THE MOTHERLAND WILL BE TRIED FOR THE DEATH OF HER DAUGHTERS
The high-profile rape and murder cases of two young girls in Bashkiria will be examined by the European Court: in Russia, it is by no means a duty of the state to find the guilty.
By Ekaterina Sazhneva
October 20, 2009
In the beginning of autumn 2009, two applications from the residents of the Central Russia region of Bashkiria, Olga Karamova and Gulnara Alexandrova, were submitted to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The women are accusing their motherland of failing to do anything to uncover the identities of their children's heinous murderers.
Spring 2002, Republic of Bashkortostan.
The body of 17 year-old Svetlana Karamova, winner of the beauty pageant “Miss Sterlitamak,” was found literally torn to pieces, five minutes walk from her home.
The body of Lena Alexandrova, who had just graduated from the ninth grade at her school in the village of Akberdino, about 30 kilometers from Ufa, was found hanging from a tree.
And the killers have still not been found. This atrocity was only possible because the suspects have turned out to be the children of high-ranking Bashkirian bureaucrats and members of the police.
For seven and a half years, Svetlana's and Lena's mothers have been searching for the truth. “They smugly mock us. Prosecutors, investigators. One well-known human rights activist and attorney whom we went to for help declared, 'What is there to get worked up about, your little silly girls got their pleasure alright before their deaths!'” says Svetlana's mother. “We have become convinced that in our country it is impossible to punish high-ranking murderers and rapists who are rich government officials."
A Commonplace Death
In the Karamovs' apartment, a teddy bear sits on the couch in the room that was once Svetlana's bedroom. It used to be white as snow, now almost 8 years since the day its owner did not return, it has become grey from grief and dust.
Svetlana Karamova had bought this teddy bear on the day before her death. “My daughter's friend was having a birthday, and we went together to find her a gift. In the store we spotted a toy and Svetlana said, 'Mom, can we buy this for me!'— she had liked it so much. That was strange, she did not care much for toys at that age. We no longer have Svetlana, only a teddy bear to remember her by.” the mother, Olga Karamova, is now finally able to speak about her daughter without tears, with a quiet smile, even a joke comes up now and then.
8 years after the tragedy almost no feelings are left – the pain seems to have been “amputated”, she says.
The woman thanks me for coming. “You are the second Russian correspondent who has visited us over all these years. We have been visited by Dutch, Finnish, British, Swiss, German journalists. When they were talking with me, I could see tears in their eyes. They could not believe such things happen, neither amidst a war nor on enemy territory...The entire world knows how they tortured and killed my Svetlana, but in Russia people think of it as a commonplace crime, something more like just a piece of bad luck”.
...Her ribs were broken, liver had burst, and the immediate cause of her death a blow on her throat with a blunt object—the murderers were beating her on the neck and crushed it. There were boot prints on her neck...
Her fingers were also crushed and torn backwards, as if they had been tied to something in a very unnatural way. But, according to the tradition, young unmarried girls are put to rest in wedding gowns. “We barely managed to put the white gloves on over Svetlana's broken hands.”
“Poor poor girl, what she had to live through those last moments,” says her friend Masha. “That evening, the three of us were out on a walk together. At the time I was dating Svetlana's brother, Seryozha, who is now my husband. It was late and Seryozha decided to walk me home. Svetlana only needed to cross the street and run to the entrance of her block of flats, so we weren't worried about her. Nothing much happens in our neighborhood...”
One Just Should Not Be so Beautiful
This did not happen in the war-torn Chechnya, nor in a concentration camp, not even during Russia's occupation by Nazi—it happened on March 5, 2002.
In the quiet Bashkiria town of Sterlitamak, in the suburbs where yards all look the same and houses look exactly alike. In the middle of a group of typical high-rise blocks the premised occupying by the police security force is hidden, it was one of the city's police stations at the time; so all was in place to make people feel “protected by their home police”.
“My husband got dressed and went off to search for our daughter himself,” recalls the mother of the girl. “He is rather strict and never allowed for Svetlana to be out so late. At 11 o'clock she was to be at home, no matter what, and she hadn't even been intending to meet anyone. Svetlana became the winner of the town’s beauty pageant at 14, but it was not expected to become the start of a modelling career —we had just let her enter the pageant to boost her self-esteem. We weren't expecting that she would win and that they would then come running after her...They wanted her to be a model, but we hadn’t allowed it.”
