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Russian police major shown no mercy for killings

A former major, was sentenced to life in prison by a Moscow court on Friday after a drunken shooting rampage.

MOSCOW // The sentencing of a former Russian police officer who went on a drunken shooting rampage at a Moscow supermarket last year, killing two and injuring several others, was seen as an unusually harsh but just decision in a case that outraged Russians and put enormous pressure on the Kremlin. Denis Yevsyukov, a former major, was sentenced to life in prison by a Moscow court on Friday. The shooting in April shocked a populace that has long felt under assault by its notoriously corrupt police force. Public pressure following the tragedy, along with a string of subsequent incidents of police abuse in recent months, forced the Kremlin to order police reforms that critics call long overdue.

The Moscow City Court convicted Yevsyukov of two counts of murder and 21 counts of attempted murder in the attack, which was captured by video surveillance cameras at the Island supermarket in southern Moscow. Yevsyukov had been celebrating his 32nd birthday at a Moscow restaurant with friends. After quarrelling with his wife, Yevsyukov - drunk and in uniform - caught an illegal cab, and shot the driver dead after. He then walked to a nearby supermarket, fired several shots into a group of young people standing outside, and continued his rampage inside the shopping centre.

The surveillance camera footage, parts of which have been broadcast repeatedly on Russian television, shows Yevsyukov shooting two people at point-blank range, one of them a female cashier who died of her wounds. He takes a female hostage but she eventually wrestles herself free, after which Yevsyukov staggers through the aisles looking for victims, at one point reloading his pistol. Yevsyukov admitted shooting the cashier dead, but said he only did so because of the irrefutability of the video evidence. He testified that he had no recollection of what happened after he left the restaurant and that, as the head of a Moscow police precinct with excellent career prospects, he had no motive to commit such a crime.

The panel of three-judges, however, found Yevsyukov guilty on every count except illegal possession of a weapon. The lead judge said the life sentence was based on the "distinct danger" that the former officer presents to society. It was an unusually harsh sentence, experts agreed. Life terms are rare in Russian jurisprudence, even for multiple murder. "I defended someone who was convicted for a double murder, and he was sentenced to just 15 years," said Sergei Nasonov, a Russian legal expert and law lecturer at Moscow State University. "But the public resonance of this case undoubtedly played a role in such a harsh sentence, and of course the fact that there were several wounded as well. I don't exclude, however, that the [Russian] Supreme Court could reduce the sentence on appeal."

Vladimir Pronin, who was Moscow police chief at the time of the shooting, testified that while questioning Yevsyukov immediately after his detention, the officer told him he expected to be sentenced to 25 years in prison, according to Russian media reports. Mr Pronin, who wielded much power in the Russian capital, was fired by Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, after Yevsyukov's rampage. The sentence came just one day after Mr Medvedev announced that he was taking personal control of reforms in the Russian interior ministry and that "a series of incidents" involving police abuses "eroded the authority" of the country's police force of more than one million.

Mr Medvedev said he had given the ministry's embattled chief, Rashid Nurgaliyev, one month to generate proposals to improve police recruitment efforts and weed out prospective officers with ethical and psychological shortcomings. Attracting honest, capable, psychologically stable personnel to Russia's police force has proven exceedingly difficult given officers' meagre wages and long hours. The images of Yevsyukov hunting down civilians have come to epitomise the degree to which the Russian police as an institution has been degraded. The lead judge in the Yevsyukov case even issued an unusual special comment in his verdict to Mr Nurgaliyev, telling the interior minister he must eliminate "the factors and conditions" that precipitated Yevsyukov's rampage.

Mr Medvedev has embarked on a plan to slash personnel in the interior ministry by 20 per cent as part of an effort to free resources for higher wages, thus mitigating the temptation for police officers to supplement their income with bribes and corruption. He announced the first step in this drive in Thursday's speech, saying staff at the ministry's head office would be reduced by almost half, about 10,000 employees.

Mr Medvedev also replaced two of Mr Nurgaliyev's deputies with officials from his own administration and dismissed 16 senior police officers in various regions. One of those fired was the top police official in the Siberian region of Tomsk, where a local journalist was beaten to death by a police officer in a cell for drunks. The president said he had submitted draft legislation to parliament that would stiffen sentences for police officers who are convicted of crimes.

According to a poll made public last week by the Levada Centre, a respected Moscow-based pollster, 67 per cent of Russians said their law enforcement agencies evoke more fear than trust. cschreck@thenational.ae