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YouTube police accuser arrested for fraud

Lawyer claims Russian authorities were looking for an excuse to charge Alexei Dymovsky ever since his online allegations against his bosses.

MOSCOW // Russian authorities have arrested a police whistle-blower who became an internet sensation with a YouTube video accusing his bosses of abuses, triggering a renewed debate about rampant corruption in Russia's police force.

Allies of former police major Alexei Dymovsky, who alleged in the video that his bosses forced him to fabricate cases, say his arrest on fraud charges on Friday in the Black Sea port city of Novorossiisk was retribution for his démarche. A Novorossiisk court ordered Mr Dymovsky to be arrested on Friday on charges of abusing his status as a police officer to commit fraud, said Svetlana Petrenko, a spokeswoman for the investigative committee of the Russian prosecutor general's office. If tried and convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison.

Mr Dymovsky is suspected of embezzling about US$800 (Dh3,000) earmarked for his police operations, though he maintains he properly documented his expenses. Russian police earn meagre wages and often complain that they are forced to spend their own money on work supplies and equipment. The court ruled that Mr Dymovsky should be placed under arrest because he had been threatening investigators in the fraud case - a charge he denies.

His lawyer, rights activist Vadim Karastelev, said in a telephone interview yesterday he believes authorities had been looking for an excuse to lock up Mr Dymovsky ever since he posted the videotaped allegations on his personal website in November. "We had been prepared for this from the very beginning," Mr Karastelev said. In his emotional video plea, which received more than one million hits on YouTube after it was reposted there, Mr Dymovsky appealed to Vladimir Putin, Russia's powerful prime minister, and said his superiors were forcing him to work excessively long hours and fabricate criminal cases to boost clearance rates - the basis for promotions and pay rises.

Public antipathy towards police in Russia runs deep, with 40 per cent of Russians saying they do not trust their police force and 28 per cent saying they are actually afraid of police officers, according to a December 2008 poll by the respected Moscow-based Levada Centre polling agency. Mr Dymovsky's video came at a particularly difficult time for Russia's interior ministry, which was scrambling to assuage public outcry over a spate of police shootings that left several civilians and fellow police officers dead.

Likewise, his arrest has coincided with another case of deadly police brutality that has resulted in the sacking of a senior police official and has given new impetus for major reforms. Konstantin Popov, a 47-year-old journalist in the Siberian city of Tomsk, died on Wednesday after being viciously beaten by a police officer while in custody at a local drunk tank, prosecutors said. The policeman, 26-year-old Alexander Mitayev, has been arrested and preliminarily charged with aggravated assault, a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison, although new charges could be introduced pending conclusions from the autopsy.

Acting on orders from the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, Rashid Nurgaliyev, the embattled Russian interior minister, fired the Tomsk region's top police official in the wake of the tragedy, state news agencies reported. Several proposals to reform Russia's police force have been bandied about by senior officials in recent weeks - including, in an apparent rebranding suggestion, changing the name of the force from "militsia" to "politsia".

Many senior officials and even high-ranking police officers concede that the system is so broken and the police force so corrupted as to make such cosmetic proposals laughable. Significantly higher wages are needed to remove the motivation for policemen to supplement their incomes with graft, while the system of rewards and promotions based on clearance-rate statistics must be ended, they say. The manipulation of clearance rates can involve fabrication of criminal cases by police officers or refusals to open criminal investigations into hard-to-solve crimes that would hurt an officer's statistics, thus decreasing his chances for a promotion.

Precisely this practice was one of Mr Dymovsky's key complaints in his video plea to Mr Putin, and Mr Nurgaliyev appears to be sensing pressure to scrap the current performance evaluation system. A day after the death of Popov, the Tomsk journalist, Mr Nurgaliyev announced that he had signed an order revamping criteria for officers' performance reviews and moving away from the "notorious" system of evaluations focused on an officer's solved crimes rate.

The text has not yet been released to the public, though citing a copy of the document, the respected Russian dailies Kommersant and Vedomosti reported on Friday that Mr Nurgaliyev had left performance reviews based on clearance rates largely intact. cschreck@thenational.ae