Problems within Russian legislation concerning drug crimes are once again being discussed following the arrest of Meduza journalist Ivan Golunov, who had substances planted on his person.
Every year, about 90,000 people are convicted under drug-related laws and only 0.05 % of these cases end with an acquittal. At the same time, over the past five years, media outlets have only written about 100 police officers charged under suspicion of planting drugs.
Bumaga tells the story of three citizens of Saint Petersburg who tried to prove that drugs had been planted on them, showing why anti-drug legal procedures in Russia need to be updated.
The case of Evgeny Romanov. A young man with schizophrenia died in a pre-trial detention center after being accused of possessing drugs
In July 2015, three police officers named Rakhimov, Nikitin and Shchadilov from the Ministry of Internal Affairs for Saint Petersburg’s Kalininsky district patrolled Grazhdansky Prospekt. The case materials (available to Bumaga journalists) indicate that they noticed 25-year-old Yevgeny Romanov at house number 83 in an “inadequate” condition.
The officers’ testimony regarding the reasons why Romanov was detained differ. One said that Romanov “fell and got up,” “waving his arms…he tried to resist.” The second said that a passer-by complained about the young man. The third said that Romanov’s movements were “slowed down,” that he stood in a “strange pose” but “did not publicly disturb the peace.”
He was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 20. Romanov’s relatives say that shortly before being detained, his symptoms worsened. The psychiatrist observing the young man said that the “strange” pose was most likely due to a catatonic stupor, one of the side effects of treating schizophrenia with potent drugs. In this state, a person cannot move, has problems with speech and increases their muscle tone.
Romanov lived with his mother in Sosnovy Bor (Leningrad Region, 100 km away from downtown Saint Petersburg). The case file says that local police detained him more than once and took him to the hospital. And on Grazhdansky Prospekt, the police officers, deciding that Romanov was drunk, took him to the police station. According to them, they “poked through” his pockets but did not find anything illegal in them.
However, later at the police station (the 3rd department), police claimed to find a plastic bag with an unknown substance in the back pocket of Romanov’s pants. Further examination determined that it contained 0.51 grams of spice. Romanov was charged with possessing a large amount of drugs (Part 2 of Article 228 of the Criminal Code, with a sentence ranging from three to ten years in prison).
The medical examination found no traces of alcohol or drugs in Romanov’s body. Romanov did not admit guilt and during his interrogation he stated that the drugs had been planted on him. According to the case file, he spent about an hour and a half alone with the police at the police station. And the witness admitted that he left the room for a while.
A day after the detention, Romanov was arrested. His mother, Irina Sultanova, said that she brought documents confirming her son’s illness to the court session. She explained to investigator Vladislav Pavlenko that Romanov should not be sent to a pre-trial detention center because of his schizophrenia. According to her, the policeman asked her to wait for an invitation to a court session to provide the documents, but this never happened.
On the same day, July 11, the Kalininsky District Court sent Romanov to the Kresty pre-trial detention center. The court never received confirmation that the young man could not be detained for health reasons. Four months later, the young man died in his cell.
Romanov’s death is associated with a medical error: after the arrest, doctors supposedly had started forced medical treatment on Romanov for a psychotic “acute polymorphic disorder” without the necessary pre-examinations. According to the journal data of the medical unit, it was indicated that, in the first days after his arrest, Romanov had a clear mind but a month later he was “excited, aggressive.” After three months, in November, he “sat staring at one point” and on December 3 he “heard voices.” On December 4, Romanov fell into a coma and died the next day.
After his death, Romanov’s mother tried to obtain an acquittal for her son: Irina Sultanova claimed that the drugs had been planted. Lawyers from the “Zone of Rights” advocacy group, who represented the family’s interests in court, suggest that drugs could have been planted in the police car.
The defense pointed to differences in the detaining officer’s testimony and the opinion of Romanov’s consulting physician that people with severe schizophrenia do not use drugs because they do not get any satisfaction from them. Witnesses during the interrogation said that they signed the testimony text prepared by the police without arguing.
The Kalininsky District Court did not listen to the defense’s arguments and posthumously found Romanov guilty of drug possession. The case was halted due to his death.
Irina Sultanova was paid moral compensation due to the doctors’ medical error to the sum of 200,000 rubles. She asked for 3 million.
“It turned out that my son was used by the authorities to improve their statistics on drug cases,” the woman believes.
