KAZAN, Russia (Reuters) - Albert Zagitov had barely set up his new fruit and vegetable stall at the bustling Volga market in the Russian city of Kazan when he was told by a stranger to pack up and go.
After he refused, he was taken to a police car and driven to a police station where he says four officers took turns to hit him in the head and chest and threatened to rape him.
“As soon as we sat in the car, they started behaving very cruelly, swearing at me and calling me names,” said Zagitov, a Russian born in the Tatarstan region of which Kazan is the capital.
“The threats were real. I was full of fear and in shock that this was happening,” he told Reuters, his words pouring out quickly as he recalled the events of last July.
He was freed six hours later with an aching head, battered ribs and a charge of petty hooliganism.
But looking back at the encounter, Zagitov, a 33-year-old father of one, can count himself lucky to have survived.
Last month Sergei Nazarov, an unemployed man of 52, was detained at the same police station on the same charge. The day after his arrest on March 9, Nazarov was taken to hospital with abdominal pains. He died less than 24 hours later.
Before slipping into a coma, he told relatives he had been beaten by four police officers and sodomised with a champagne bottle.
His death has caused outrage across Russia and sparked protests in Kazan, a more than 1,000-year-old city on the Volga River 750 km (470 miles) east of Moscow which prides itself on tolerance of its diverse ethnic population and many religions.
Police have charged five officers over the case, and investigators are re-opening previously “closed” cases where complaints were made, including Zagitov‘s.
Nazarov’s death has put the spotlight on police lawlessness and brutality as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin prepares to start a six-year term as president in May, increasing demands for him to carry out reforms to strengthen the rule of law that have been demanded during four months of anti-Putin protests.
Angered by Nazarov’s case, about 100 people chanted “shame on the police” at a protest on a recent Saturday in Kazan’s Freedom Square, where well-maintained buildings including the regional government’s headquarters look down on a statue of Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin.
“Once we learned about what had happened in the Kazan police station, we understood that it concerned all of us - in Moscow, in Krasnodar, in Chita and Sakhalin,” Lev Ponomaryov, a human-rights campaigner, told the protesters.
“Because if no one is punished, these crimes will happen in other places. Indeed they are happening.”
Pop music blared from a dark blue van parked nearby bearing the logo of Putin’s United Russia party, and about 20 members of a pro-Putin youth movement gathered on another part of the square, hoping to distract attention from the protest.
Relatives say Nazarov had committed no crime and did not know what the petty hooliganism charge was for although the police, who have denied mistreating him, said he had been accused of stealing a mobile phone.
The relatives have dismissed suggestions by the police that he was drunk and disorderly. Contacted by phone, Nazarov’s brother declined to be interviewed.
Kazan’s image for tolerance has been badly damaged. The city of more than 1 million, which was conquered by Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century, has long portrayed itself as an example of harmony between Muslims, Christians, Russians and Tatars.
The turquoise-tipped minarets of a new mosque and the 16th-century onion-domed cathedral inside Kazan’s white-walled Kremlin are meant to embody this mingling of cultures.
In the historic city centre, modish coffee bars and a gleaming shopping centre stand alongside mosques and churches, while the outskirts are dominated by Soviet-era high rise buildings and heavy traffic.
Kazan’s leaders like to trumpet its independence from Moscow although Putin won 83 percent of votes in the March 4 presidential election.
Yet the city felt the strong hand of Moscow when federal Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev fired the head of the city’s Dalny police station where Nazarov and Zagitov were taken into custody and accused officers there of betraying the force.
In addition to the five officers charged over Nazarov’s case, a federal investigative committee is examining 28 other complaints against the Kazan police. The allegations include reports of torture such as sexual abuse, beatings, electric shock treatment and forced confessions for invented offences.
Russia’s Public Chamber, an official body that analyses draft laws, is examining a book by the regional interior minister, Asgat Safarov, in which he is reported to advocate using the “most painful methods” to combat organised crime.
Nazarov’s death is seen by human rights activists as a test case of how far the Kremlin and government are prepared to go to carry out promises to wipe out abuses of power by the police.
“The issue of police torture has been huge in this country for many years now,” Tatiana Lokshina, deputy director of the Moscow office of New York-based Human Rights Watch, said.
Only the glare of publicity sets this case apart from many more across the country, rights activists say.
“This case has attracted so much attention because the level of brutality, the level of atrocity, is staggering,” Lokshina said.
