Torture as an Everyday Practice

They Were Suffocated with a Plastic Bag Doused with Ammonia and Punched in the Kidneys: How a Navalny Team Volunteer and His Friends Were Tortured by Police
Alexander Skrylnikov
MBK Media
May 31, 2018

Максим Гребенюк. Фото: личная страница ВКонтактеMaxim Grebenyuk. Photo from personal VK page

Maxim Grebenyuk, a volunteer with the Navalny Team in Voronezh, and his friends were tortured by police at a police station who were trying to force them to confess to stealing a mobile phone. Voronezh police offices handcuffed the young men and suffocated them with a plastic bag doused with ammonia so they would not faint from the lack of oxygen.

On the night of May 18, Mr. Grebnyuk and his friends Sergei Troyansky, Ilya Podgorny, and Andrei Biryukov were visiting an acquaintance of one of the young men, Yelizaveta Kurlyantseva. Two men named Roman and Vadim, whom Mr. Grebnyuk did not know, were also at Ms. Kurlyantseva’s flat. Mr. Grebnyuk spent no more than an hour at the flat, but a week later he found out that he and his friends had been summoned to Voronezh Police Precinct No. 4 as witnesses in the case of Ms. Kurlyansteva’s stolen phone. At the police station, it transpired the police did not want testimony, but confessions, and police officers employed torture to obtain them.

MBK Media asked Mr. Grebnyuk what methods of torture the Voronezh police used.

*****

When we went into the precinct, they immediately confiscated our telephones and internal passports. They took us in for questioning one at a time. Andrei was the first to go into Office No. 26. He was in there ten minutes. They let him go. Nothing happened to him.

Then I went in. There were two men in plain clothes in the room.

“Everything is fucked,” they said.

They made no attempt to find out what had happened and how. They said right out I had stolen the telephone.

I replied I hadn’t stolen it.

“Either you stole it or you tell us who did.”

I repeated it wasn’t me who stole it, and one of them slapped me. I tried to invoke my right not to speak to them without an attorney present, and they hit me again.

They kept asking me about the phone, but I said I’d hear it about only the day before. They warned me they were going to use “other methods.”

When I asked them why they were hitting me instead of figuring things out, they said, “We’re not hitting you now. We have other methods.”

What methods did they have in mind?

They put a plastic bag over my head twice, once without any ammonia in it, once with a minimal amount. I was running out of air. I was choking. When they saw it wasn’t having the desired effect, they doused the bag with lots of ammonia and put it over my head. It was unbearable. They did the trick with the plastic bag twice while simultaneously keeping me handcuffed with my hands behind the back of the chair. One of them held the chain on the handcuffs with his foot so I was unable to move.

Then they let me go and called Sergei into the room. The same thing happened to him. Later, the two guys I hadn’t met before, Roman and Vadim, were brought to the station. They said they were tortured in the same way, and one of them was punched in the kidneys.

After the police were done with me, it was my turn again. There were five men in the room. They did the trick with the plastic bag again. I screamed so loud the whole station would have heard it. One of the officers must have heard me, but there was no reaction. I was asked whether I could take much more of thatand, naturally, I said I couldn’t. I cannot stand torture.

They promised would get us dead to rights in several days if no one confessed and to torture us the whole time. They gave us ten minutes to decide who would take the rap. Otherwise, they promised to torture me again.

That didn’t happen, thank God. They forced us to give our written consent to a lie detector test and make statements that none of us had seen the telephone before letting us go.

How long did the torture last?

It was really hard to keep track of time due to my emotional state. It was something like half an hour.

What things did the police say?

They only insisted I confess and chatted among themselves. They didn’t try and figure out what had happened to the phone. They only insisted I confess.

How did you feel when they put the plastic bag doused with ammonia over your head?

It was awful. The bag is over your head, and you have to breathe. When you inhale, there is a really sharp pain and burning sensation in your lungs and nasal cavities. Your eyes tear up. You have to breathe, but you inhale two or three times, and the air runs out. When the air ran out, I wanted to faint so I wouldn’t have to go on feeling it, but the ammonia made that impossible.

Did you think about confessing at some point?

I felt like saying I stole the phone. Those thoughts came and went, although I hadn’t stolen the phone. I just wanted it to stop. When they threaten to keep doing this to you for two days, then anyone would say he stole the phone if the alternative was that the torture continued. The same thing happened to Sergei, and the others said the same thing happened to them. I don’t know how to describe it.

Do you see any link between what happened and the fact you’re a Navalny Team volunteer?

It’s entirely possible. The police focused on me, and they confiscated my internal passport, which I keep in a protective cover that has the phrase “Opposition Member’s Passport” emblazoned on it. The other guys don’t have anything to do with the opposition movement. The focus was on me. They interrogated me longer and more often.

Were you able to learn the names of the torturers?

Yes, I think so. One was named Oleg Sokolovsky, and another guy was named Sergei, but that was it.

Were you able to medically certify your injuries?

Yes, we were at a forensic medical exam yesterday on the orders of the investigator, and everything was certified there. The gouges made by the handcuffs have gone away, but there are still bruises on our wrists and forearms. Sergei and I have them in the exact same places.

Does the young woman who filed the theft complaint know you were tortured?

When she found out she was shocked. She had no idea stuff like that happened. She offered to withdraw her complaint, but I talked her out of it. Someone did steal the phone, so the complaint should be on file. And the guilty party should be punished, only not using such methods.

Will the policemen be punished for their actions? What do you predict will happen? What do you hope will happen?

I don’t know. I hope there will be publicity, and the case won’t be brushed under the rug. When we were signing the consent forms for the lie detector test, Sergei was told directly, “You can file a complain or not. Nothing will happen to us anyway.”

What has to be done to stop police officers in Russia from regarding torture as the norm?

As you well know, we have to change the system from the top down. Firing a few police officers won’t change anything.

*****

Navalny Team lawyer Danil Novikkov told us they filed a complaint with the Investigative Committee the next day. He also told us that one of the lie detector tests to which Mr. Grebnyuk and his friends consented had been postponed indefinitely after one of the police officers involved had been questioned at the Investigative Committee.

Novikov told us a little about Maxim Grebnyuk.

“He’s one of our oldest volunteers. He was expelled from the LDPR [the so-called Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, chaired since its founding in the 1990s by the nationalist clown Vladimir Zhirinovsky] when they found out he supported Navalny’s views. He has been a co-sponsor of public events and campaign booths on many occasions, and he always attends protest rallies,” said Mr. Novikov.

The lawyer, nevertheless, saw no connection between the police’s torture of Mr. Grebnyuk and his opposition work.

“The police just turn a blind eye to tortue,” he said.

Police Precinct No. 4 in Voronezh declined to comment on the incident.

Thanks to Evgeny Shtorn for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

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