Vladimir Smirnov is a Russian human rights lawyer fighting a legal battle against police brutality in a climate of increasing impunity. He told us about his recent investigation in a remote village near Nizhniy Novgorod and what annoys him most in Russian courts.
Vladimir Smirnov lives in the central Russian city of Nizhniy Novgorod. He is a Special Investigations Officer for the Committee Against Torture, a citizen group leading the fight against police violence and torture in Russia. Formed in 2000, the Committee conducts public investigations into incidents of torture and degrading treatment, represents victims in court, and publishes information on systemic obstacles to prosecution of torture in Russia.
Before starting to work with the Committee, Vladimir worked as a lawyer in a debt collection agency, and later in a consulting company. “I was doing interesting but useless things, like suing some rich guy’s debtors or counting other people’s millions in consulting. Now my work brings me much more satisfaction. When I meet with my former colleagues, very smart and talented people from the consulting industry, they tell me about a million-ruble bankruptcy case, or some other fascinating cases they get to work on. But when I tell my stories about legally representing a gay man tortured in Chechnya, it’s clear to everybody whose work is really interesting,” laughs Vladimir.
The Committee Against Torture is based in Nizhniy Novgorod, with more offices across Russia. Vladimir and other Committee lawyers collect evidence, acting almost like private detectives, and pass that evidence along to officials of the Investigative Committee (IC), Russia’s main investigative authority charged with combating police corruption and misconduct. But even after the lawyers of The Committee Against Torture file a case and submit all the evidence they collected to the IC, they continue to work to ensure the investigation isn’t quashed or corruptly influenced. And sometimes it's the hardest part of their work.
“What kind of human rights activists are you if you don’t spit in Putin’s face?”
Working on human rights issues in Russia is inevitably perceived as a politically oppositional profession. Vladimir objects to this characterization:
“I believe it’s important to separate my personal political position and my legal work. A lot of people disagree with this separation. They think if you don’t spit into Putin’s face, then what kind of human rights activist are you?
I would help a United Russia member [Putin’s political party] as much as I would help anybody else who’s suffered from police violence. I don’t like police violence. It’s violence of the strong over the weak because a person can’t respond to this violence without incurring criminal responsibility. I believe it’s unfair. I don’t like unfairness. That’s why I do what I do. So, my political position is: I am a lawyer.
As for politicians, I don’t support anyone in particular; I support common sense. There are no ideal options. There is no messiah who will dismantle our bloody dictator, and everything will be better. It won’t.
This messianic approach of the Russian mentality is one of our biggest problems – we always wait for someone to come and make everything better. But nobody will come.
I think we should restore the transition of power so that the basic principles of our constitution starts working - at least to some extent. Because when a person rules for 20 years, even if it’s a good person, not necessarily a bad person, they lose their connection to reality. Who will be after Putin – Navanlny or anybody else – it doesn’t matter, but we just need someone else.
<...> But what really makes me mad about Russia right now is the sloppy and indifferent way our state uses the law. 10 years ago our state tried hard, collected or fabricated evidence, played in the legal field. My personal impression that today they are not even trying to convince anybody anymore. We saw it in Moscow in the August protest cases. Random people who were just walking on a street were arrested and convicted, without any evidence they were actually participating in a protest. Judges rejected all evidence and testimonies; cases are closed within a month – unseen speed for Russian courts! <…> It feels like a time when the state will just grab people and send them to camps is around the corner.”
“I got used to the thought that anything can happen to me”
With many cases of political convictions over the recent years, Vladimir can’t help but think that it can touch him as well:
“I’m not worried about my physical safety. I’m mostly worried that I might have problems with the law – like a politically motivated prosecution. But I worked as a lawyer here for more than 10 years, and I think that working as any kind of lawyer in Russia is risky. Take the famous Magnitsky case: he wasn’t a human rights lawyer. He worked with finance law. You’re at risk if you are a civil rights lawyer, prosecuting the top police official, or if you are a tax lawyer. I feel like maybe working with taxes is even riskier."
Sergei Magnitskiy was a Russian tax advisor who alleged a large-scale theft from the Russian state that was sanctioned and carried out by Russian officials. He was arrested and eventually died in prison in 2009. Many believe his death was a politically motivated murder: he developed several medical conditions, received inadequate medical care and had been physically assaulted shortly before his death.
"In terms of physical safety, I got used to the thought very quickly that, “Yeah, something can happen.” I don’t think anything can happen to me in Moscow or Nizhniy Novgorod. In the Caucasus – maybe [Vladimir refers to the Russian territories north of the Caucasus range, which include Republics of Chechnya, Dagestan, and other]. We have an office there, and the first time I went there I felt a bit scared. But the fear went away: I worked, ate delicious shashlik [grilled meat], enjoyed beautiful mountain sceneries, and wasn’t killed – and I felt very good about that! It’s true, as Chekhov said, the gun on the wall will fire eventually, but maybe not this time. Going to places like Chechnya is normal. A lot of lawyers work there on terrorism cases. The most important thing is to have experienced and trusted colleagues by your side if you go somewhere remote."
