Thursday, 4 February 2010

Russia’s whistle-blowers in peril

Blowing the whistle on corruption and malpractice inside the Russian police force can be a dicey matter.One officer who did - Olga Shvachko, the head of Moscow's Basmanny precinct inquest unit - emerged from the experience comparatively unscathed.
In late 2008, she filed an official complaint with her superiors when she discovered some 40 fabricated criminal cases. Yet instead of her complaint being investigated, she was disciplined and summarily evicted from her office, which was sealed up, according to the police trade union that took up her case.
Eventually, some months later, the department dropped its action against her, fearing a lawsuit. But when her belongings were returned, 50,000 roubles ($1,700) had gone missing from her office.
Shvachko's case is quite normal, said Mikhail Pashkin, chairman of the Moscow police trade union - except that the whistle-blowing officer more often than not ends up in jail.
"If an officer wants to live by the law, they try to get rid of him," said Pashkin. "Or if an Interior Ministry officer is facing someone who has more money than he does - then he will get prosecuted for bribe-taking."
"They jailed a [certain] officer for 11 years over $400 that they found in the corridor. He spent six years in prison," Pashkin said. "The problem was, he [started investigating] a furniture store that was [protected] by a different structure. He's a lawyer now, and a member of our union. We tried to defend him."
Pashkin describes these as "normal cases. We try to fight them, but it's useless."
The issue of police whistle-blowing came to light most spectacularly in November, when Major Alexei Dymovsky, from Novorossiisk, accused his superiors of corruption and falsifying evidence in a YouTube video that became an instant hit with Russian Internet users.
A month later, Dymovsky was himself under investigation - and last week he was arrested on fraud charges.For such officers, the result of airing your department's dirty laundry so publicly is normally jail, Pashkin said.
The Dymovsky case came after a series of scandals rocked the country's police and justice system last year. Most notably, in April, a police precinct chief, Denis Yesyukov, killed two people and wounded several others at a Moscow supermarket in a drunken rampage. In November, a lawyer for Hermitage Capital, Sergei Magnitsky, died in custody amid accusations of maltreatment in prison.
These and several other high-profile cases prompted President Dmitry Medvedev in late December to launch a wholesale reform of the country's police force and justice system - including a 20 per cent cut in the number of Interior Ministry officers by 2012.
The issue of whistle-blowing in Russia is complicated by it being linked irrevocably with Soviet-style informing on one's colleagues, friends or even family. The result then - the Gulag or worse - means that in the popular imagination the very idea of doing a public service by exposing wrongdoing remains stigmatised in the same way.
And as the phrase "whistle-blower" doesn't exist in any neutral or positive sense in the Russian language, it is hardly possible to monitor nationwide trends.
Anti-corruption activists interviewed for this article pointed to a simple rule of thumb: you'll have problems if you cross paths with corrupt interests. In law enforcement, it seems, that is a particularly difficult thing to avoid.
Natalya Taubina, director of Public Verdict, an NGO that helps victims of police abuse, told the story of a traffic cop who was hounded out of his job by his superiors simply because his immediate supervisor had a conflict with his own boss, who happened to be the first officer's uncle. As a result of the family feud, the officer was accused by his immediate supervisor of taking a choice cut of beef worth 1,900 rubles ($65) as a bribe, and fired from his post.
An activist who aided Dymovsky in setting up an anti-corruption movement, called White Ribbon, told of Grigory Chekalin, a former deputy prosecutor of the Chita region, who has been facing two criminal cases after he refused to fabricate a criminal case against two people he believed were innocent.
"He lives in Moscow and keeps a low profile now," said the activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "If he returns to Chita they'll take him down."
As part of President Medvedev's reform, Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev suggested that the police system of quotas for solving crimes might be abolished in the future, replaced instead with civilian feedback to motivate officers.
"In [assessing] the work of officers, we will try to depart from the system of quotas as much as possible," Nurgaliyev was quoted as telling the Association of Lawyers last month. "The chief criteria will be quality."
According to Nurgaliyev's order, which outlines a new assessment system but does not abolish quotas, police departments will be required to take public opinion into account when assessing their work.
But Pashkin, the police union leader, doubted things would change.
"Look at the decree. There's a clause that department heads can determine the factors themselves. He can tell his underlings to do whatever he wants them to do."
Asked why this was happening despite Medvedev's obvious political will for reform, he said, "The system is out of control. The bottom doesn't listen to the top. Medvedev says that bosses shouldn't fear discussion, shouldn't be afraid of meeting with their critics. We invited Moscow police chiefs to our conference, but no one came. They are afraid, and they have nothing to say. And they do not carry out the decrees of the president."
Kirill Kabanov, head of the National Anti-Corruption Committee, said that corrupt police officers would "punish severely... anyone who speaks out. They will find a way to prove that he is nobody."
Regarding Dymovsky, Interior Ministry officials and his supporters have very different versions of what his case is about.After his video came out on Nov. 6, the police officers he implicated in his complaint filed a lawsuit for slander.
Police officials say that Dymovsky was only trying to cover himself with his YouTube video. His superiors began looking into his record in May 2009, as he was rarely showing up to work, police Lieutenant-General Yury Draguntsov, head of the Interior Ministry's security department, told a news conference in December.
But Sergei Gubar, Dymovsky's lawyer, denied this. "All those checks started after his video. He is being prosecuted for carrying out the orders of his superiors. All operative work in the Interior Ministry is based on this principle."
Meanwhile, Dymovsky's alleged fraud "consisted of embezzling 23,000 roubles" ($800) over the course of several months, Dymovsky's lawyer, said by telephone.
For Pashkin, however, the Dymovsky case is merely part of a bigger picture. "Dymovsky did not say anything new. It's all happened before. We've been talking about this kind of stuff for the last 10 years. It's just that he found a new medium, a video."

No comments: