‘Basmanny justice’

May 26, 2016

Sergey Orlov

‘Basmanny justice’ is the complete subjugation of the judiciary to the will of the regime. Torture included …

Petr Pavlensky behind bars in the Moscow City Court
Petr Pavlensky behind bars in the Moscow City Court

On 17 May, it became public knowledge that the artist and activist Pytor Pavlensky had been beaten up by the convoy guards while on transfer from the Moscow City Court. Pavlensky’s common-law wife received the details in a letter from her husband: “As I write this letter I have a damaged knee, cracked rib and internal haematomas. Every intake of breath is painful. This is nothing out of the ordinary after a Moscow City Court transfer.”

Pavlensky is on trial for his November act of setting fire to the main door of the FSB building in the Lubyanka; and his emphasis that this kind of prisoner transfer is normal is hardly fortuitous. The appalling tradition of beating up prisoners became established in the capital’s chief court in 2012. Since then the prosecutors have received scores of complaints from barristers, but the convoy guards continue to display their vicious zeal undisturbed, and not one of them has so far been reprimanded or punished.

The latest appalling example of the law enforcement agencies’ high-handedness was no news for the progressive part of Russian society. “This is not a first – it’s the system and I’ve been hearing that it’s regular practice for many years. Nothing changes. It’s all ‘in the line of duty’, but what duty?” as the well-known Russian financier Sergei Romanchuk wrote on Facebook.

Rough justice

Aleksey Polikhovich was sent to prison for protesting in Bolotnaya Square. He thinks that the violence of the convoy guards behind the scenes is in essence a continuation of the Russian system of justice. If the chairman of the court and the prosecutor have not managed to break the prisoner in court, the truncheons and the tasers take their turn: “This is not an uncommon situation in the Moscow City Court. It’s to intimidate the prisoners, to keep them on a tight rein, so there’s no question in their minds of any liberation, even psychological. To my mind it’s not surprising that Pavlensky was beaten up because he has an ease of manner, which really irritates the policemen. They beat up people who try to stand up for their rights and talk about legal standards; sometimes they are beaten because of the nature of the charges against them. And, of course, xenophobia is rife.”

“They beat up people who try to stand up for their rights”

It’s not only the law enforcers who are driven mad by Pavlensky: there are also calls from people immersed in state propaganda to ‘deal with’ the artist. “This is hardly Pavlensky’s first sneaky little affair – he should get the maximum sentence and be banged up to keep him quiet. That’ll wipe the smile off his face,” writes Vadim on the NTV site; and commentary on LiveNews is no less vicious: “The abolition of punitive psychiatry means that part of the population is deprived of adequate medical assistance.” Only independent journalism is trying to defend Pavlensky. The Novaya Gazeta site says that, “Pavlensky is a real mensch, and we wretches have no chance of understanding him. I can’t accept all he does, but I respect him.”

State Russian TV understands the ‘inconvenient’ Pavlensky incident in its own way. Channel 1 didn’t even mention him, NTV reported the trial but said nothing about the beating, while Rossiya TV decided to present events in a new light, and turned Pavlensky into a sham and a liar. The presenters first came out with phrases such as ‘rumours of a beating,’ ‘he’s apparently been beaten up,’ ‘he looks normal,’ and then, right at the end of the news item, they brought out their weightiest argument: “There is no medical confirmation of the beating and no documentary proof of anything, so it’s all hearsay.” To give the propaganda merchants their entitlement to half-truths, the prison doctors refused to examine Pavlensky when he was returned to pre-trial detention. “They said ‘We can’t see anything and we’re not going to examine you,'” as Pavlensky himself said in court when describing how prison medicine works.

At the Moscow City Court prisoners are sometimes beaten until they lose consciousness

Former political prisoner Daniil Konstantinov told me that at the Moscow City Court prisoners are sometimes beaten until they lose consciousness, often in the corridor, somewhere, which is not on CCTV. “The most interesting thing is the convoy regiment and its ‘guard,’ the Rapid Reaction Group, which is selected from thuggish former paratroopers and riot police. The RRG is a special punitive division, which breaks anyone who tries to stand up for his rights, to protest or simply those who are on a special Interior Ministry or FSB list. It’s usually like this: you arrive at the City Court and are forcibly stripped to the buff, which is against the regulations. Anyone who protests or resists is beaten up, tasered, has his head put down the toilet, handcuffed naked to the radiator and left lying for everyone to see; you are forced to do the splits and a convoy guard sits on you, which tears the groin ligament. The list is endless. I have seen it all and experienced some of it and these are impressions you can never forget. To arrive at a building of the judiciary and see an unconscious body being dragged along a corridor, leaving a bloody trail behind him, and then to see him having his head shoved down the toilet to bring him back to consciousness … these images will be with you for ever.”

