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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

2 Cops Go on Trial After 7 Years

MTAlexei Mikheyev and his mother in their Nizhny Novgorod apartment in 1999.
Seven years have passed since Alexei Mikheyev threw himself out of the third-story window of a Nizhny Novgorod police station after confessing to a rape and murder that never happened.

Mikheyev, now 28, became paralyzed from the waist down after landing on a parked motorcycle. He said he jumped after police tortured him with electric shock devices in an attempt to make him confess to five other unsolved slayings.

The teenage girl whom Mikheyev confessed to raping and killing turned up alive and unharmed a few days after his suicide attempt on Sept. 19, 1998.

The case against Mikheyev's suspected torturers has been stuck in a legal logjam for years. Now Nizhny Novgorod authorities are finally giving Mikheyev his day in court -- after the European Court of Human Rights agreed to hear the case.

Regional prosecutors this summer wrapped up an investigation into former city police detectives Igor Somov and Nikolai Kosterin, who are charged with abuse of power and driving Mikheyev to attempt suicide. Nizhny Novgorod's Leninsky District Court started hearing the case on Sept. 7, and the next hearing is scheduled for Thursday.

Mikheyev intends to attend every session of the closed trial. "I want to see them held fully responsible for their crimes," he said in a recent telephone interview from Nizhny Novgorod.

International human rights organizations have identified police torture as a widespread problem throughout Russia. A handful of police officers have been convicted, but critics of the criminal justice system say that most victims are afraid to speak up. Those who do complain often see the abuse covered up by prosecutors and judges, they said.

While the situation appears to be improving, Olga Shepeleva, a lawyer at Moscow's Demos Research Center for Civil Society, which monitors police abuse, said the law still did not contain adequate statutes to combat the abuse.

"That's a huge problem," Shepeleva said. "Torture laws only apply to crimes committed by individuals, whereas torture committed by law enforcement authorities is usually classified as 'abuse of power.'"

Furthermore, the absence of a law specifically addressing torture by law enforcement authorities makes it impossible to compile official statistics on abuse, Shepeleva said.

Igor Kalyapin, head of the Nizhny Novgorod-based Committee Against Torture, which has tracked Mikheyev's case and others and is providing Mikheyev with legal assistance, said abuse had declined in the years since Mikheyev threw himself out the window.

In October, Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev signed a memorandum establishing cooperation between his ministry and human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin, and Kalyapin said the Interior Ministry was sincerely trying to work with anti-torture groups such as Lukin's.

"I must admit that the Interior Ministry has started to take this issue seriously," Kalyapin said. "They understand that with such a poor relationship between police and citizens, police can't work effectively."

But there remains much work to be done, Kalyapin and Shepeleva said.

According to Shepeleva, police continue to use standard methods of torture, such as electric shock, which is meant to cause maximum pain but leave minimal injury marks. Other techniques include slonik, or little elephant, in which a gas mask is placed on a suspect's head and his air supply is periodically cut off. Lastochka, or the swallow, is another common technique in which the victim's hands are handcuffed behind his back above his head, Shepeleva said. Often he is suspended from the ceiling by the handcuffs and beaten.

With no official statistics on police torture, most of the available information comes from nongovernmental organizations.

A total of 26 percent of the population has experienced police excesses, including physical abuse, illegal detainment and extortion, according to a survey of 2,013 people in 12 cities last year. The survey was carried out by the Levada Center, an independent polling agency.

Kalyapin said that even though police officers were from time to time convicted of abuse involving torture, they often got off with a slap on the wrist.

Mikheyev, who walks on crutches and sometimes uses a wheelchair, is afraid that his accused torturers will get suspended sentences.

"It would be the worst thing that could happen," he said. "Let them be acquitted if there is not enough evidence to convict them. But a suspended sentence would send a message to other policemen that they can torture people and won't be punished for it."

The defendants, Somov and Kosterin, and their lawyers could not be reached for comment. Kosterin has since retired from the police force, while Somov is still employed with the Leninsky District police precinct in Nizhny Novgorod, said Alexander Gorbatov, spokesman for the Nizhny Novgorod regional branch of the Interior Ministry. Since Mikheyev's suicide attempt, Somov has been promoted to head the precinct department that investigates serious crimes.

Gorbatov declined to comment on the case.

Alexander Moiseyev, spokesman for the Nizhny Novgorod region prosecutor's office, also declined to comment, citing the "scandalous" nature of the case.

Kalyapin and Mikheyev believe that regional prosecutors were shamed into finally bringing the torture case to trial by the European Court of Human Rights' announcement in December that it would hear Mikheyev's case this year.

"The Russian government and prosecutors realized that it would be a complete embarrassment if the torture was proven in Strasbourg and the suspects were acquitted in Russia after a seven-year wait," Kalyapin said.

Mikheyev believes there is more than enough evidence to convict Somov and Kosterin, although he is wary of making any predictions. Anything less than convictions and prison time will be appealed by his lawyers, he said.

Mikheyev said he hoped a guilty verdict would make police officers reconsider their practices.

The Demos Research Center for Civil Society, however, cautioned that societal attitudes would have to change first.

The common attitude in Russian society is that torture is wrong only if the victim is innocent, Shepeleva said.

"When I talk to journalists about torture cases, the first thing they ask me is whether the victim is guilty," Shepeleva said.

"I ask them why it's important, and they tell me that if he's guilty, the readers won't get it."