Russians find justice scarce

The Baltimore Sun

MOSCOW -- Aleksei Mikheyev couldn't bear the torture; he simply wanted to die.

He wanted to die so badly he flung himself out the second-story window of a police station in the Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod after being forced, he says, to confess to the rape and killing of a disappeared girl who turned up unharmed the very same day.

Police affixed metal clips to Mikheyev's earlobes and administered electric shocks, according to his account. They threatened to beat him and apply electric current to his genitals. The jump out the window, he hoped, would end his life. Instead, it broke his spine, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.

That was nearly eight years ago. Seven months ago, Mikheyev became the first Russian to win a police torture case against his nation before Europe's highest human rights court.

Russians are increasingly turning to the European Court of Human Rights in their search for justice, claiming there's no justice to be had in a domestic court system that is hampered by inefficiency and in which decisions often have more to do with politics than the rule of law.

"People perceive of it as corrupt, very often, and they don't really trust their domestic institutions to provide them with protection or redress," said Ole Solvang, executive director of the Stichting Russian Justice Initiative, which has sent hundreds of cases to the court in Strasbourg, France. "The European Court is becoming a hope for many to achieve justice and redress."

Last year, Russians filed 8,781 petitions with the European Court, up from 7,855 the year before and 6,062 in 2003, according to court statistics. Many of the cases - which the court will hear only if all legal options have been exhausted at home - concern poor conditions in Russia's detention facilities, alleged human rights abuses in Chechnya and unenforced decisions by Russia's domestic courts in matters like state pension payments. In all but two of the 105 Russian cases the court ruled on between 1999 and last year, Russia was found to have committed at least one violation.

In a ruling last month in a case handled by Solvang's group, Russia was found responsible for the "disappearance" in 2000 in Chechnya of Khadzhi-Murat Yandiyev and ordered to pay more than $40,000 in damages to his mother. Television crews caught on film Col. Gen. Aleksandr Baranov telling soldiers who had captured the 25-year-old to "finish him off" and "shoot him."

Yandiyev has not been seen since and is presumed dead; Baranov has been promoted and oversees Russia's military forces in the North Caucasus region.

Human-rights activists say the ruling - the first by the court in a Chechen disappearance case - sets an important precedent for the 200 other disappearance cases pending. But their optimism is tempered by the reality of another, less encouraging precedent: Russia has not consistently implemented the court's judgments, failing in many cases to make fundamental systemic changes to prevent future breaches.

"Russia always pays the compensation," said Olga Sadovskaya, deputy chairwoman of the Committee Against Torture, which handled the torture case in Nizhny Novgorod, in which Mikheyev was awarded $320,000. "But we don't do anything on the national level in order to prevent the violations of the European Convention again."

Russia is one of 46 members of the Council of Europe, which created the predecessor to the European Court of Human Rights in 1959. Russia ratified the European human rights and anti-torture conventions in 1998.

Erik Jurgens, a Dutch delegate to the council's parliamentary assembly who monitors member-states' implementation of the court's judgments, visited Moscow in May as Russia assumed the council's rotating presidency. He was on a five-nation tour aimed at pressing those with problems fulfilling court decisions and instituting required reforms to do a better job.

Some progress has been made here on that front, including improving prison conditions, activists note. But government officials, including at the Foreign Ministry, have repeatedly criticized the court for what it calls politically motivated decisions and anti-Russian bias - charges Jurgens has dismissed.

Russian law provides for an independent judiciary, but the reality is often different. By one estimate, judges accepted over $200 million in bribes last year in exchange for favorable rulings, according to the U.S. State Department's annual human rights report on Russia. Justice system critics say some verdicts are in effect decided before a trial has begun.

Corruption is not the only problem. Some judges decide whether to grant arrest warrants based not on the facts but on the gravity of the accusation against a suspect, activists say. Some are reluctant to grant bail, which can leave innocent people sitting needlessly in jail. Some suspects have been held for months without being charged.

While many Russians now believe the best way to win justice at home is to seek it abroad, they know that to petition the Strasbourg court is to risk the ire of authorities. Those who have brought cases have been harassed, intimidated, beaten, even abducted, rights activists say.

"People are not protected now at all," said Karinna Moskalenko, founder of the International Protection Center in Moscow, a human-rights group that has won several cases before the court and filed hundreds of others. She can no longer guarantee her clients' safety, she said, because the authorities are "becoming more and more aggressive."

One of the center's cases is that of Pavel Finogenov, whose 32-year-old brother, Igor, died in 2002 during the siege of the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow. In an effort to incapacitate Chechen rebels who were holding 900 hostages there, the government sprayed a chemical agent into the building; at least 129 hostages died, many from the effects of the gas.

Finogenov and other victims' relatives appealed without success to the Russian courts, charging among other things that the government irresponsibly used the gas, did not provide timely medical care to the victims and never conducted a proper investigation.

"The Russian court ignores us," Finogenov, a former government lawyer, said in an interview. "They don't even look into our cases."

It's not compensation he wants from the Strasbourg court, but an independent - and objective - review of evidence he believes shows the government is responsible for his brother's death. Said Finogenov: "We are hoping to find justice and defend ourselves."

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