The human rights center “Zone of Rights” notes that the two policemen who participated in the detention of Yevgeny Romanov were detained on suspicion of fraud using their official position. How this case ended is unknown.
How many Russians are tried on drug charges and how many are acquitted
According to a report prepared by experts from the University of Lausanne, the law concerning punishment for drug trafficking is the most used in Russia. During his annual news conference in 2019, Vladimir Putin said that about 26 % of Russian prisoners were convicted on drug charges. According to official statistics, 90,000-100,000 people are convicted on drug charges each year.
Responsibility for drug crimes in Russia is described in articles 228 to 234.1 of the Criminal Code. These articles indicate punishments for the purchase, possession, sale, cultivation or manufacture of drugs as well as the illegal issuance of drug prescriptions, the organization of drug dens or urging someone towards drug use. The ban includes not only pure drugs, but also mixtures containing prohibited substances. The concentration practically does not matter.
In Russia, criminal liability occurs if the weight of the drug exceeds the range established by the government. Such crimes are punished by imprisonment for a term of three years (the minimum term for possession of a “significant” amount of drugs) to 15 years (the maximum penalty for possession of an “especially large” amount).
In 2018, only 29 people out of 90,876 convicted under drug-related articles of the Criminal Code were acquitted. Another 18 defendants’ cases were halted due to the absence of a crime or a body. This is about 0.05 % of the total number of final court decisions, says Aleksey Knorre, an employee of the Institute for Law Enforcement Problems, in a conversation with Bumaga. The fact of drug planting was proved only in a few cases.
From the beginning of 2013 to spring 2018, the Russian media wrote about 500 law enforcement officers who were suspected of various drug-related frauds. Such data was collected by the Institute of Law Enforcement Problems at European University. At the same time, only in 100 of these case were the police accused of planting drugs and criminal cases brought against them.
Knorre says that, in reality, there may be more cases of drug planting since not all cases are reported by the media. There are no official statistics: drug planting is not singled out as a separate article and is often regarded as abuse of power. Sometimes police officers are also accused of drug possession.
The case of Dmitry Kulichik. A police officer planted heroin on a man and demanded a bribe to drop the charges. The police officer managed to escape charges himself
In March 2014, 28-year-old engineer Dmitry Kulichik met Amir Datsiev, a detective from the criminal investigation department, at his front door on Engels Avenue. They knew each other as Kulichik had been registered due to drug use. During the interrogation, Dmitry recalled that the policeman twisted his arm, forced him to bend down and pick up a bundle from the asphalt. It contained 2.79 grams of heroin.
From the case materials (which are available to Bumaga journalists), it is indicated that Datsiev brought Kulichik to the 19th police department and there, in the presence of his colleagues, he took a bundle from Dmitry’s pocket. The policeman demanded that the young man confess to drug possession. According to Kulichik, Datsiev hit him on the head several times and tightened his handcuffs.
Then Datsiev himself entered into the inspection report Kulichik’s words about the circumstances of the drug purchase. During later interrogations, this falsification was confirmed by other policemen. According to them, witnesses who “often came to the department” were called by telephone by one of Datsiev’s colleagues.
Datsiev promised Kulichik his help with avoiding arrest for a bribe of 150,000 rubles.
Kulichik spent the next two days in a detention center under an administrative article on drug use (Article 6.9 of the Administrative Code). In parallel, a criminal case was launched concerning the illegal possession of drugs in large amounts (Part 2 of Article 228 of the Criminal Code).
Although Kulichik was only a suspect in the drug case, he was released from the department two days later. According to Kulichik, Datsiev then said that if there was no money, they would “find” drugs in especially large amounts on him. The policeman reduced the amount of the bribe to 120 thousand.
At home Dmitry tried to kill himself but was saved by his father. Doctors took Kulichik to the hospital and then sent him to a clinic for a month’s treatment.
Vitaly Cherkasov, Kulichik’s lawyer, told Bumaga that, upon learning of the suicide attempt, Datsiev quit and returned to his homeland in Dagestan. At the same time, Kulichik complained about extortion. Soon after, Datsiev was put on a wanted list and detained.
The case against the ex-policeman was launched under five articles: illegal acquisition and possession of drugs on a large scale (Article 228 of the Criminal Code), abuse of power with the use of violence and special means (Article 286 of the Criminal Code), attempted fraud using an official position (Article 30 of the Criminal Code and 159 of the Criminal Code), official forgery (Article 292 of the Criminal Code) and negligence (Article 293 of the Criminal Code). According to these articles, Datsiev could be imprisoned for up to 29 years.
