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Moscow riot police in action
Moscow riot police in action
Grigorii Tumanov

MOSCOW - The question of whether or not citizens in Russia have the right to defend themselves if they are being beaten by police was taken up by the Supreme Court in June.

The case came just after a large protest on May 6 that was marred by several police beatings. In regulations released soon after, the Court clarified that Russian citizens have the right to defend themselves if the police are using “indisputably illegal force.”

However, even that caveat seems to have disappeared from the final regulations that were released late last month. Indeed a closer look at those regulations make clear that Russian citizens do not have the right to react or defend themselves from police officers who are attacking them, including during street protests, even if they are in danger of bodily injury.

According to Pavel Chikov, head of the human rights organization Agora, the court’s regulations are an invitation for the police to be violent. “I personally only know of one case in modern history when police actions during a protest event were declared illegal," he said. "I think that after these new regulations the police will never be charged with doing something illegal.” The one instance Chikov said he knew of when a police officer’s conduct was judged illegal happened in 2010 in St. Petersburg, when a police officer hit a protester with a club, and was sentenced to three years in prison as a result.

Dimitri Denze, a lawyer for one of the protesters arrested during the protests last May, clarified that these Supreme Court regulations are non-binding, but that in all likelihood lower courts would follow the recommendations of the higher court.

He also said that the new regulations are almost certainly related to the cases that stemmed from the May protests. All of the accused are being tried under laws prohibiting attacks against a police officer. But the accused all maintain that the police were the first to use physical force against them, and the protesters had to defend themselves.

According to Mikhail Pashkin, head of the main police union in Moscow, the lack of clear criteria for what constitutes legal force by police officers creates a serious potential for abuse. “At what point can one defend oneself? The law already establishes that the police cannot beat someone on the head with a club, that is illegal, but there are already a slew of cases where Special Police Forces have broken that law,” he told Kommersant.

For example, on September 15, a Special Forces policeman hit a protester named Yekaterina Zaitseva on the head with a club. She suffered brain damage as a result. In the aftermath, top police officials announced that there would be no consequences for the policeman, since he was defending himself from a group of opposition protesters who had torn off his helmet, and Zaitseva was among the protesters.

Chikov said that it seems like the only time a person can defend themselves from the police is if they have Denis Evsukov in front of them, in the act of shooting people. Evsukov was a Moscow police officer who killed two people in a drunken shooting in a Moscow supermarket in 2009.

The official representatives of the Moscow police department were not available to comment.

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