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Confess or else: How torture shattered Russia's entire law enforcement system

On April 16th, a court in Tver arrested another suspect — number twelve, so far — in connection with the March 22 terrorist attack at Crocus City Hall outside of Moscow. Using this case as an example, lawyer Ivan Pavlov explains how the investigation has discredited itself literally from day one, rendering any search for justice meaningless. And the Crocus case is far from the only example of the Russian law enforcement using violence and torture against suspects, meaning that the system is unlikely to be capable of doing the necessary work to prevent the recurrence of such tragic events in the future. Instead, investigators seem content to obtain all of the necessary testimonies without actually doing the work necessary to find the real culprits and actual masterminds behind the attack.

“SBU Agent”

In March, Alexander Dimitrenko, a resident of the Voronezh region, was sentenced to 23 years in prison for multiple offenses under the Russian Criminal Code. These included treason (Article 275), preparing for sabotage (Articles 30 and 281), and illegal possession of explosives (Article 222.1). Dimitrenko was accused of planning an explosion on a railway line and providing information to the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) about Russian engineers dispatched to the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.

How did the FSB (Russian Federal Security Service) manage to crack this case? The answer is surprisingly straightforward: Dimitrenko was apprehended at his residence in May 2022, and during a recorded interrogation, he confessed that he had intended to travel to Ukraine to join the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU). A subsequent search of Dimitrenko’s home uncovered a Ukrainian passport and boxes used to store explosives, adding weight to the allegations against him.

However, a troubling detail emerged: to extract the desired confessions on camera, Dimitrenko was subjected to torture. Initially, he was suffocated with a plastic bag and then physically assaulted until he admitted to the accusations. The search, which took place without the presence of of any witnesses, lasted less than ten minutes and was conducted by plainclothes officers. They allegedly planted the passport and explosives among Dmitrenko’s possessions before theatrically discovering them. Following his arrest, Dimitrenko endured further beatings. When he refused to provide additional testimony against himself and reported the torture to his lawyer, he was assaulted again in an attempt to convince him to retract his statement.

First Dmitrienko was suffocated with a plastic bag and then simply beaten

When it comes to suspects accused of committing particularly serious crimes — such as terrorist acts or sabotage — many in society believe that torture may be justified. At the very least, the method is seen as a means to extract information that could save future victims, while others, driven by a sense of vengeance, support such state sanctioned violence due to a belief that detainees “deserve it.” However, in the case of Alexander Dimitrenko, neither of these justifications holds up to scrutiny — he had nothing to disclose about any crime, as none ever occurred or appeared to be on the brink of occurring, and an innocent man simply does not deserve such treatment.

But what about those who have actually committed such grave offenses? What if torture is applied to those who are almost certain to be saboteurs or terrorists? Are such methods of interrogation justified in such instances? And what sort of information do they help uncover for the investigators? The answers will disappoint supporters of state torture.

The Crocus City Hall terrorist attack

Let's examine a concrete example: the Crocus City Hall terrorist attack. As the world was made aware through the physical appearance of the suspects following their first few hours in Russian custody, the four men detained on the day after the attack were subjected to torture: they were zapped, beaten, and, in one case, a video showed interrogators cutting off a detainee’s ear and forcing him to eat it. Consequently, all four provided testimonies purporting to reveal who had hired them and for what sums. There's very little doubt about their involvement in the terrorist act: their appearance and attire matched that of the terrorists captured on video, and the car in which they were intercepted had indeed been leaving Crocus City Hall immediately after the attack occurred.

Does this mean that the security agents deserve credit for cracking the case? Not entirely, as there are nuances to consider here as well.

Firstly, I suggest you watch this interrogation footage — don't worry, it doesn't depict any brutalities; I've verified it. However, it does reveal something noteworthy: the detainees appear to be reciting from a script. They're not speaking spontaneously, but instead are literally reading word for word. Most likely, these “testimonies” were not authored by them.

Secondly, the testimonies themselves are nonsensical. According to the version the suspects recite, a Ukrainian handler had allegedly instructed them to travel to Ukraine following the attack. Upon arrival, they would receive one million Russian rubles. However, the forced confessions give no explanation as to what use the Russian currency would have been to them in Kyiv.

Another question involves how were the suspects were supposed to make their way across a militarized the border in a sedan during wartime. It is understandable that, if arrangements really had been made in advance, they they really could have been granted safe passage once they reached the Ukrainian side. But what about the Russian side? Were the Russian border guards and soldiers also bribed by Ukrainian agents? Or was the suspects’ small white Renault supposed to ram its way through tanks and armored personnel carriers?

And of course, one cannot help but chuckle at the name of the supposed handler — Saifullah, not exactly a typical Ukrainian name, and certainly not one common among SBU agents. Perhaps the man’s passport reads something like Saifullah ibn Timoshenko, or Saifullah al-Oleksandri.