Colleagues also testified against Datsiev. The assistant to the district police officer said that he saw how the detective planted heroin on Kulichik. The trainee police officer said that Datsiev forced him to fill out a report on the detention of Kulichik “under dictation.” He also said that the witness testimony was also taken from Datsiev’s words. After that, the former policeman confessed to extortion and planting drugs.
When the investigation was completed, the St. Petersburg prosecutor’s office requested documents from the Investigative Committee for verification. Three months later, when they were returned to the investigators, the articles on the most serious crimes disappeared from the case, according to Kulichik’s defender. The maximum punishment for the remaining articles was 5 years in prison.
Kulichik’s defense thought that supervisory authorities put pressure on the investigators. Kulichik’s relatives filed appeals demanding the return of the accusatory articles, and the Vyborgsky District Court even granted them. But later this was appealed by the prosecutor’s office.
Six months after Datsiev’s arrest, he was found guilty of attempted fraud and negligence and sentenced to one year and three months probation. Given the time spent in the pre-trial detention center, the former policeman was released in the courtroom.
Kulichik’s lawyer, Vitaly Cherkasov, tells Bumaga that the victim’s family, who had been trying to prove Datsiev’s guilt for more than a year, eventually agreed to accept an apology and moral compensation.
How drugs are seized in Russia and how plantings are explained
Kulichik was planted with 2.79 grams of heroin, which is 0.29 grams more than the amount required to initiate a case for possession of drugs in large quantities. According to the Institute for Law Enforcement Problems, heroin is one of the top three substances seized by police, along with marijuana and hashish.
The Institute for Law Enforcement Problems conducted a study of 535,000 cases in 2013-2014 (law enforcement agencies do not provide more recent statistics) and noticed that often the exact scale of drugs that is necessary to start a criminal case is confiscated from detainees in Russia. The experts concluded that this is indirect evidence of manipulation by law enforcement agencies.
In a conversation with Bumaga, lawyers connected the planting cases with the “cane system” in law enforcement agencies. This appeared in 2001, when the leadership of the Ministry of Internal Affairs issued an order to change assessment principles for employee performance. The main indicator then became not the number of registered crimes, but ones that are “revealed” and solved. Additionally, these numbers should grow.
The Institute for Problems of Law Enforcement agrees with the lawyers interviewed by Bumaga. Researchers believe that the cane system pushes the police to such provocations: for example, “test purchases” where police officers or their acquaintances buy drugs themselves and later detain the seller.
The leadership of the Ministry of Internal Affairs has several times announced the cancellation of the “cane system,” making changes to evaluation criteria for police work. But, as the researchers reported, these key points remain despite the new directive.
The case of Aleksey Shepelin. The Saint Petersburg resident was tortured to make him confess to possession of planted drugs
In April 2017, 27-year-old Aleksey Shepelin, a Lenta supermarket security inspector, was driving home from work with his friend Aleksey Shustov in his car. A friend called Shepelin and asked him to give a lift to his grandmother. At the meeting point, the car was surrounded by plainclothes policemen.
As Shepelin recalled during interrogation, the police officer hit him in the face and broke his glasses, fragments hit him in the eye. Then, according to the man, he was thrown to the ground, kicked, and his friend Shustov was beaten, including hitting his forehead on the hood of the car, and strangled.
The men were put into different cars and taken away without being told where. They only discovered the fact that they were detained by police when they were taken to the 70th police department. It turned out that a friend of Shepelin stated to the police that he “knows people who are involved in selling drugs.” He himself was detained the day before on suspicion of possessing prohibited substances.
In the police department, the men, according to their own words, were beaten again. Mediazona, citing the letter of accusation, wrote that Shepelin was beaten and also had a stun gun used against him in his right leg. The detainee’s lawyer confirmed to Bumaga that Shepelin had injuries. According to him, Shepelin “did not look like a man – he was beaten to a pulp.”
As the detainee himself stated during the interrogation, he was called unfamiliar names and was demanded to speak about drug dealers. When the man refused, the policeman supposedly put two pieces of hashish in his jacket, saying “I can put more.” Shepelin was also forced to admit that he and Shustov were drug dealers.
To get a confession, the police, as Shepelin recalled, put pressure on his injured eye and inserted a lit cigarette into his nostril. According to Shepelin, he was beaten until he signed a confession. Then he was charged with drug possession.
