MOSCOW // It was 10 years ago this September that Alexei Mikheyev jumped from the third-storey window of a police precinct in the Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod, 400km east of Moscow. Then 21 years old, Mr Mikheyev had just confessed to raping and killing a woman; that same woman turned up a few days later alive and unharmed. He jumped, he said, because he was being tortured by police using electric shocks to confess to more unsolved slayings.
Mr Mikheyev landed on a parked motorcycle and has been paralysed ever since. Two police officers were convicted in 2005 of torturing him and sentenced to four years in prison, and in 2006 the European Court of Human Rights ordered the Russian government to pay him 250,000 (Dh1.45m) in compensation for violating his rights. Mr Mikheyev believes he could have avoided such a brutal fate if, as a detainee, he had been afforded the right many Russians are familiar with, but only from Hollywood films: the right to a phone call.
Under current Russian law, arresting authorities are required to notify a detainee's relatives that he has been arrested. But there is no provision guaranteeing a detained person's right to make his own phone call. Now, a group of MPs from the legislature of Russia's Altai region, 3,000km east of Moscow, have submitted a bill for consideration this fall in Russia's lower house of parliament that would secure this right.
"This has been a long time coming," Mr Mikheyev said. "I think it is a step in the right direction, assuming authorities would obey the law." The bill came as a response to several "scandalous cases" of alleged police brutality given wide coverage in the Russian press, said Daniil Bessarabov, an MP in the Altai regional parliament and one of the bill's co-authors. "The main goal is to make sure detainees can tell their loved ones that they are in custody, that they are in good health and that, for example, they need help from a lawyer," Mr Bessarabov said.
Arresting authorities often do not comply with the law requiring them to inform relatives of a detainee's whereabouts, Mr Bessarabov said. "Now a citizen should be able to make a call, and it should be recorded in the police record that this right was granted to him," he said. Human rights groups say police torture continues to be a serious problem in the Russian criminal justice system. "I can't say the situation is getting better, though it doesn't appear to be getting worse either," said Olga Sadovskaya, deputy head of the Committee Against Torture, a non-governmental organisation based in Nizhny Novgorod.
"We are getting more cases of people reporting incidents of torture, though this may be because people are becoming more active in defending their rights and reporting cases of abuse." Police often use methods of torture aimed at causing maximum pain and distress while leaving minimal traces of injury on a suspects body, human rights activists said. These include electric shocks and a technique known as slonik, or "little elephant", in which a suspect has a gas mask placed on his face while interrogators periodically cut off the air supply.
No official statistics are maintained on incidents of torture by law enforcement officers, meaning most available information comes from non-governmental organisations. If the bill ensuring detainees the right to make a phone call becomes law, "it could certainly improve the situation", Ms Sadovskaya said. "It's one thing if the authorities are making the phone call and just saying 'we have Ivan Ivanov in custody'. If the detainee is making the call, he could report any abuse he may have suffered." Such a call could provide evidence in a case of alleged police brutality, Ms Sadovskaya said. "I would only welcome [the law]," she said.
The bill will have to pass three readings in Russia's lower house of parliament and be approved by the upper house before being sent to the president to be signed into law. Mr Bessarabov said he was confident it would receive support from Russian MPs. Both Ms Sadovskaya and Mr Mikheyev say that while the bill is certainly positive, it can only be effective if authorities comply with the law. "It all depends whether our police enforce the law," Mr Mikheyev said. "They might just let some people make calls and deny the right to others."