The regiment of prison warders and convoy guards accompanying suspects and defendants, to which Daniil Konstantinov refers, is outside prison structures because it reports directly to the Moscow Department of the Russian Interior Ministry i.e. the police, who as a rule do not operate just by the law. The Moscow department publishes the following information about this division quite openly on its site: “Our officers also take part in enormously important criminal investigations, which are under the control of the Moscow Department of the Russian Interior Ministry, the Federal Ministry and the government.” So it would appear that judicial scrutiny of some crimes is controlled by the country’s leaders, and the convoy regiment is proud to be part of this control and, although no one has any illusions left about the independence of our judiciary, one cannot but be struck by the artless frankness of the Moscow Interior Ministry.

So, if the convoy guards are happy to volunteer for so much, then there’s no reason why they shouldn’t do it all. Yuliana Solopova is press secretary for the Moscow City Court. After the Pavlensky incident, she made a statement to the effect that neither the judges of the court, nor their chair, Olga Yegorova, knew anything about the irregularities which have been going on under their roof for years: “Convoy duties are undertaken by the designated regiment. The methods of transporting prisoners and the means they use to do this are their responsibility.”

Basmanny justice

Olga Yegorova is the iron lady of the Moscow judiciary. She has been in charge of the City Court as long as Putin has been at the helm of the country, but where the president handed over absolute power to Medvedev for a time, Yegorova has been ruling her territory with no breaks at all since 2000. All the city judges are very afraid of her and, knowing how much she dislikes acquittals, do their best not to disappoint the boss. The term ‘Basmanny justice,’ first used by Mikhail Khodorkovsky to describe the kangaroo court in which he was being tried, is the complete subjugation of the judiciary to the will of the regime, and it was under Yegorova that it happened. Barristers and journalists have christened Mosgorsud [abbreviation of Moscow City Court] Mosgorshtamp [Moscow City Rubber Stamping Court] for its predictable decisions, which always fit in with what the government wants. Could it be that the all-powerful Yegorova doesn’t know that a medieval torture chamber has been set up under the court offices? Or does she not have the power to stop the sadists from the convoy regiment? Pyotr Pavlensky’s barrister, Dmitry Dinze, for instance, does not believe that Olga Yegorova has suddenly gone soft and relinquished any control. One of the barristers defending protesters from Bolotnaya in 2013 said that if Moscow City Court and the Investigation Committee had the political will, the people (beating up the prisoners) could easily be identified.

Identifying the sadists would, indeed, not be difficult because their victims sometimes remember the personal numbers on their badges. Pavlensky remembered, “the number of the animal policeman who is particularly vicious in his beating and abusing the prisoners on trial is No 007666,” said Olga Shalygina, Pavlensky’s wife.

Sergei Krivov, Bolotnaya prisoner, also remembers the number of his torturer (from his October 2013 notes): “I was stripped in the corridor: I had to take off my pants and to squat. I did three squats and then refused to do any more. No. 0073008 started taunting me, saying, ‘Are you refusing to be searched?’ He asked me five or six times but I didn’t answer. So he hit me on the shoulder. For several minutes I stood stark naked in front of 6-8 policemen; some metres away on the other side of some glass two more people were sitting, one of them a woman.”

Sergei Krivov was sentenced to three years and nine months in a trial that was rigged by the authorities. While in prison he has had two heart attacks; he is due for release in July 2016. The humiliations and the blow to his shoulder are not the only things Krivov will remember about the Moscow City Court convoys. At one of the court sessions, after a check, the guards refused to return to him a white flower he had been given, so he said he would not leave the cage until he had his flower back. His barrister relates what happened next: “Krivov was literally dragged violently out of the cage on to the stairs. There his head was rammed into the wall several times and he was tasered in the stomach. He offered no resistance and behaved calmly – he had simply expressed his opinion. The beating carried on in the cellar, and he was tasered twice more.”

Russia has punitive bodies but no enforcement authorities

The liberal journalist Yevgeniya Albats thinks that the events surrounding Pavlensky are yet another proof that Russia has punitive bodies but no enforcement authorities: “Catching a Bolotnaya protester, damaging Pavlensky’s knee or breaking a rib while they are transporting him – they can do that, it’s easy. But they can’t ensure that the law is being observed, because they don’t know what it is, they have no respect for it, they know nothing about it and don’t know how to work.”

Last week, some of Russia’s most important lawyers were discussing lofty matters. On the day the news of Pavlensky’s beating got out, the chairman of the Constitutional Court, Valery Zorkin, said that Russia would become a truly law-based state when it stops putting truth above the law. The next day, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev reflected publicy on confidence in the legal profession, quoting the philosopher Solovyov: “The essence of truth lies in the balance between two moral interests – the common good and personal freedom.” Wonderful intellectual thoughts, and observing them one might even think that Russia is dedicated to the concerns of enlightened rulers. But this rhetoric is merely a screen to conceal the cellar of the Moscow City Court, where prisoners on trial are beaten, tortured and humiliated.