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Analysis & Opinion
14.02.11 Policing The State
By Svetlana Kononova

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has officially signed the new law “On Police,” which will take effect on March 1. The law had previously been approved by the Russian State Duma. Skeptics say that the new law simply renames the “militsia” into the “police” without actually reforming the law enforcement agencies, which have a very bad reputation in the country. Meanwhile, human rights activists fear that the new law might give the police force even more powers to abuse.

The idea behind the new law was to conduct wide-ranging reforms and improve the militsia’s image. As of late most Russians don’t trust the militsia. Data from different public opinion polls shows that some 50 to 90 percent of respondents are afraid of law enforcement officers, and try to avoid any contact with them. The police reform is meant to tone down the violence and corruption in the law enforcement system.

The text of the new law was posted on the Internet for public discussion before the Russian Parliament approved it. People left more than 30,000 comments and suggestions, and some of these ideas were taken into account when the amendments to the federal law “On Police” were made.

So what exactly will the new law change in the militsia? Not only will the force be renamed into the “police,” but 20 percent of its staff will also be cut by January 2012. All officers will have to pass some reassessment tests in order to become policemen. But most importantly, the new law provides many details on the rules of making an arrest, such as giving the detained the right to call relatives or a lawyer. It also describes how and under what circumstances police officers are allowed to enter a home or flat. Moreover, there is a special clause in the law that gives the police the power to collect information on 23 different social groups, including car owners, foreigners living in Russia, weapon owners and victims of crime to be stored in databases.

The articles on the use of force, weapons and special equipment such as handcuffs and batons are the most controversial. For example, according to the new law policemen have the right to shoot at “a person who puts up armed resistance” and “a person who refuses to lay down arms, ammunition, explosives, radioactive and poisonous substances.” These amendments are meant to prevent future terrorist attacks.

Meanwhile, human rights activists believe that implementing the law “On Police” is not in society’s interest. “The basic principles of police work – monitoring the public’s activities and the citizens’ participation in solving law-enforcement issues, as well as how police work will be assessed – aren’t covered in this law. Moreover, the approved text of the law ‘On Police’ contains fewer guarantees that the rights of the people will be observed, and allows the police to easily resort to excessive use of force. It lists reasons why the police can visit an organization or check documents, call people in for questioning and ask them for personal information or bank account details,” the Working Group of Human Rights Organizations on the progress of police reform said in a statement.

Natalya Taubina, the director of the Public Verdict Foundation, an NGO that offers legal assistance to victims of human rights abuse by law enforcement agents in Russia, said that the law “On Police” only established three types of public control over law enforcement activities – by the Public Chamber, by social councils of law enforcement agencies and by public supervising committees. “In practice, these forms of public control don’t always work effectively,” Taubina said. “There are many other ways to monitor the police, as international experience shows. For example, parliamentary committees or ombudsmen, police complaints commissions, telephone hotlines for everyone who wants to report abuse by the police, ‘open days’ and volunteering work at police stations. However, by including a specific list of organizations that are empowered to control the police, the law cancels any attempts to develop the public control institution.”

Human rights activists also criticized other clauses of the law. Firstly, the new law does not describe the structure of the police. Secondly, there is no clear requirement to monitor public opinion and take it into account when assessing the work of the police. “Now it is not clear how to do that. It would be more logical to oblige the police to conduct public opinion research, to announce such surveys, to post questionnaires and the results of the polls on official Web sites. But now assessing the work of the police is not up to the public or the mass media,” Taubina said.

The third controversial issue is the list of organizations where abuses by members of the police force may be appealed. “This list is final and it does not include the main organization that investigates crimes committed by officials – the Investigation Committee of the Russian Federation. It is very important because this committee investigates tortures and cases of cruel punishment on behalf of the police,” Taubina said.

In 2010 and the beginning of 2011, the Public Verdict Foundation received more than one hundred appeals from people whose rights were violated by the militsia. In most cases, the victims complained of torture, cruel treatment, illegal detention and the falsifying of documents and protocols by officers. “The number of cases that we know is only the tip of the iceberg. Many victims of militsia abuse do not complain. They are afraid for themselves and for their relatives, they don’t know what to do and where to turn, they don’t believe that they can protect their rights,” Taubina said. In 2010 and 2011, lawyers from the Public Verdict Foundation won 12 cases: officers were found guilty of tortures and killings. Agents who committed crimes were sent to prison for three to 12 years.

Opposition politicians criticize the law “On Police” as well. “I don’t believe in successful militsia reform initiated by president Medvedev,” said Ilya Yashin, one of the leaders of the Solidarity opposition movement, who recently sued the militsia for detaining him at a sanctioned demonstration on New Year's Eve. “The reform should achieve the main task – to impose public control on the police. This is the only way to regain the trust of the people in law enforcement agencies. But in fact the proposed remedies give the policemen more power but don’t provide for any real public control,” he added.

Last year Yashin and his colleague Vladimir Milov proposed an alternative project of police reform. The main ideas were replacing the existing “vertical” structure of the militsia with local and municipal police stations, increasing public control on police and cutting the staff from 1,200,000 to 500,000 to 700,000 officers.

Most Russians are also skeptical of the reform. A recent poll conducted by the All-Russian Public Opinion Center (VTsIOM) found that only 16 percent of respondents believe the new law will improve the work of the police. Forty-nine percent of respondents said the law will change nothing.

Especially noteworthy is what people inside the militia think about the reform. “There is only one way to improve the militsia. They [the government] should gather all the militiamen in the country, including me, and send them to some closed town surrounded with a high fence. They should give us drinks, food, backgammon and chess. Bit by bit we will die of old age. At the same time, they should hire new people and give them good salaries,” joked an officer who goes by the nickname of Tom_soier in his blog. “Most importantly, they shouldn’t let the new policemen come into contact with the old militiamen. Otherwise, we will teach them bad things. Only then will the reform be successful. But now we will continue taking bribes regardless of our salaries. Because we are used to doing it,” he wrote.
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