Given all of the obvious fabrications, it would be an understatement to say that these “testimonies” have literally no value. Overzealous but utterly devoid of logical reasoning and writing skills, the Russian investigators, upon hearing Putin's statement to the effect that “Ukraine is to blame for everything,” scrambled to concoct the evidence for the crime the president had claimed was committed. But they failed to come up with plausible details. Under torture, the detainees said everything demanded of them on camera, but in the process, no useful information was obtained for the investigation. The torture was in vain — or at least, it was in vain if one assumes that the investigators actually had the aim of getting to the bottom of a plot that succeeded in killing 145 of their fellow citizens.

It would be an understatement to say that these “testimonies” have literally no value

Furthermore, the use of torture in this case undermines trust not only in these obviously false testimonies, but also in all other examples of “evidence” given to Russian investigators under similar circumstances. The fear of suffering without end is a sufficient motivator for a suspect to immediately confirm all the assumptions of the security officers, even blatantly false ones.

In other words, even if some in society believe that the detainees “deserve” it, torture is still unacceptable. This is not only about maintaining a sense of humanity or a desire to uphold Russian law (which explicitly prohibits torture), but also out of sheer practical necessity: a person under torture will say anything to make it stop. Such testimonies cannot be used to establish the truth in a case, nor to identify the real criminals. That's precisely why torture, which was once sanctioned by court order, has long been relegated to the past in all countries with a functioning judicial system.

The “Network” Case

It is worth recalling another terrorism-related investigation: the “Network” case. In October 2017, the FSB apprehended a group of anarchists and accused them of forming a terrorist community. Several detainees were subjected to electric shocks and beatings by law enforcement officers. As a result, they provided self-incriminating testimonies. Here's what Viktor Filinkov, a defendant who was given a seven year prison sentence, communicated to journalists last year:

“They asked me questions. If I didn't know the answer, they zapped me; if my answer didn't match their expectations, they zapped me; if I hesitated, they zapped me; if I forgot what they said, they zapped me. They gave me no breaks, just zaps and questions, zaps and answers, zaps and threats.”

A significant public campaign was launched in support of the defendants in the “Network” case, with many activists and public figures insisting on their innocence. And indeed, how can confessions be taken seriously if the person giving them was subjected to electric shocks?

However, shortly before the verdict in the case was read, new circumstances emerged: Alexey Poltavets, who had fled to Ukraine and was charged in absentia, told journalists from Meduza that he and his accomplices, Maxim Ivankin and Dmitry Pchelintsev, had been involved in a double murder. The murder was certainly not a fabrication or a ruse by law enforcement: the bodies were indeed found. The only question was who committed the crime. Maxim Ivankin admitted guilt and was sentenced to 24 years in prison. However, he later told journalists that he had also been forced to sign self-incriminating testimonies under torture.

This raises the question: how should we regard such statements? If we had never doubted the legality of the actions of the security forces, we might assume that Ivankin simply fabricated the story of torture in an attempt to avoid punishment. But the defendants in the “Network” case had been indeed tortured.

Torture normalized

Anarchist mathematician Azat Miftakhov, who was recently sentenced in a fabricated case, was also beaten and tortured with an electric screwdriver. Ruslan Kostylenkov, who in 2018 was accused of attempting to lead an extremist coup d’etat attempt as part of the “Novo Velichie” group, was beaten and raped with a kitchen mallet, after which he was coerced to confess on camera that he and his student friends were plotting to overthrow the Russian government. And thousands of other people were also tortured: detainees, suspects, and even witnesses.

Torture in the Russian law enforcement system is so commonplace that Ivankin's statements should at the very least be taken seriously. And his example vividly illustrates the other half of the problem, which we partially touched upon when discussing the Crocus City Hall case: torture not only leads to the punishment of the innocent, it also enables true criminals to evade accountability. If Ivankin was indeed coerced into confessing, it means that someone else was the murderer. Perhaps it was one of the other defendants in the case, or perhaps it was an entirely different individual who is now freely walking the streets. But we have no means to distinguish the innocent from the guilty anymore due to the fact that trust in the actions of the investigators in this case has been undermined.

Torture not only leads to the punishment of the innocent but also enables true criminals to evade accountability

Due to the actions of Russian investigators, we are now unable to uncover the true masterminds behind the Crocus terrorist attack. A false narrative has been set, and law enforcement agencies are bound to stick to it in an attempt to at least maintain their image and that of their leadership. Under the circumstances, there is likely to be no genuine investigation or pursuit of the actual perpetrators and organizers of the attack. And even if such an effort were made, any further testimonies from the detainees would be tainted by the fact that they were obtained through brutal methods like cutting off their ears — a fact that can never be undone or erased.

In other words, the use of torture not only discredits the work of law enforcement officers in this specific case — due to its systematic nature, physical abuse of detainees casts a pall over all of their work. Even when investigating real crimes, and even when there are genuine grounds to believe that a suspect committed heinous acts, the resort to torture still undermines the pursuit of justice.

Just as a single broken gear can cause an entire clock to display the wrong time, rendering the functionality of all the other gears irrelevant, the use of torture taints the entire investigative process, no matter how diligently other aspects may have been conducted. The Russian legal system is a broken clock.

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