At 14, boys would be chasing her from all over. She was tall and slender—but apparently, still completely a child. She would braid her hair, so that as she walked to school, her pigtails would bounce on her shoulders to the cadence of her gait, right-left, right-left...with her mother admiring the sight from her window.
"We dressed her up like a doll, where else could a girl be as spoiled as this? Only at home. She would have gotten married—grown up,” Olga Karamova says ruminating. “I hadn’t noticed how big Svetlana had become. If only I’d known...A few days before her death I would come home and she would be talking on the telephone. Apparently it was an unpleasant conversation: ‘Don’t you dare try to come after me. Leave me alone! Shame on you! You have a wife, a child.' She saw me and...went silent. 'What happened Svetlana?'—'Later mom, I'll tell you everything later, don't worry.'"
They never got an opportunity to have that talk. Svetlana was murdered.
“Such cases are usually solved within a week at most, the scumbags left too many traces to follow,” guaranteed the investigators.
They dragged her body over the dirty March snow, so as to rape and torture her away from the street, passers-by heard her screams as well as saw her being dragged away, but no-one bothered. Her brother believes he also heard screams coming from within the building of the police security force, which sounded to him like 'Dad!' and 'Seryozha!' (his name), yet he assumed he must have been mistaken, everyone he knew and loved were safe...
The on-duty officers arrived, yet they weren't permitted inside the building as the high ranking officers were celebrating something, drunken and loud, - some big guy was visiting from the capital of the republic, they say.
“The doctor, having arrived at the scene of the crime, stated, “Under the girl’s fingernails there were traces of the killers' skin as she had tried to defend herself, scratching... The extracted swab was saturated in semen, and there was sufficient biological material for proof in court. At least 5 people had had their way with her.”
Later on, all of this 'proof' would go missing and disappear, or it would become unfit for the investigation.
And the swabs saturated with semen. And the chips under Svetlana's fingernails.
Everything which could have led to her killers’ identities.
For an entire year, no-one brought any news to the Karamovs. And Olga Karamova thought everything, if it is possible to say this, was as it should have been—after all, the investigation was in progress. It was only in the summer of 2003 after the mother had barely come round after the tragedy, she found out that the investigation into Svetlana's murder had been terminated long ago. There was no aggrieved party, nor suspects. Only empty pages of a case file, initiated on March 2, 2002.
Svetlana hadn't died until the 5th of March; however, it turns out they had started to search for the criminals three days before the girl was murdered!
They Murdered You? Well, Relax and Forget!
“I went to the prosecutor's office, to the police—they all laughed at me in the face. 'Forget about justice if you don't want more trouble—you still have your family!'” recalls Olga Karamova. “And then the first investigator, who had started the investigation so enthusiastically, as I see it, had ruined it from the start and still light-heartedly left it only to become promoted.”
After that, Svetlana's parents went down to the General Prosecutor's Office of the Russian Federation with their complaints. A large number of procedural violations had been found in the case materials, and in the middle of 2003 they started to ascertain the circumstances of the girl's death a second time. Then a third, then a fourth...
The case was passed from investigator to investigator, and each one started it all over again—in almost 8 years it had been shuffled amongst 8 investigators.
Valuable time to search for the killers had been hopelessly lost.
But in that time, Olga Karamova had already learnt for herself virtually everything she needed to know. Sterlitamak is a small town.
There could have been only one high-ranking police officer who was pursuing Svetlana, but she had not wanted to see him.
“Apparently, Svetlana had been “ordered for entertainment” by some important person, a top police officer perhaps, lower-rank officer were ordered to deliver her and take her to a private sauna,” speculates the mother. “—Svetlana had a sharp tongue and must have said something that enraged that man — and the bastards lost control. But she was just a girl! You can always find prostitutes for entertainment, what torture and rape an innocent kid?! The pack of drunken bastards ganged up on her, high off their own power. The final blow was dealt—professionally and mercilessly as if this wasn't the first time they had done this.” Nevertheless, the parties accessory to the beauty queen's murder, came to light.
In 2004, two members of the Sterlitamak police force were detained in connection with the case. They took DNA samples from them—they matched the evidence. Some time later and for some reason they reversed the results of the test and released those two. They now say it wasn't them.
