Russia’s FSB given carte blanche to silence allegations of torture
A court in Russia has created a very dangerous precedent by ordering a newspaper to remove an article reporting allegations of torture by the FSB [security service]. The Basmanny court in Moscow appears to have based its 26 April ruling solely on the fact that the FSB felt their reputation had been damaged, not on hard evidence that the allegations were false and that Novaya Gazeta had known this to be the case. With virtually no allegations made by Ukrainian political prisoners of FSB torture having ever been properly investigated, the prospect of newspapers being prevented from even reporting such accusations is terrifying.
The FSB’s law suit was over two publications on Novaya Gazeta. The first was an article by Ivan Zhilin entitled “Khusnidin must admit to blowing up the apartment block” from 25 January 2019. The apartment block in question was in Magnitogorsk and collapsed in the early hours of 31 December 2018, apparently as the result of an explosion, killing a number of people and leaving many others homeless. Anyone following this tragedy in the Russian-language media will recall that there were rumours from the outset that it had been a terrorist attack and that the FSB had seized people, claiming them to be involved.
On 25 January, Zhilin reported that the Russian media, citing human rights activist Bakhrom Khamroev, had informed that Khusdin Zainabidinov had been detained over the explosion and that he was being held in SIZO [remand prison] No. 2, where the prosecutor was considering whether to extradite him to Kyrgyzstan, where he was suspected of involvement in inter-ethnic confrontations in 2010.
Zhilin wrote that he had spoken with Zainabidinov’s wife, Khalima, who had confirmed that there had been demands that her husband admit to being behind the explosion. She recounts his words about how he was set upon by masked men, but also about her shock when she saw his appearance after about 24 hours in custody. He told her that he had been beaten by the FSB, not by the police, and that the men who had taken part in the beating told him that he had to confess to blowing up the apartment block. He had been beaten again when they showed him photos and he said that he didn’t know the people. His wife added that this was the truth, that they had only arrived from the Sverdlovsk oblast two weeks earlier and didn’t know anybody. Zainabidinov told her they had also used electric shocks three times. After some time, they passed him over to the police. No charges were ever laid, and the official version about the apartment block is that this was a gas explosion.
Zhilin then asked to speak with her brother-in-law, who had first managed to find out where Zainabidinov was being held, and heard the same story.
Zhilin then turned to the Chelyabinsk oblast FSB who said that they did not know why he had been detained, and refused to give any more comments. He spoke also with the police, and tried to contact the prosecutor’s office to find out about plans to extradite Zainabidinov. He also contacted Khamroev, who had originally reported the allegations and learned from him that he was planning to make an urgent request to the European Court of Human Rights to apply Rule 39 so that Zainabidinov was not handed over to Kyrgyzstan.
Zhilin’s journalist investigation was thus based on different sources and he had endeavoured to obtain comments from all enforcement agencies involved. He then asked some legitimate questions about where that leaves the official version, and why Zainabidinov would make up such allegations if they were not true. He added, and had posted a photo, showing Zainabidinov looking as though he had received a beating.
On 29 January, Zhilin wrote again on the subject, in a short piece entitled ‘The prosecutor: the migrant who alleged torture in the Magnitogorsk police station “has retracted his words”. Yet he spoke of torture by the FSB’.
The prosecutor claimed that Zainabidinov had “categorically denied that he had been subjected to force by the police, and that his wife had also retracted her words. He acknowledged that there were ‘abrasions’ on Zainabidinov’s body, and that a check had been ordered from the Investigative Committee.
In view of the prosecutor’s claim, Zhilin spoke again with Zainabidinov’s wife who said that she not only had not retracted her words, but had not even spoken with anybody from the prosecutor’s office. She reiterated that her husband had spoken of torture, but not by the police, but by the FSB.
It is not clear why the FSB chose to file a suit – and with a court in Moscow – specifically over these allegations, since the FSB’s methods are notorious and there are often allegations of torture. It is quite possible that the issue was specifically the Magnitogorsk explosion. It is not clear whether this was because the explosion was a terrorist attack and they needed a ‘culprit’, or they thought it was terrorist and needed /a culprit’ before deciding it wasn’t, or whether they were themselves to some degree behind it.
It is also possible, and very alarming, that they had to start somewhere and that the plan is to ultimately silence any allegations of torture.
Novaya has said it will be appealing, with the articles still accessible on their site. The paper points to several worrying precedents, although the most dangerous is surely the first, namely that, instead of carrying out a check into allegations of torture, the FSB, as an entity, has lodged a civil defamation suit, claiming that this is a slur against the FSB.
“Now the entire police force, the penitentiary service, the Ministry of Health, or some kindergarten, can take offence at journalists”.
There are compelling grounds for believing that the FSB have used torture against a large number of Ukrainian political prisoners, as well as several Crimean Tatars detained in occupied Crimea.
‘Courts’ in Russia or occupied Crimea have proven willing to ignore retractions of ‘confessions’ given under duress, even where, in the case of Mykola Karpyuk and Stanislav Klykh, the men had ‘confessed’ to crimes that would have been heinous, had they ever taken place. The ‘court’ in Chechnya knew that the men had ‘confessed’ to monstrous, but fictitious, crimes during a period when they had been held incommunicado and now alleged torture, yet never ordered a proper investigation. Yevhen Panov’s allegations of torture by the FSB in occupied Crimea were never investigated, and he was held in conditions, tantamount to torture, and placed under huge pressure to give up his lawyer and to reinstate the ‘confession’ that he had retracted under torture. There has never been any proper investigation into the consistent allegations made by Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov of torture, even though Gennady Afanasyev, one of the two men whose testimony was the only ‘evidence’ in the case stated in court, at great risk to himself, that he had given false testimony against Sentsov under torture. It should be noted that Sentsov recounted as soon as he was able to see a lawyer that he had been threatened with a 20-year sentence if he did not provide the testimony demanded of him. This was what he received. There is a clear pattern among all Ukrainian political prisoners that those who hold out and refuse to provide ‘confessions’ get the harshest sentences.
With neither the Russian prosecutor, nor courts, ever paying heed to allegations and evidence of torture, it is vital that at least journalists make the allegations known. The ruling by Basmanny Court ‘judge’ Galina Grafova on 26 April, finding that the allegations of torture, ‘retracted’ by a man with no access to an independent lawyer, were untrue and ‘defamatory’ of the FSB, seems a frightening step tw are