“The problem has been there for a very long time. We want to make sure the official rhetoric, triggered by the nightmarish case in Kazan, results in concrete steps towards improving the current situation.”
Svetlana Kolyakanova recounted how her brother was “cruelly beaten” and tortured with electric shocks to his genitals, the palms of his hands and soles of his feet, after being arrested in April last year by Kazan police.
“After we talked to him he cried and told us he could not take any more. The whole day they had tortured him with electric shocks. He signed all the confessions they wanted him to sign.”
Irina Muratova, a lawyer representing local victims, said the police used such methods to achieve a 100 percent crime detection rate.
A Kazan policeman also told a Russian newspaper that the police used special methods to extract confessions.
“If we know that a person is guilty but we don’t have proof for the court - a gun, a body or other evidence - then harsher interrogation methods are allowed,” the officer, identified only as Yuri, told Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper in an interview.
The alleged ringleader of the abuse with bottles was a veteran of Russia’s war against separatists in the Chechnya region of southern Russia which had left him with psychological problems, said Pavel Chikov of human rights group Agora.
Other cases of sexual abuse against officers at the Dalny police station were long ignored, rights activists say.
Oskar Krylov, a 22-year old administrator, says he was sodomised with a champagne bottle and a pencil by Kazan police last October but his case was going nowhere before Nazarov died.
“I complained to the courts, but until Nazarov no one paid any attention,” he told Reuters.
Tatarstan’s investigative committee has long ignored people’s rights, Igor Vselov, a rights activist, said during the Kazan protest, where people gathered around a three-foot (metre) high box of complaints to underscore this point.
“The investigative committee of Tatarstan represents the interests of the government and big business,” he said.
The criticism is not only from the streets. Russia’s deputy prosecutor general, Sergei Zaitsev, accused Tatarstan’s investigators of “serious shortcomings” at a meeting with the region’s president and other senior officials on Monday.
His investigations had revealed 66 “hidden” crimes by police, mostly theft, he told the meeting. He said he had received 417 complaints from citizens, 65 involving violence.
Contacted for comment, a spokesman for Russia’s Interior Ministry said that an investigation was under way which would show “what (happened), and who (was involved) and how”.
He added that the Kazan courts were dealing with suspects, but declined to comment at greater length beyond Nurgaliyev’s public statements. The chief spokesperson for Tatarstan’s ministry of internal affairs could not immediately be reached, and a subordinate declined to comment.
MEDVEDEV‘S REFORM ATTEMPTS
Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s outgoing president, introduced a police law in 2010 that sought to tighten standards and weed out violent and corrupt officers.
But critics say the law did little more than change the name of the force from the Soviet-era “militsiya” to “politsiya” - militia to police.
“More than two years of reforms have not led to any qualitative changes,” said Natalia Taubina, director of the Public Verdict Foundation, an organisation that offers legal help to victims of human rights abuses by the police.
There have been a few notable cases of action being taken against the police. The police chief of St Petersburg, Russia’s second city, was fired this year after a 15-year-old detainee, Mikhail Leontyev, died in police custody.
But official figures show only 4,000 criminal cases were opened against police in 2010 although 125,000 complaints of violations were registered by Russia’s Interior Ministry.
Opposition leaders say demands for police reform are important for many Russians, and particularly those who took part in anti-Putin protests in Moscow that attracted tens of thousands of people between December and March.
Although Nazarov’s death has prompted protests in Kazan, Rashit Akhmetov, one of the protest organisers, said that official pressure had frightened people away. Students, he said, had been told by their university not to protest.
“But people sitting in their apartments, they don’t sympathise with the authorities. They sympathise with the people on the streets,” he said.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, has dismissed suggestions there will now be a police shake-up. Talk of new police reform was “absurd”, he told current affairs magazine Itogi.
“It is not worth the government rushing to begin a new reform without completing the last one,” he said.
But Putin should be careful, opposition groups say, because combating police brutality is one of the issues that could rally the disparate groups involved in the widespread protests sparked by alleged fraud in December’s parliamentary election.
“The potential of civil society has grown dramatically in the last few months,” Taubina said.
“Police reform - qualitative reforms, not cosmetic reforms - is one point on the agenda that could unite many of these movements that have formed in the past few months.”
Reporting by Jennifer Rankin, Editing by Timothy Heritage