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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Elite Police Unit Tries to Repair Negative Image

MTTwo OMON special operations officers demonstrating hand-to-hand combat techniques for the media on Thursday.
SHCHYOLKOVO-7, Moscow Region -- It wasn't quite Hollywood, but Thursday's demonstration by the Interior Ministry's special operations division offered plenty of action.

The spectacle of hand-to-hand combat, deafening explosions and pulsating dance music was intended to counter negative coverage of the ministry's elite police force, known as OMON, in the media.

"We hope after all this that the media will cover the OMON more objectively," Deputy Interior Minister Mikhail Sukhodolsky told some 100 reporters, whom the ministry had bused in from Moscow for the event.

Shchyolkovo-7 is home to the elite Zubr, or Bison, police special operations unit.

In one training exercise, masked officers abseiled headfirst down a four-story building, threw smoke grenades into a second-story window and then swung into the buildings through open windows, firing handguns and shouting.

In another exercise, some 15 officers formed a circle, then two-by-two stepped forward and squared off in a display of hand-to-hand combat. As the music blared, they demonstrated how to repel a knife-wielding attacker; how to disarm, flip and shoot an attacker in the head with his own rifle; and how to evade a kick to the head with a back-flip.

A third exercise was designed to highlight the obedience of OMON police dogs: a German Shepherd resisted the urge to attack a cat that was placed in front of it.

In its appeal to the media, the Interior Ministry appeared to acknowledge that the OMON's reputation had been dented after its heavy-handed response to a number of opposition rallies earlier this year.

Riot police beat and detained hundreds of people, including activists and journalists, in a series of so-called Dissenters' Marches in St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod and Moscow.

In Moscow, elderly women were pushed to the ground by officers using large shields. Riot police also appeared to detain people at random.

Michael Eckels / MT
OMON police officers demonstrating combat techniques during a media event near Moscow meant to repair their tarnished image Thursday.
"OMON's work is positive," Sukhodolsky said. "They risk their lives trying to save the lives of others."

Special operations officers and police patrolmen are most likely to resort to violence, said Igor Kalyapin, head of the Nizhny Novgorod-based Committee Against Torture, which published a report on the subject in March.

Kalyapin said that was because OMON officers only have to deal with suspects once.

"They are involved in encounters, often violent ones, and then they don't have to deal with those people again," Kalyapin said. This diminishes their sense of responsibility for their actions, he said.

Yakov Gilinsky, a professor of criminology at the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said senior police officials viewed OMON violence as normal and took no action to prevent such behavior, fearing that this could reduce their effectiveness.

Denis Bilunov, a Dissenters' March organizer, said OMON police should not be held personally accountable for their excesses.

"They're just taking orders from the Interior Ministry," said Bilunov, the executive director of Garry Kasparov's United Civil Front. "But then everybody knows the Interior Ministry is also just taking orders."

Bilunov said regular police should be used to maintain order and special operations units should only be deployed in an emergency.

"It is a fantastic waste of government funds," he said.

Formed in 1988, the OMON special operations division consists of some 20,000 officers serving in 121 units.

Sukhodolsky said that in 2006, OMON officers had prevented more than 12,000 crimes and detained "more than 13,000 criminals."

It was not clear whether he was referring to suspects or people that had been convicted by a court.

Thirty-eight OMON officers died on duty in 2006, Sukhodolsky said.

OMON also freed 181 hostages, seized 11,800 weapons and stopped 250 organized attempts to disrupt the peace, Sukhodolsky said.