The third, independent expert analysis in Moscow which Olga Karamova struggled for a year to attain and which was carried out at the request of the Moscow lawyers showed that the police officers had been implicated in the girl's death.
But nothing came of it.
"No, they were not the ones who did it." Olga Karamova says contradicting herself.
—How do you mean, it was not them?
"Those two, most likely, could have taken part in Svetlana's rape, and it is possible that they were given the “crumbles from their boss's table”, so to speak...It was shared with me in confidence that after their arrest, both of the suspects started to 'spill their guts.' They could give damning evidence, and right then the whole thing was suddenly played down and dropped”.
Karamova wrote to Putin. With the last of her money, she went to Moscow to find local human rights activists. They heard her out, and in return invited her to take part in pickets and rallies in support of their “freedom of speech and democracy” causes, for which they needed people. She froze in the vicinity of the Kremlin each day for a week with a poster in her hands and in a crowd of individuals who had lost their loved ones and nearly lost their last hope.
The posters were all different—about arbitrary rule, the police's poor performance, and the treatment of dissidents...
“If your Svetlana would have been a dissident, a political prisoner, her case would have been interesting to us. But she was murdered because of personal motives, and we have much more important matters to attend to, like the right to support prominent opposition leaders” the mother was explained.
At that time, Olga Karamova met Gulnara Alexandrova, who had also lost a teenage daughter under unascertained circumstances.
Noose For a Broken Heart
Dear diary! Sorry it's been so long since I've written. I've just been in such a state, and I didn't feel like doing anything, not even my lessons. I want to tell you a story with a sad ending... When we went to the kitchen, he kissed me, then made me drink some home-brew. I had two sips and my head started spinning. Then we went up stairs and made love to each other for a long time, but I needed to go home. Ilshat went to take a shower while I sat on the windowsill. He came out with only his trunks on, said good-bye, and went to sleep. And I went home.
This entry is from the diary of a Bashkirian school girl, Lena Alexandrova, who was seduced....by her teacher. He worked part-time and was the son of the Head of Administration in the District where the girl had lived.
On May 29th, 2002, Lena's body was found hanging from a tree in a forest. She had disappeared after the celebrations on the last day of school before summer holidays started. For three days the local search parties combed the village of Akberdino, and scoured the area next to the tree where they eventually discovered the ninth grader hanging from a noose. But for some reason they had not spotted her in the first two days of their search.
It was established for certain that during the three days while they were searching for the schoolgirl, she had still been alive. But where had she been and had it been of her own free will?..
Lena's clothes was dry, that was the same clothes she had been wearing just before her disappearance. And yet, every day it had been raining non-stop.
The medical expert's analysis showed that suicide was nearly impossible. The knot was tied by a professional, the position of the body was different, and there were bruises on it as if there had been a fight...
But no criminal proceedings were initiated. Suicide – such was the verdict of the local police. Even though the girl who loved to keep a diary hadn’t left behind a suicide note.
What reasons could Lena have had to take her own life?
The father of the 24 year-old teacher Ilshat whom the girl had allegedly been dating was an important person who had relatives and friends working in almost every branch of the republican government. But his son proved to be a screw-up. Previously, the young man had worked in the republic's capital as a police officer. And in that same year, 2002, criminal investigation was opened against him for involvement in the theft of gold jewellery, video tape recorders, a microwave and a television set from a local resident. There was a lot about this in local newspapers at the time.
The disgraceful story was hushed up. The principal of the Akberdino village school is, by the way, Ilshat's aunt and his father's sister. It was up to her to take her nephew in under her protection and help him return to law-abiding respectful life.
It is now clear just how she did that—he became a teacher at her school.
And in any high school there are always many attractive and naïve girls...
After the second lesson, I was walking up the stairs with Ilshat. Today he said 'hi' to me as well as 'how are you.' Many people know about our friendship, and I long to tell them everything. I still have not learnt to keep it all to myself.
I can't do anything, nor get Ilshat out of my head. I don't understand myself, I've become attached to his caresses, his lips, his hands, his eyes...
“I only then found out for myself that the teacher had many girls like my Lena and that she didn't mean anything to him,” the girl's mother told our journalist. “But, I didn’t think they would go so far as to become that close. Just friends. That evening, when Lena didn't come home, I decided that they had gone all the way and that she was ashamed to return home. I started calling around to her friends, asking them to let her know that I wasn't going to scold her—if only she would come back.”
