Boris Vishnevsky: Reflections in a closed visor. Who gave the order to beat up protesters in St Petersburg?

22 April 2021

by Boris Vishnevsky, deputy of the Legislative assembly of St Petersburg, and Moscow Helsinki Group prize laureate

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Новая газета]

The conduct of the Petersburg police during and after the protest of 21 April was much worse than three months ago, during the January protests.

I can confidently assert this based on my own observations, as in both January and April I visited many police stations where the detainees were.

And this time, in most cases, we seemed to come up against a wall of silence.

In the police stations, they refused to give any information on the number of detainees (or we managed to obtain the information after great effort, literally wearing the police’s resistance down). They categorically did not want to divulge what exactly the detainees were accused of, which articles of the Code of Administrative Offences. And that’s what dictates how long they’re able to hold them in the police station (whether it’s no more than three hours, or two days).

During her arrest, one young woman was thrown to the ground, as a result of which she has several abrasions on her face. St Petersburg Police Station No. 5. Photo by ‘OVD-Info’

There were enormous problems with lawyers’ access to detainees – they didn’t want to admit them, despite the existence of a defence order. They were showing contempt for the law that prohibits you from closing the door in front of a lawyer.

Very few places at all agreed to accept parcels for detainees. Either they just refused without explanation, or they said that, they say, “they are provided with everything” (practice shows that this often turns out to be a lie).

In some places we were simply stopped from entering the police station – it wasn’t even possible to access the reception area to ask a question. The entrance was concealed behind a steel grate and they would only talk to us through that.

The processing of documents for the detainees was awfully delayed – it was as though the protocols were being drawn up by specially-trained turtles.

In one of the police stations (74th) where there were thirty detainees, only a third of the protocols had been drawn up by Thursday morning – the rest hadn’t even been started.

In general, the tone of communication with most of the police has changed dramatically.

Earlier, as a rule, behaving extremely politely and by making reference to the law, I was able to get the necessary information – however, it’s now the case that they’ve begun to push me off to the “press office of the Main Directorate of the Ministry of Internal Affairs”.

Now they have very boorishly suggested “submitting a claim to the Contact and Control Room,” if we want to find something out. And, presumably, wait a couple of weeks for an answer. Unless they simply refuse to answer or pretend (because of the glass screen) that they did not notice that they were being addressed.

Finally, there were many more cases of protesters being detained with extreme cruelty than before. At the headquarters for helping the detainees, which was organised by Yabloko, St Petersburg and the Human Rights Council of St Petersburg, a whole collection of video material shows how citizens were beaten, tasered (women included), and dragged along the tarmac. Even though the protesters behaved absolutely peacefully, and no agitators were spotted.

At the beginning of the action it seemed that everything could be going as smoothly as in Moscow where very few citizens were detained, almost all of whom were released without record. But then the arrests began. With growing frequency and violence.

There was barely time for our hotline to record the information about the arrests.

How do you explain what happened?

To be honest, it is rather a mystery to me.

The example of Moscow has shown that the police can calmly watch thousands of citizens taking to the central streets without detaining anyone. And nothing terrible happens. And the world does not turn upside-down.

Why isn’t this possible in St Petersburg?

The only answer is that someone gave the command.

But who? There aren’t many sources.

It could have been an authorised representative of the President.

It could have been Governor Aleksander Beglov (he had been in Moscow that morning for the President’s speech).

And it could have been the Chief of the Main Directorate of Internal Affairs, Roman Plugin.

It isn’t known who gave the order for violence. But the order was given.

Without an order, the police would not have started behaving this way with the protesters and, without an order, they would not have put up a total block on information, refusing to share with us even non-privileged information.

There were of course exceptions where the police behaved normally, answered questions, provided information, and did not interfere with the delivery of food and water to detainees. But these exceptions were pitifully few.

As a result, St Petersburg has distinguished itself, finding itself in the shameful position of the “Russian capital of violence.”

And thus far none of the authorities, neither civilian nor military, have taken responsibility for this or explained why this tactic was chosen.

Certainly, it will not help the popularity of the municipal government (or the police). 

Translated by Mercedes Malcomson and Verity Hemp

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