized unlawful methods, without bearing any liability whatsoever for this. So it was that in the Blagoveshchensk case the organs of the procuracy acknowledged the fact that citizens had been unlawfully deprived of liberty in the “filtration point”, but refused to file charges against police officers on the basis of this fact. The court appeal of this order and complaints to the Procuracy-General and to the Ministry of Justice ended without result. During the course of the trial, a multitude of facts were uncovered of pressure having been applied to the most active victims, including attempts to buy them off and threats of physical violence. The procuracy did initiate a separate criminal case based on the given facts, recognizing their authenticity, but the court refused to arrest any one of the persons who had been charged. At the present time, the “Blagoveshchensk case” has been returned from the court back to preliminary investigation, because the court could not cope with the huge volume of the case. Attempts to appeal this unlawful return were likewise rejected under the pretext of “expediency”. Now all of the police officers who had been charged are at liberty and remain at their posts, including the chief of police in the city of Blagoveshchensk. The question of the safety of victims, witnesses, and lawyers is one of the painful ones for Chechnya as well. Despite the obvious reduction in the number of direct military confrontations, the local population still does not know such a concept as court. All judicial proceedings in Chechnya are resolved either by way of a bribe, or through revenge by the aggrieved party. Hence, functioning in reality as of today in Chechnya is either “the law of the machine gun” or “the law of the bribe”. Local inhabitants have already forgotten what an investigative process or a trial is, inasmuch as over the past 15 years only law surrogates such as military field courts, sharia courts, and others have existed there. The case of the “Cadet” S.V. Lapin remains the only case that was initiated for a crime in Chechnya, considered by a court in the city of Grozny, and attained a real verdict. This case became a significant socio political event in the Republic in general. The court sessions were attended by dozens of peaceful inhabitants who had no direct relation to the case and marvelled at the very idea that independent judicial proceedings could be taking place in Chechnya. Even the consideration of the Budanov case and the Ulman case did not have such an impact on the situation in Chechnya, inasmuch as the judicial proceedings took place far from the territory of Chechnya (in the city of Rostov-on-Don). It is characteristic that during the course of the trial, the defendant enjoyed every opportunity to defend himself, namely: he had his own lawyer of his own choosing, he actively presented his evidence, and no pressure was put on either him or his lawyer during the course of the trial, which they themselves acknowledged. The guilty verdict and the punishment rendered in the form of 11 years of deprivation of liberty became an important precedent in Russian law in general, inasmuch as unlike the previously had practice, destruction of the corpse of the deceased did not become grounds for avoiding criminal liability. For Chechnya, this case also turned out to be precedent-setting in connection with the fact that the father of the deceased Zelimkhan Murdalov, Astimir Murdalov, turned for redress not to armed structures, but to official legal institutions, albeit after a lengthy time and significant difficulties, but he did manage to achieve justice. The conducting of the first precedent-setting case in Chechnya aroused a mass reaction of approval by the peaceful inhabitants and dissatisfaction both on the part of the Russian “hawks” and on the part of the separatists. The former did not like the very fact of the sentencing of an officer for the commission of a crime against a Chechen, the latter did not like the real precedent of the application of Russian law on the territory of Chechnya, and the possibility of resolving the conflict through the Russian court system, inasmuch as many of them proceed from the position that “the worse things are, the better”. After the S.V. Lapin’s verdict entered into legal force, it became possible to attain the initiation of a new criminal case, this time with respect to his immediate superiors – major A.S. Prilepin (at the present time he has resigned from the organs) and lieutenant-colonel V.A. Minin (likewise resigned from the organs after the case was initiated). As of the given moment, they both are evading contact with the investigative organs and have been declared international fugitives. Unfortunately, these precedents have yet to lead to the mass appearance of such cases. The legal situation that has evolved in Chechnya remains firmly entrenched. Lawyers from other regions are afraid to work in Chechnya directly, and prefer to access only international institutions (the Strasbourg court and other such institutions). Because of the orientation exclusively on the European Court of Human Rights, local inhabitants have gotten the impression that the Strasbourg court is the last instance examining a case on its merits, that is capable of determining the presence of guilt, the formal components of the crime, establish