Thursday, 11 March 2010

Moscow’s road rage boils over

The public outcry against the actions of traffic police in two recent controversial incidents has prompted President Dmitry Medvedev to order an investigation and put the already-beleaguered Interior Ministry on the defensive once again.

On Tuesday, Medvedev ordered Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev to investigate the Moscow car accident last month involving a Lukoil vice-president that killed two women. And on Thursday, Nurgaliyev apologised over another incident, in which several drivers were forced by a traffic cop to form a "human shield".

In the Feb. 25 accident, renowned gynaecologist Vera Sidelnikova, 72, and her daughter-in-law, Olga Alexandrina, 36, also a doctor, were killed when their Citroen collided on Leninsky Prospekt with a Mercedes carrying Lukoil's security chief, Anatoly Barkov.

Traffic police claimed that the women's Citroen had swerved into oncoming traffic on the opposite side of the highway. Whose car crossed the central reservation was not shown on closed circuit television footage released by traffic police, although the car carrying the two women was close to it. When the crash happened, the cars were obscured by a billboard.

There are witnesses, however, who say the oil executive's car pulled out into oncoming traffic to avoid a traffic jam. The relatives of the doctors claim the police delayed opening an investigation for two days, thus denying them access to key evidence.

The incident was taken up by bloggers supporting the women's relatives who asked for witnesses to come forward and called on the public to boycott the company's petrol stations.
Medvedev intervened after a group of prominent Moscow intellectuals sent an open letter to him. The letter, initiated by feminist Maria Arbatova, accused police of a biased investigation and using "double standards" on the roads for the rich and powerful on one hand, and the general public on the other.

A full investigation of the incident could take several months, experts said.

"If there will be a proper investigation, it will take no less than half a year or even more," said Leonid Olshansky, vice-president of the Russian Drivers Movement. "Since the Lukoil executive is said to be just a passenger, not him but his driver may be found guilty in the accident. For Lukoil, getting ... out of this story is more a matter of its reputation."

In another scandal surrounding the traffic police, public and media pressure has also played a key part in spurring high-ranking officials into action.

On Tuesday, a 29-year-old motorist, Stanislav Sutyagin, said in a YouTube video that he had been forced to become part of a "human shield" on the Moscow Ring Road by police, who ordered him and other motorists to block the road with their cars.

Police were trying to catch a petty criminal who had stolen a ladies handbag, but the impromptu road block failed to stop the man.

Sutyagin and 10 other drivers were stopped by a traffic patrol and asked to place his car at an angle. A few minutes later a silver Audi drove at high speed through the barricade, damaging two cars: Sutyagin's Mercedes and a Volga with a heavily pregnant woman inside, who was being taken to hospital to give birth.

Sutyagin said people were not even allowed to leave their cars, while the fugitive was rumoured to be armed.

The police cars sheltered behind the other motorists' cars failed to catch the criminal. The traffic patrol officers said that people would not be reimbursed for the damage since the suspect had not been caught.

Sutyagin's video spawned a rash of angry protests from Internet users, condemning the traffic police's actions.

The Interior Ministry has now taken action, sacking the traffic policeman in charge at the scene, while the Prosecutor General's Office has launched a criminal case into the incident.

On Thursday, Nurgaliyev sought to limit the fallout from the incident, saying that the Interior Ministry and the sacked police officer would pay for the damaged cars to be repaired.

The police's request "putting ordinary citizens' lives at risk was unlawful," said Olshansky, the drivers' activist. "In such cases, motorists should refuse to take part and ask to see the officer's identification documents."

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