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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hot Line Takes On Police Abuses

Lev Ponomaryov has spent much of the past two years trying to help victims of police injustice.

Now it looks like he is becoming a victim himself.

Three weeks ago, the office of Ponomaryov's organization, known simply as Hot Line, was broken into. The burglars took everything they could, from computers to disks to pens. Everything they couldn't take they destroyed.

Ponomaryov, a former State Duma deputy and a veteran human rights campaigner, estimates the value of the stolen property at a few thousand dollars. He says the real purpose of the break-in was to hobble Hot Line's work.

But Ponomaryov has had trouble getting the police to agree with his version of events. Alexei Dreyev, the officer handling the case, said the May 30 robbery must have been committed by one of Ponomaryov's own employees and that it is unlikely that anyone will be charged in the matter.

Ponomaryov and the police agree on one thing: The intruders clearly had information about the layout of the building that an ordinary robber would not have. They appear to have entered through a window facing a tiny, internal yard that is accessible only through the basement of another entryway.

Ponomaryov maintains the culprit was a well-informed outsider who wanted to hinder the organization's work. As evidence, he points to a copy machine that lies smashed in the corridor where it stood, the missing computer disks and the many powerful people who have reason to dislike Hot Line.

Hot Line employees provide legal consultation on matters as mundane as a housing dispute, or as horrific as a brutal police beating.

Since the burglary, supporters have rushed to assist Hot Line and the Movement for Human Rights, which shares the office and is also chaired by Ponomaryov. Friends and fellow activists have provided old computers and other equipment, and the organizations are up and running again.

The work Ponomaryov says attracted unwanted attention begins on the second floor in a small, sparsely furnished room, where a grandmotherly woman named Yelena Alexandrovna patiently listens as distraught callers explain their problems.

The first call on a recent afternoon was from a pensioner in the midst of a divorce who was worried that his wife would kick him out of the apartment they share.

Yelena Alexandrovna, who preferred not to give her last name, assured him that his wife had no legal right to do that, and that he would most likely receive another apartment thanks to his disabled status.

"Maybe you'll still meet a nice woman and find your happiness," she added.

Other problems cannot be solved that easily. One caller on the same day said that police attacked him and others at a market, explaining that they were "bringing about order." He said a plainclothes officer punched him in the neck, tearing the cartilage of his larynx. Doctors advised him not to speak for four days, and he still cannot eat solid food.

Yelena Alexandrovna asked him to come speak to one of Hot Line's lawyers in person later in the week.

Cases such as this one, however serious in nature, are unlikely to attract the kind of attention that led to the break-in, Ponomaryov says. He says the incident was probably connected to one of two more high-profile cases.

One case, which went to court a day after the break-in, involves Reshit Goshayev, a Turkmen businessman in Kostroma, who says he became the target of police harassment after refusing their offers for "protection."

The other case is that of Valentin Zakharov, a Moscow businessman who spent 10 months in jail in the United Arab Emirates fighting charges of drug possession. When he returned, he accused his former business partner of planting the drugs on him, but, says Ponomaryov, the police dragged their feet because the partner had bribed them.

Ponomaryov says he had no qualms about taking the cases of wealthy businessmen, a class most Russians find it hard to sympathize with.

"A victim is a victim," he says. "It's not important who he is."

Hot Line takes calls on Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tel. 291-6233/7011. The service will not work in July.