One thing that helps Vladimir not worry is what he describes as “professional anger”:
“I worked on this one outrageous case. I went to court very well-prepared, everything written in bullet points, and gave a passionate two-hour speech. Then the state prosecutor stood up, said four words, sat down and continued to nap. It’s an added frustration: I work hard, try hard, collect all the evidence, supply all the right paperwork, but then some fat guy stands up, says four standard words, and the judge hits the gavel and rejects our claim. And this makes me so mad, but also motivates me.”
“Most of our clients are simple people”
The risks and frustrations are worth it for Vladimir. He says that the Committee Against Torture is an effective organization: about 150 policemen have been convicted because of their work. That’s an impressive number given the Committee often works with very complex cases that take years to reach resolution.
Russians hear about cases of police brutality quite often, but most of the Committee’s work doesn’t get a lot of media attention. Those that do are usually cases in which the victims are activists or politicians. But according to Vladimir, 70% people that the Committee works with are the regular visitors to police departments: the homeless, those with criminal histories or other legal problems, or convicted felons. The kind of individuals who lack strong support networks and the resources to attract media attention or otherwise protect themselves.
Vladimir tells me of a recently completed case in which he helped several working class villagers get justice. It’s full of dark twists, unexpected developments, but has a happy ending. What separated these men from the less fortunate victims of police violence was a single call to the Committee Against torture.
Once upon a time in Vetluga
This case took place in a little town called Vetluga, somewhere in the forests of Nizhniy Novgorod. Vladimir talks about it with some level of poetic flare: “The north of our region is taiga. Forest is the source of life there. Sailors say: ‘I went out to sea,’ but there people say: ‘I went out to forest.’ And they go for days. There is no other work there. You either work in the forest, drink, or play basketball. Surprisingly, amateur basketball is very popular in Vetluga.”
Vladimir tells me of a man named Andrey, who lives in Vetluga and owns a tractor. One day, he decided that he needed to update a part for his tractor. Andrey knew that there was a part from a similar tractor at an abandoned sawmill. He asked seven of his friends to help get that part. In the evening, they went to the sawmill. Coincidently, the local police chief lived on the same street. He was walking his dog and saw some people dragging something in the dark from the abandoned sawmill. When the chief began to shout at them, Andrey and his seven friends ran.
“Later, everybody said that they didn’t know that they were participating in a theft. They thought they were helping their buddy to load a tractor part. But you know: it was 10 pm, dark, they went through a hole in the fence…" – Vladimir says with a gloomy laugh.
The police chief quickly summoned additional policemen, but they only managed to catch two people, who will be the main characters in our story: Ivan Belov and Pavel Yakushev.
Pavel got caught because her fell into a pond. Anton Merlugov, the head of criminal investigations, and another officer beat Pavel as they pulled him from the water. Vladimir suggests they two officers were particularly unhappy because they’d been soaked with frigid water while fishing Pavel from the pond.
Ivan was also apprehended by Merlugov, who caught Ivan, struck him on the head, threw him to the ground, and continued beating him. Ivan suffered retinal detachment on both eyes, almost permanently blinding him. Merlugov then made Ivan crawl on his knees to the police car before taking both apprehended men to the police department.
At the department, Ivan was left alone while the officers took Pavel to the criminal investigation office. They wanted to know who else participated in that theft. Vladimir thinks that Pavel didn’t give them the response they wanted, provoking another beating from Merlugov: first with punches and kicks, then with a panel from a table drawer – leaving Pavel with massive scars.
But even this wasn’t enough for Merlugov, who hit Pavel with a portable heater, whirling it above his head by the power cord. Merlugov then took his blood covered boots to Ivan in what Vladimir explains was an ultimatum: Tell me, or the same will happen to you. The men told Merlugov who was with them at the sawmill. The next morning, Ivan and Pavel were released without charges as state witnesses.
Two days later, Pavel called The Committee Against Torture. Vladimir and his team were dispatched to Vetluga to investigate Pavel’s claim and collect evidence.
Vladimir recalls: "After we questioned the witnesses and inspected the scene, we filed a claim with the local Investigative Committee. As soon as they got it, they tried to squash the case."
It took them six months to question the first victim, Ivan, and ten months to question the second victim, Pavel. Just the initial questioning! Just to get more details on the case!
Moreover, the local Investigative Committee rejected Vladimir’s requests to open a criminal investigation five times. Vladimir thinks that everything was so slow because the perpetrator, Merlugov, was the head of the police’s criminal investigation department. Even though the police and the Investigative Committee are different organizations, in a small town like Vetluga they depend on each other.
