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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tourists Complain of Police Trouble

Christopher Moore, a 26-year-old business consultant from London, was not worried when two policemen politely asked for his passport one evening last month near the Rossiya Hotel, where he was staying on his first visit to Moscow.

What happened next, Moore said, would make him think twice before turning to Russian police for help with real criminals.

The policemen grabbed his passport, led him to a police precinct -- a dark, narrow corridor with a group of cells located underneath the hotel -- and detained him there for an hour. There, using gestures, they demanded he empty his pockets onto a bench.

"When I asked them why they needed to rifle through my cash, they replied 'it is Russian order' -- a seemingly ready-made answer for English-speaking tourists," Moore said.

After much delay, the policemen handed back his money and other possessions and released him. It was only later that he realized that about $60 in rubles and Estonian kroons had gone missing, he said.

"Their tactics are to fluster their prey by adopting a menacing attitude and often handing their victim's money to each other so it is difficult to keep track of, and then through sleight of hand steal the largest denomination notes so the number of notes handed back is similar to that originally produced," Moore said by e-mail.

Moore had gotten a second chance to watch the Russian police at work. When he and a friend continued their vacation by traveling to St. Petersburg, they had a similar experience on Nevsky Prospekt. Three policemen stopped them on the street, ordered them to turn out their pockets, and managed to pinch 500 rubles ($15) in the process, he said.

"During our 10 days in Russia we found Russians to be very friendly," he said later by telephone from London. "But I'll tell my friends going there that the only sort of people in Russia to worry about are policemen."

Cases of dirty police officers stealing or extorting money from foreigners are plentiful, to judge by the number of letters received by The Moscow Times after the newspaper on Oct. 11 printed a letter from George Lo of Hong Kong complaining of being robbed by policemen on Red Square in late August.

But, according to the Moscow police, the problem is nonexistent.

"You know our rules: If the police register a complaint, then there is a crime, and vice versa," a spokeswoman for the Moscow police said by telephone.

Since complaining to the same police that just robbed and intimidated you might seem somewhat confusing for foreigners not accustomed to Russia's cruel realities, few if any bother.

Asked why he did not file a complaint with police, Moore said: "I suspect they would not be very helpful -- the less I see of them the better."

Further complicating any effort to determine the extent of the problem, both the Moscow police and the Interior Ministry's internal affairs directorate, which investigates corruption among policemen, said they do not keep separate statistics for complaints filed by foreigners.

Hartmut G?nther, a professor from Cologne, was another who wrote in response to Lo's letter.

G?nther said he was stopped by a Moscow policeman in mid-October after he had crossed a street 50 meters from a traffic light.

The officer took him to a van, where G?nther said he was handcuffed and searched.

"Finally, they uttered the German word 'strafe,' he wrote in his letter, referring to the word for "fine," which made it into the Russian language as shtraf.

"In order to get out of this nightmare, I paid 1,000 rubles, but I got no receipt, and they left me off."

Soon after, G?nther said he realized his mobile phone was gone, but when he went back to where the van was, it was gone.

Lo also said he and his girlfriend had been escorted into a police van, where police searched them and then demanded they pay $100.

"We paid eventually," Lo wrote. "They had taken our passports and were refusing to give them back to us. Don't forget that there were over 10 policemen inside the van. We didn't know what would happen if we failed to pay. Would we be hit or detained? Who knows?"

Lo, who like Moore was staying in the Rossiya Hotel, said he had been warned by his travel agent about police maltreatment of tourists. "We kept alert when we walked around Red Square, but we admit that we underestimated the seriousness of such 'robbers in uniform,'" he wrote.

The only way for foreigners to avoid being robbed by police who try to intimidate them is to summon their courage and demand a lawyer and an interpreter, said Sergei Zamoshkin, a lawyer and the head of Anti-Proizvol, a public organization that fights police corruption.

"Westerners are easy prey for dirty policemen -- they have money, and can be easily shocked and intimidated by policemen's rude attitude," he said. "But foreigners must not give in or permit anyone to touch them before a lawyer or some other official representative arrives -- if you disagree with policemen, do it firmly but be polite, and they will not risk harming anyone."

Zamoshkin also advised foreigners to place a phone call to friends or try to attract the attention of passers-by if policemen demand that they follow them, usually by holding their passports.

"It will warn the policemen that any wrong move would not go unnoticed," he said.

Complaining to the authorities after being intimidated and robbed by police has little chance of leading to the offenders being punished, Zamoshkin said.

This is because any criminal investigation will require evidence of wrongdoing, and corrupt policemen do not give receipts.

Even so, he recommended that victims try to remember specific characteristics of the officers, such as badge or identity-card numbers, and the license plate number of any police vehicles.

G?nther, who is dean of the pedagogic faculty at the University of Cologne, said he enjoys coming to Moscow, where his faculty has been involved in an exchange program for more than 10 years.

"It would be a shame if events like this one continue to occur, disturbing the attempts to consider Russia as a modern and reliable partner in international relations," he wrote.