punishment, etc. The existence of such a myth, in addition to this, leads to a weakening of public pressure on the Russian legal structures in Chechnya. On the other hand, the lawyers and jurists working on “Chechen cases”, having achieved the right of direct recourse to the Strasbourg court, bypassing the judicial instances in the CR, have ended up being uninterested in the reestablishment of a full-fledged judicial system there. As a result, a whole cohort of lawyers and jurists has appeared who have declared of their specialization in Chechen matters yet never have worked in Chechnya itself. Local lawyers, unfortunately, remain extremely corrupt, and are in the main end up being intermediaries in the passing of bribes to the investigator and the judge. An insignificant quantity of honest lawyers still does not have serious work experience and are forced to constantly subject themselves to physical danger (5 lawyers have died in Chechnya in recent years). The situation with the human rights movement in Chechnya looks no less problematic. On the whole, more than 240 human rights organizations are registered in the CR; of these, only one or two are really functioning; it is unknown what the rest are engaged in. In addition to this, representatives of international and Russian human rights organizations are constantly found in Chechnya. Despite the saturation in the republic of various kinds of human rights defenders, their activity is extremely one-sided and can be reduced to the conducting of seminars and monitoring. In the absolute majority of instances, such forms of activity represent the laundering of monetary funds (grants) that have been received. However, even in instances of the actual conducting of such undertakings, they become in Chechnya clearly insufficient. The gathering of information without an attempt to impact on the situation in the republic does not improve the situation with human rights in any way, and at the same time also creates a real danger for the sources of the information. The conducting of conferences and seminars dedicated to the problems of Chechnya has any kind of resultativity at all in the event of a discussion of concrete work methodologies in this region. Unfortunately, the absolute majority of human rights seminars is in no way connected with practical activity. On the other hand, despite the reduction in the number of direct armed confrontations, the state of the law enforcement organs of Chechnya remains catastrophic. The organs of the procuracy consist for the most part of cadres sent in for a short term from other regions, who obtain their next official callings and do not delve into the situation in the republic. Instead of carrying out oversight functions, the procuracy in Chechnya in the main engages in attempts to “push aside” the multitude of complaints and statements about crimes committed. Besides the problems indicated above, also characteristic of the police structures in Chechnya is the presence of units oriented exclusively at the application of torture and the beating out of testimony (the ORB – the branch for investigating banditism). In addition to this, present in Chechnya is the practice of private jails (zindans) and a multitude of armed formations having an incomprehensible legal status (the Kadyrovites, Gantemirovites, and others). Formally found under federal subordination, they are controlled only by their commanders and periodically conflict with one another, up to and including armed skirmishes. In recent times, the fears of the peaceful inhabitants are gradually increasing with respect to separatist groupings and are somewhat decreasing with respect to the federal troop structures, because, first, the number of federal troops in Chechnya has noticeably decreased, and second, a rotation of cadres is taking place in the Russian units, and now persons who had earlier not participated in the armed conflict and who do not have resentment against the local population are serving there, while the composition of the armed formations of separatists remains the same as before. The greatest number of violations as of today’s moment is characteristic of the activity of the local armed formations of quasi-federal subordination. In order to really conduct legal work in Chechnya at the present time, what is needed is the use of a local initiative group comprised on the one hand of professional jurists and lawyers, and on the other of human rights advocates and, working together with them, professional lawyers and jurists from Moscow or other Russian regions. Such a combination will allow work in Chechnya to be improved on the basis of the examination of real cases, and not endless seminars and monitorings. Likewise the recruitment of experienced professional legal cadres will allow the training of young jurists and lawyers to be carried out directly in Chechnya during the course of conducing cases. At the present moment, the personnel makeup for carrying out the given work has already been picked. The concurrent appealing of unlawful internal normative acts of agencies in the “Blagoveshchensk case” will allow for the liquidation of the legal grounds for the mass application of illicit actions by the law-enforcement organs, both in Chechnya and in other regions of Russia.

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