The St. Petersburg Interior Ministry is looking into the actions of officers who beat and arrested people while dispersing a peaceful rally in defense of the right of assembly on Saturday, July 31, a police spokesman said this week.
The statement came in the wake of a large number of reports about the actions of one officer in particular who beat people with his police baton and dragged a young woman by her hair. The officer, whose rank praporshchik is roughly equivalent to the U.S. police rank of sergeant, remains unidentified. Meanwhile, many of those who suffered violence at the hands of the police have filed complaints to police chiefs and the prosecutor, asking them to open a criminal case.
In a video widely distributed on the Internet, the officer is seen approaching people at the Strategy 31 rally held near Gostiny Dvor metro on Nevsky Prospekt, St. Petersburg’s main thoroughfare, with the words “F***ing animals, who else wants some?” A young man wearing a red T-shirt is heard asking, “Why are you swearing?” — in answer to which the officer hits him across the face with his baton and drags him roughly to a police bus, accompanied by other policemen.
The young man who was hit in the face was Dmitry Semyonov, who said he did not belong to any political group.
“I was just walking around the city,” he said Thursday. “I knew that there would be a rally at that time and decided to head in the direction of Gostiny Dvor, saw it, stopped and started to watch.”
Semyonov said he did not realize he had been hit with a baton until he saw the video. He said he discovered a painful bump while he was at the police station and realized some of his hair had been pulled out.
“To be honest, it was very fast, I remember he grabbed me by the hair, then hit me, a woman started to pull me aside, and while [the police] were dragging me, I remember shouting, ‘What for? What for?’” Semyonov was charged with violating the rules for holding public events.
Svetlana Pavlushina is the young woman who can be seen in videos and photos being dragged by her long hair by the same police officer. Pavlushina is an activist with White Ribbon, the movement for police reform headed by former policeman Alexei Dymovsky.
“I was standing and filming the detentions,” she said Thursday. “He got out of the bus, saw me, and with the words ‘You want to be there, too?’ started to drag me by my hair.” She said she was left with several bruises on her wrist from being seized.
“I started to scream to attract attention. My sister and then Eduard Balagurov from our movement came to my rescue.”
Balagurov, who was detained and taken to hospital after being beaten, said that White Ribbon activists had not taken part in the rally, but had come to observe and document the police’s actions.
He said he rushed to help Pavlushina when he heard her screaming.
“She was surrounded by a crowd of policemen who were pulling her hair, shoving her from side to side and grabbing her clothes,” Balagurov said.
“I held onto that same officer because he was being the most aggressive toward Sveta and holding her hair most firmly, and I tried to pull his arm away from Sveta.”
Balagurov was detained and badly beaten when he refused to enter the police bus. “They started to kick me and hit me with their fists, and that same sergeant tried to gouge out my eyes,” he said. “What struck me was that they were swearing and frenzied. The policemen usually say in their defense that they were only acting on orders. I feel the order was to do it in a sadistic way.”
Balagurov said he felt ill and dizzy at the police station and was taken away by ambulance with a suspected concussion. Like Semyonov, he was charged with violating the rules for holding public events.
Alexander Kormushkin, who was wearing a black T-shirt in support of the imprisoned oil tycoon and Putin opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky, said the same sergeant hit him with his baton twice, causing his head to bleed. He said he frequently takes part in protests, but does not belong to any political group.
Kormushkin said he was dragged by several policemen, including the same sergeant, after he tried to prevent a policeman from arresting activists.
“He punched me twice from below — trying to conceal it, so no one could see — first in the jaw, then he smashed my lip. As I resisted, he tried to gouge out my eye with the other hand.”
Kormushkin said he was beaten by the same sergeant after he escaped from the police bus where detainees were being held, having climbed through a ventilation window onto the roof of the bus.
“I jumped [from the roof] and was caught for a second time,” he said. “They were putting me in the bus, then — bang! — I felt a blow on my head from behind. I turned around, and the same sergeant hit me with his baton for the second time, drawing blood. There was a lot of blood — my face and trousers were covered in blood.”
The police refused to call an ambulance to the bus, and Kormushkin was taken to hospital from the police station, one hour after being detained.
“An investigation of the facts published in the media criticizing the police’s actions on July 31 is underway,” police spokesman Vyacheslav Stepchenko said Thursday.
He said that by law such investigations should be conducted within a month of the event in question, but did not exclude that it would be completed earlier.
Photos by Sergey Chernov