"Ashamed to be a victim": stories of torture victims from Abkhazia
Torture in Abkhazia
Torture of detainees by law enforcement officers is a problem in many countries, especially in the countries of the former USSR. In Abkhazia, it is no secret that the security forces torture people. But due to various circumstances, there is no large-scale fight against this phenomenon.
How exactly and why are people tortured in Abkhazia, where the prisoner and the warden will surely have common acquaintances? Why is it embarrassing to say that you were tortured? How should you live after being tortured? And, most importantly, how can you defeat this?
“How are they different from me?”
“They know that I know them. And I know that I know them. But we see each other on the streets of the city and pretend that everything is fine. Sometimes we can even say hello to each other”, says my childhood acquaintance under an oath never to reveal his name. Let’s call him Ruslan. He is not even 30 years old yet, he still does not have a permanent job, no family, and no happy youth.
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They say people like him “grew up on the street”. The street was different back in his day. Ruslan and his friends robbed “a little” – but said it was “only for little things”. He used drugs a little – but says that only the light ones. He caused a few accidents – but always without casualties. Accordingly, in the city department of the local police, he and his friends were well known.
Most often, such children are detained in Abkhazia for refusing to be tested. The law is as follows – if you are detained, you go for an examination, and if it shows that your blood contains narcotic substances, then you get 15 days in prison and registration with a narcological dispensary. And if you refuse, then you only get 15 days – nobody wants to get registered as a drug user.
“They (employees – author’s note) are also different. Some will not touch for no reason, but others may break loose in response to your rudeness. You must understand, they don’t find us in the conservatory. Naturally, we shout something insulting to them in the process of detention and after. Should we get beaten for this? I do not know. Maybe if I were an employee, I would also not be able to restrain myself. On the other hand, this is precisely why I am not an employee, but how are they different from me?”, Ruslan asks.
According to the young man, police officers start beatings mainly when the detainee is already taken to the building.
“Basically, they hit so that there are no marks on the face. They have their own schemes and techniques. That is, it is physically painful, but bruises are not visible. They do not beat up guys like us a lot but I know that many go through a real hell there”.
It is difficult for Ruslan to think about how to get rid of this problem.
“I don’t believe that even if we put an employee in prison, something will change. Firstly, most likely that they will be released early, and the conditions of their imprisonment are going to be very comfortable. Secondly, they will probably return to their duties and be even angrier.
I wouldn’t contact them at all. They mind their own business, I mind my own”, says Ruslan.
Mentality gets in the way of fighting torture
Lawyer Inga Gabilaya confirms that torture by the security forces does, indeed, happen in Abkhazia. She, as a lawyer specializing in criminal cases, calls this problem big and serious for the republic.
“There were cases when I came for interrogation and saw that my client was beaten. There are rarely traces of physical impact on the face, usually traces of beating on the body. In general, my clients categorically refused to conduct a medical examination. I associate this with the mentality of our people. Not that my clients adhered to some so-called “thieves’ ideology” but the point is that it is shameful to be a victim”, says lawyer Gabilaya.
If the fact of violence is established, then, according to the law, the party against whom the torture was used is considered a victim. And, according to the unspoken “street rules”, well known to almost every inhabitant of Abkhazia, this is not good for a man.
According to Gabilaya, in her practice there were clients who adhered to the “thieves’ code”, but, nevertheless, having been subjected to severe physical and moral humiliation, agreed to both the examination and writing the formal statement.
“I had one egregious case when my client specifically named of the officers who used torture against him, there is no other name for it. And at the trial, he said who tortured him and how even named who exactly did what. He was covered in bruises – legs, hips, everything was purple-red. He was also humiliated morally, stripped in front of the employees”.
But they did not succeed in punishing the violators of the law.
“Despite all this, the employees were acquitted, I don’t know for what reasons. These people are in the system today, they work, some have even climbed the career ladder”, Gabilaya says.
From judicial practice
The most high-profile torture case in recent years is the death of Anzor Tarb. A man detained for an administrative violation was taken from the district to the main building of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and died at night with multiple traces of the use of physical force. The forensic medical examination ruled that Tarba had died from hemorrhagic and painful shock.
The initial version of the Ministry of Internal Affairs was that Anzor Tarba died while trying to escape. In particular, this version, with reference to the leadership of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, was reported by the prosecutor’s office investigator on duty that night, who arrived at the scene. The investigators did not manage to get the footage from the CCTV cameras on the third floor of the ministry building, where Tarb’s body was found in one of the offices – they said there were technical problems with them.
The ambulance doctors, talking about the events of that night, mentioned that the call to the building of the Ministry of Internal Affairs for them is already a “common” thing.
Four officers of the Criminal Investigation Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs were suspected of the murder of Anzor Tarba. The court acquitted them on the Day of Police, November 10, 2020.
In the spring of 2021, the Prosecutor General’s Office appealed the verdict to the Appeal Board of the Supreme Court, which overturned the acquittal and sent the case to the Prosecutor General for further investigation.
From our sources among the investigating authorities, it is known that the Abkhazian security forces use an electric current that is sent through the victim’s body as a method of torture. Waterboarding torture is also common – a victim is laid on their back, and water is poured over their mouth and nose. The security forces also beat detainees on the legs, in particular on the soles of their feet.