New threats and old wallpaper
The sawmill theft happened in March 2017. By the end of that year, Vladimir’s case had gone nowhere. Vladimir filed a complaint with the regional Investigative Committee office in Nizhniy Novgorod to report the Vetluga office’s failure to open an investigation. The regional office assured him that the situation had been dealt with (the local investigator would not receive his yearly bonus). Apparently, this had the desired effect, and the local Investigative Committee began to take the case more seriously. However, the Vetluga police began to take it more seriously as well.
On January 30, 2018 several policemen showed up at Ivan’s work and tried to persuade him to withdraw his complaint. Ivan held his ground. The beating had seriously damaged his eyesight and he didn’t want to settle. But when Ivan came home from work that evening, he found more policemen waiting for him. The officers informed Ivan he’d have to come in for an inspection, as they’d received an anonymous call claiming Ivan was in possession of drugs. They took him to the police department, where they didn’t find any drugs, but where Merlugov clarified the situation for Ivan: the inspection had been a rehearsal. If Ivan failed to give a new statement that he hadn’t been beaten, the next inspection would be sure to find the drugs. Ivan was left with no choice but to promise to recant, and they let him go.
Terrified, Ivan called Vladimir, who told him to leave Vetluga as soon as possible. He quit his job and went to Nizhniy Novgorod. Vladimir recalls the events that followed:
“The next morning, I took him to the head of the regional Investigative Committee, as living proof of what all their quashing and inaction had caused. The head, seasoned general, talked to Ivan and seemed to personally believe his story. He was so disturbed by it that he called his deputy and ordered to move the case up to the regional office – all while we were still in the room. After this call, everything started to move.
Threatening Ivan was Merlugov’s biggest mistake. If he hadn’t, the whole matter probably would have dragged on for years.”
The next week Vladimir went to Vetluga to find and question witnesses about the threats. He also happened to be there in time to accompany Pavel, summoned by the local Investigative Committee’s officer for questioning. Clearly, after the case was moved up to the regional office, the local investigator started to hustle and try to collect more case material.
After Pavel gave his statement, Vladimir and the investigator asked the policemen to show them the office where the alleged torture had happened. At first, the officers claimed they’d lost the keys to the office. Vladimir, who had been waiting in the building’s event room, went to try the door himself and found it open. The police officers still wouldn’t let them in, now on the pretext that the office contained classified documents. When Vladimir pointed out their obstruction of an ongoing investigation, they gave in.
The office visit didn’t produce a lot of evidence, but the coordinated hindering by the police, combined with the threats made to Ivan, led Vladimir and his team to wonder if the case hadn’t been a one-off incident. They decided to visit Vetluga again to see if they could find traces of previous misconduct. When they started digging, eight different people came forth with their personal stories. Eight people from Vetluga and nearby villages, who had never met, described how they were subjected to beatings with belts, electroshock, or had plastic bags put on their head – all by Merlugov. These testimonies didn’t have any power as legal evidence since the bodily harm hadn’t been documented. However, they attested to what Merlugov was capable of. “If the case will be quashed, they will start shooting people in broad daylight,” said Vladimir when he took those testimonies to the head of the Investigative Committee in Nizhniy.
After all this effort, the regional Investigative Committee assigned a critical case investigator, who went to Vetluga to examine the crime scene once again. But it had been one and a half years since the incident and there was very little hope of finding evidence. Moreover, the Vetluga police had renovated their office.
However, the local officers had committed a critical mistake: instead of destroying the evidence, they merely covered it up, literally. In the office where the torture had taken place, they’d put new wallpaper over the old. When the special investigator arrived, he brought a special device for identifying bodily fluids. Peeling back the new wallpaper, he discovered blood stains belonging to four different persons, including that of Pavel Yakushev.
Today, the case is moving forward and some hearings have been held. Anton Merlugov, the former head of criminal investigation department of Vetluga police, stands accused of three criminal charges: beating Pavel Yakushev and Ivan Belov while apprehending, beating Pavel Yakushev with the heater and the wooden panel while in custody, and issuing threats.
Vladimir speaks proudly of this resolution: “We were the ones who made this case reach the court. And I really like this story. It is so complicated, but it’s also about regular people who got justice. After the case was passed to court, I met all the investigators who worked on the case. Everybody shook my hand and told me: ‘Look, we finished such a beautiful case!’ And it really was beautiful. We battled all those procedural obstacles, it took ten months and five rejections to start the investigation, there were threats, and the CSI with shining blood… In our press release, we at the Committee even gave special thanks to the investigators, who really did a good job. So everything is not so bad. When they’re willing, they can do it.
So, you see, that’s our tactic – push, push and push. If you believe something is right, you should always push for it and it will bear fruit.”