Shepelin was taken away from the department in an ambulance. He was diagnosed with a brain concussion, numerous livid spots and bruises, damage to the cornea of his eye and a nose burn. He spent a month in the hospital. And after being released, he complained about the police to the Investigative Committee.
Six operatives of the 70th department, Artem Morozov, Sergey Kotenko, Kirill Borodich, Alexander Ipatov, Mikhail Antonenko and Andrey Barashkov, were detained in September 2017, five months after Shepelin was beaten. They were also accused of attacking a bookmaker’s office.
The investigation lasted until July 2018. Only shortly before that, Shepelin was fully acquitted in the drug possession case, his lawyer told Bumaga.
At first, the police officers were accused of abuse of office, official forgery, illegal possession of weapons and drugs, and robbery. According to Shepelin’s lawyer, the prosecutor’s office, which had then requested the case for verification, dropped part of the charges.
Deputy head of the 70th department Morozov and operative Barashkov received four years in prison for abuse of office. Operative Ipatov received three years and two months in a penal colony for stealing a video recorder from a bookmaker’s office and was released in the courtroom in connection to time served in a pre-trial detention center. Policeman Kotenko received 3.5 years probation for falsifying an administrative protocol. Operatives Antonenko and Borodich were fully acquitted due to the lack of evidence of guilt and the absence of the event of a crime.
How drug laws might change
The human rights association “Team 29” believes that, for the purposes of blackmail or for improving statistics in solving crimes, drugs can be planted on any person. Groups at risk include the homeless, drug users and those suspected of other crimes with little evidence as well as activists, human rights defenders and politicians.
As lawyer Vladimir Shubutinsky, who often works with cases under Article 228, told Bumaga, police officers can carry prohibited substances and place them in a victim’s pocket during a search. According to Shubutinsky, investigators sometimes put together small bundles of drugs themselves and ask people “on the hook” with compromising information to provoke victims to “see what comes to the surface.”
Аccording to these rules, police officers must conduct detainee searches in the presence of attesting witnesses. However, lawyers interviewed by Bumaga say that in some cases, witnesses don’t pay attention to violations or sign protocols prepared by operatives without reading them. Sociologist Alexey Knorre says that witnesses may be former police officers or acquaintances of the officers.
An active discussion of the changes in Article 228 resumed after the case of Meduza correspondent Ivan Golunov. In June 2019, the journalist was detained, allegedly with drugs found on his person. As a result of a large-scale public campaign in Golunov’s defense, the case was dismissed due to absence of a body of a crime. Two high-ranking officers were dismissed: Andrey Puchkov and Yury Devyatkin.
During an annual news conference answering a question about amendments to laws concerning drug possession, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that “there can be no liberalization” under Article 228. At the same time, he noted that it is necessary “to establish control over the activities of law enforcement agencies so that no offenses are committed on their side and so that people are not put in jail for the sake of accountability and jackdaws.”
However, the media, citing parliamentary sources, reported that before the end of the spring session, a draft law on the mitigation of punishments under Article 228 could be submitted to the State Duma.
At the same time, the mitigation of punishments under Part 2 of Article 228 (concerning large-scale drug possession) has been discussed since November 2018 in cooperation with members of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Federal Security Service and the Prosecutor General’s Office, and with representatives of the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Health, as well as human rights activists and members of public organizations. The bill was developed by an expert council under the Commissioner for Human Rights, Tatyana Moskalkova. Deputy Interior Minister Mikhail Vanichkin agreed then with the necessity to mitigate part 2 of Article 228.
Human rights activist Arseniy Levinson, a member of a working group on improving anti-drug legislation, said that the document on mitigating Part 2 of Article 228 is aimed both at combating falsifications and at updating the law generally. According to Levinson, under Part 2 of Article 228, courts now often sentence the convicted to terms of no more than five years in prison (with a maximum of ten years).
The final decision on sending the bill to the floor was planned to be made on June 20 2019. In 2021, amendments were made to the law, but the amendments themselves were changed: Article 140 of the Criminal Procedure Code of the Russian Federation was amended by law to the effect that “the very fact that a person is in a state of drug intoxication or that narcotic drugs, psychotropic substances or their analogues are found in the human body in the absence of sufficient data indicating the fact of their transmission” cannot serve as a basis for initiating proceedings.
We would like to express our sincere appreciation to Josh Nadeau for correcting the translation of this article.
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