Cases of torture with a truncheon have also been recorded. There is an episode when a man, trying to avoid being raped with a truncheon, drew a knife and stabbed himself several times. There is also a case when a detainee’s tongue was pierced. There is a story of a man who lost his voice forever because of that heart-rending scream that he uttered while he was being tortured.
According to our information, even in the case when the victim wanted to take the persecution as far as possible, no one was ever punished for such incidents.
Another story of a torture victim
25-year-old K.V. was arrested and taken to the isolation ward of the Gal district on July 7, 2016. On July 8, he was sent to the Republican Hospital with severe head injuries, due to which he fell into a coma. The patient survived, but as a result of the trauma he ended up in a psychiatric clinic, from where he is unlikely to ever be discharged.
When the Ombudsman Asida Shakryl found out about this story, K.V. was already in a psychiatric hospital. He had been placed there on the basis of the decision of the judge of the Gal district court which ruled that the state of health of the man had required him to undergo permanent treatment in this medical institution.
In the course of studying the materials of the criminal case, the ombudsman’s office established that K.V. had received bodily injuries on the night of July 7-8, 2016, while he was in the isolation cell of the Gal district police department. The date, place and established time of receiving a closed craniocerebral injury and other facts described in the materials allow us to conclude that the police officers used physical violence against K.V.
“It can be assumed that the police officers, using physical violence, tried to get a confession from the suspect K.V. The presence of bodily injuries was recorded in K.V.’s medical documentation and other documents contained in the materials of the criminal case.
According to expert opinion, K.V suffers from a mental disorder, which happened to him after the commission of the incriminated act, during the criminal proceedings. It is expressed in the form of individual consequences of a severe traumatic brain injury, ”the Ombudsman said in the report.
In her report, the Ombudsman comes to the conclusion that by their actions the employees of the Gal District Department of Internal Affairs violated the constitutional right of citizen K.V. to freedom from torture, and also violated the fundamental principles of criminal proceedings.
According to K.V. himself, during interrogation, the employees of the Gal department demanded that he confess to committing a robbery. Having received a refusal, they began to beat him, bang his head against the wall, and used a firearm as a beating weapon.
The Ombudsman noted that the actions of the police officers showed signs of corpus delicti ( “body of the crime”), and the Ombudsman’s office sent letters to all the responsible departments. As it became known in the course of writing the article, almost the same answer came from everywhere: there was no crime.
What psychologists say
It is known from history that torture has existed at all times. Psychologist Elana Kortua says that the aggressive behavior of people in order to suppress and subjugate others is not very different from the behavior of animals.
“It is customary to think that the presence of reason as such determines the appropriate behavior, but this is not at all the case. Consciousness requires the same development as mastering speech. Self-affirmation at the expense of the weaker, suppression of the vulnerable, aggression against the unprotected, these are the same phenomena that can be seen in different spheres of life”, says the specialist.
Arguing whether there is a difference in the psychology of a security official who uses torture in a large country and an officer working in a small one, such as Abkhazia, Elana Kortua comes to the conclusion that there are no such differences, and in this regard, little depends on national characteristics or the size of the community.
The psychologist also agrees with the lawyer’s thesis that in Abkhazia “it is shameful to be a victim”. Elana Kortua recalls that in addition to such national character traits as rebelliousness, pride, and others, in the Abkhaz everyday speech there are a lot of concepts of the criminal genre, which indicates the peculiarities of the local way of thinking.
In particular, there are “concepts” according to which, for example, it is impossible to complain about the obvious lawlessness and violence, as it is “zapadlo” (embarrassing).
“In the context of these very “concepts ”, a person who is subjected to pressure, humiliation, torture, etc., must proudly keep silent, so as not to lose self-esteem and respect in the eyes of other people.
That is, it is a kind of payment for one’s own value orientations. From the standpoint of psychological health, this is not good, these people live in a permanent state of tension and suppression, which, in turn, has a bad effect on their psychophysiological state. In an amicable way, they need the help of specialists, but only on condition of their voluntary desire and readiness to ask for it”, the psychologist is sure.
The psychologist claims that the diagnosis of mental characteristics before hiring a security officer can reveal some tendencies in a person. But for a complete picture, testing alone is not enough; it is necessary to observe for some time their behavior in certain situations.
“Law enforcement officers are exposed to long-term stress factors, which can lead to professional and personal deformations, emotional burnout and professional inefficiency”, notes Elana Kortua.
Psychologists argue that if attacks of anger and aggression become uncontrollable, then this requires medical attention and must be corrected, if the person is interested in solving their own problems. But if a person is not aware of the problem, then coercive measures of treatment or psychotherapy will have only a temporary effect.
If we talk about cruelty, then it is necessary to understand that this can be a manifestation of personality pathology (psychopathy), which, as a rule, does not lend itself to thorough correction and treatment. Psychopaths can commit their acts because of their emotional insensitivity”, explains the psychologist.
Instead of an epilogue
It became possible to collect material for this article thanks to the investigating authorities, lawyers, the office of the Ombudsman, open court hearings, and conversations with victims and their relatives.
Also, upon my request, my readers told me about several individual episodes. For a long time I will not be able to publish any of them out of fear for my own safety. This only proves that there is a problem, and it is too early to talk about its solution in circumstances when journalists are afraid to speak openly about the problem itself.