Gulnara shows the journalists pages doodled all over with vignettes, flowers, and captions: Ilshat, I love you! On April 10th there is a postscript—first kiss.
The Keys to Your Conscience
On May 26th, 2002, the woman filled out a report to the police about the disappearance of her daughter. When the regional centre's police arrived, Lena's friends told them that the girl had gone to stay at the teacher's house, however before that the two were seen quarrelling on the grounds of the girl's possible pregnancy. Ilshat was demanding from her to have an abortion.
The police then set off to visit the Head's son at his cottage, but he didn't permit them to search the grounds alleging that he didn't have the keys to the cellar nor the sauna.
If Ilshat was actually innocent and the girl did after all commit suicide—from despair or for some other reason—wouldn't it have been sensible for his high ranking father to order a competent investigation into the circumstances of her death to clear his son's name?
But they took a different route. “The girl had made up the entire story. No-one even knows who she was sleeping with,” such was the emphatic declaration of the village school staff. Yet they never started to look into who exactly the underage girl had slept with.
Traces of rope were distinctly visible on the dead girl's wrists, that would later be corroborated by the investigators. After the funeral, when the investigation had fizzled out before it had even started, Alexandrova demanded the body be exhumed.
The family was subject to intensive harassment and intimidation. The mother was called in for a conversation with the Administration, where, not bothering to pick their words carefully, they told her things to the following effect: you will not bring your daughter from her grave nor tarnish the reputation of the district Head of Administration, but you may find more trouble for yourself.
Gulnara recorded the threats.
...Their youngest son was growing up, in the full knowledge of what had happened to his sister, and it proved to be unbearable to continue walking along the streets of their home town catching stares. The threats were also becoming increasingly aggressive. Consequently, Lena's parents decided to sell their house, cattle, and leave everything—they went to live on the outskirts of Ufa, almost outside of the city, near the airport where they didn't know anyone.
Gulnara Alexandrova dreamed about one thing only all those years—to make her daughter's murderers pay. During this time, the district head went on to receive a promotion and became the director of the municipal district. His son resigned after the scandal and now runs his own business in tourism. There had been more complains of his improper advances from the parents of other girls he used to teach.
Until 2007, Gulnara, like Olga Karamova, couldn't even find an attorney who would agree to take the case.
How many tortured, raped, and degraded young women are there in Russia? The stories have long become commonplace and no longer shock anyone around…
Fascists — the best
Margret Satterwaite. A Brit, a demographer and a human rights activist. She has researched the impacts violence and military conflicts have on demographics and has worked in conflict zones, including Bosnia, Chechnya, Africa. While working in Russia, Margret accidentally heard about the two Bashkirian mothers who were desperately imploring authorities and Russian human rights organisations to hear their plea for help.
Not quite believing the stories at first, she nevertheless felt somehow compelled to go down to Bashkiria and ascertain for herself. The truth proved to be way more horrifying. “The most difficult task was to find help within the country while overcoming the appalling reaction ranging from ‘Yeah, so what, isn't it their problem? Everyone goes through this sort of thing. She's raped, well then she should just get up and move on with her life’ to ‘What are girls for anyway? And why else should one become a cop if not to be able to do things like that and get away with it? Those guys just had some real fun, like real men should...”. Facing this was traumatic for us as well. The lawyer who was working on the application and me, we sometimes talk about our experience and we agree that we feel like we too have been in some way mentally raped through it.
“And, mind you, the people saying this are not the mythical outside “enemies of Russia” so often blamed for all trouble in today's Russia,” continues Margret. “Rather it was said by those who love to describe themselves as “the real men” and the defenders of their people. Part of my research was on the life of the rural population under German occupation, talking to the elderly who still live in the villages. In their words, something akin to these incidents would have been inconceivable on the part of the Germans. The statistics verify their statements; the level of violence targeting civilians was far lower during German occupation."
Margret does not meditate on Russian spirituality, nor the mystery of our souls; she bases her judgments solely on statistics. The British expert is absolutely pragmatic.
