Vienna, August 1 – For many Russians abused by their own government, the European Court of Human Rights is their venue of last resort. But despite victories by some appellants and their receipt of cash awards from Moscow as ordered by that court, most victims face serious problems in advancing their cases and almost none of the official perpetrators are ever punished.
That is the bitter-sweet message of an extensive article in the current issue of Moscow’s “Novaya gazeta” describing what happened in the case of Aleksei Mikheyev, who was awarded and received 250,000 euros (380,000 U.S. dollars) for the torture he received at the hands of Russian militia that left him an invalid (www.novayagazeta.ru/data/2008/55/00.html).
In September 1998, “Novaya’s” Natalya Chernova writes, Mikheyev’s case began when Russian police behaved in such a way that he jumped the window of a detention center -- where the 22-year-old Russian was being held on charges of rape and murder, crimes which had not occurred – and broke his back in the process.
Seven years later, after Russian prosecutors had attempted to block his appeals 26 times, Mikheyev was awarded 250,000 euros in compensation, “a large one without precedent in the history of the decisions of the Strasbourg body concerning Russia.” And then two years after that, he received the entire sum from the Russian finance ministry.
While no one can be happy that the process took as long as it did and while many will fault Russian prosecutors for standing in the way of what is obviously an open-and-shut case of police torture, many will be inclined to say that the system worked and that “all’s well that ends well.”
The more detailed facts of the case, as Chernova outlines them, suggest that such an upbeat assessment is wrong.
The case began when a girl Mikheyev had taken on a date did not return home. The militia decided he must have raped and killed her. They hauled him in for questioning, beat him with sticks, and then said they would put him in prison and inform other prisoners that he had raped a child unless he confessed.
But the case had a fundamental defect: the “body” of the victim never turned up. Instead, on the very day that Mikheyev was driven to despair and jumped out of the window, the girl he had been accused of raping and murdering returned home quite alive and completely unhurt. In most cases, that would have been the end of it, but in this one, two things happened.
On the one hand, Mikheyev’s mother three years after the event appealed to the Nizhniy Novgorod Human Rights Society for Help because she lacked the resources to take care of her son, a step that led the Russian Committee Against Torture to take up his case as its first major legal effort, setting an important precedent in the process.
Indeed, when the committee got involved, prosecutors told its members that they had no chance of success. ”Your case will never reach the court,” they told the group, “because Mikheyev is accusing the oblast’s deputy prosecutor of torture,” something that other Russian prosecutors will react extremely negatively to.
And on the other, his case was so egregious that it attracted the attention of Norwegian television commentator Hans Stenfield, whose reporting about Mikheyev’s situation and conflicts with the militia and prosecutors helped this victim overcome the efforts of the latter to prevent him from exercising his legal rights.
But despite the opposition of Russian officials at all levels, Mikheyev was able to press his case forward, and when the European Court told Moscow in 2004 that it had taken up the case and found for the appellant, Russian officials arranged for the two investigators involved were sentenced to four years imprisonment for what they had done to Mikheyev.
Mikheyev and his mother have deposited the funds in a savings bank in order to ensure that he will be cared for into the future, but that has meant that he still does not have the things he needs to live as good a life as possible under the circumstances – doors wide enough for his wheelchair, orthopedic braces, and so on.
Despite this case, however, most Russian police investigators and prosecutors continue to feel themselves beyond the power of even the Strasbourg court to reach. The Committee Against Torture is now overwhelmed with work – it has taken up 201 such cases, and officials have learned to put bars on the interrogation rooms lest someone jump out.
As Chernova concludes, “the history of Aleksei Mikheyev despite its apparent uniqueness is in fact completely typical. And that is its quiet horror. [Such horror] is especially destructive because it does not bring a catharsis even when everything is concluded and justice [appears] to have triumphed.”