"Thousands of Russian women today are losing their reproductive capability as a result of having lived through violence and its various consequences. Little sense does it make to struggle to boost the birth rates with the war-like spread of violence! And these attitudes emanate not from a small group of marginalized hooligans, but from people who have authority, who are highly regarded in the society an enjoy utmost respect by the public. For example, a judge in Saint Petersburg dismisses a suit by a young female employee against her boss, who had forced her to “fulfill her duties on the table” with a comment: ‘If we had no sexual harassment we would have no children’
In the context of any war, similar actions by an occupier would give rise to a world-wide scandal, but here... These are the attitudes one frequently finds among immature, aggressive adolescents living in deprived crime-ridden ghettos with that wild jungle mentality, where the remainder of culture and morality have been destroyed, or, such attitudes would normally emanate from an enemy whose goal is destroy the nation. In Russia, these same 'adolescents' with warped unhealthy attitudes make up the majority of population. Such a society tends to take the side of, and identify itself with, the offenders and obeying the gang instincts is prepared to huddle against its weaker members, put labels on them, accusing them of being “naive little girls”, “suckers”, of being too young and themselves to blame for having allowed their abusers to take advantage of them. This is a curious sort of psychological trick, an attempt to convince yourself and others that you are cynical, mature, invulnerable and that such things cannot happen to you. And those who practise that sincerely believe that in this manner they assert themselves as mature and life-wise 'real men' who are 'in control of” their own lives. This is all a very curious phenomenon, was it not fraught with such tragic consequences for the surrounding community.”
—Why have the human rights organisations in Russia refused the Karamova and Alexandrova cases?
—It is somehow not “prestigious” enough to defend victims of domestic crimes, one does not gain much in terms of political promotion or attention from Western foundations, nor does that automatically put one in line with the most renowned fighters for freedom and against Putin's totalitarian regime. Now, using distraught, grieving mothers, taking them out to your own political rallies - that, on the contrary, does not seem to strike anyone's conscience as somewhat unacceptable. People just cannot understand that such 'routine', 'ordinary' stories have much more to do with actual human rights than any form of political activism. When I finally turned in despair to the London office of EHRAC (European Human Rights Advocacy Centre), the Bashkirian cases were immediately accepted by them as important, and at an annual conference in Moscow we reported on the developments. My colleagues were disturbed by the attitude of the Russian human rights activists and the decision was: if no-one in Russia wants to work on these cases, we are ready to take it upon ourselves. Believe me, the chances of these two cases being successful before the ECHR are very high.
—You say, there are a lot of such cases —then why are these two the only case to have made it to the European Court so far?
—Intimidation is about the main reason. I receive threats as well for assisting the victims. There have been similar cases in Nizhny Novgorod, in Lipetsk Region, and in Volgograd, all over... And rarely do such cases make it to court, especially if the victim is still alive, they face disgrace, jeering, they suffer intimidation and are ostracised by the society. And their families are rarely supportive of them and especially of their quest for justice. They all still have a lot to lose. They decide that justice is unattainable and resolve to remain quiet and live with it. These Bashkirian mothers simply had nothing more to lose anymore.
…I am walking around Sterlitamak. The cozy town dressed in yellow leaves is tranquil and quiet. It hardly seems possible that somewhere here, possibly right next to me, Svetlana Karamova's murderers may be walking.
They are moving on with their careers, loving their wives, kissing their daughters goodnight...
Probably, they even have some sort of justification for their actions—how else can one carry on living reconciled with themselves? Or maybe they have simply forgotten. Whether or not this is the case, it is very easy for them to close their eyes and not see the images of the screaming girls covered in blood.
The parents of the deceased Svetlana Karamova and Elena Alexandrova are demanding from the Russian Federation to acknowledge its responsibility for violation of their children's right to life, for application of tortures, and the failure to ensure their right to effective investigation.
They are not demanding monetary compensation.
To punish the killers—that is all the mothers desire.
Almira ZHUKOVA, assistant chair of the Public Watch-Dog Commission for the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation:
—I have studied the case materials of these two cases, and I can say with certainty: nothing was done by the authorities to get at the truth about these murders. I have sent petitions and complaints to the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation myself, and I received due replies from them.
But had it not been for Margret and the European human rights activists, I think these cases would have never become known outside their little towns.
I live in Ufa myself and know that Bashkiria is an especially complicated region when it comes to solving crimes committed by members of the police who were and still are in office. It is possible, that the clan mentality of our society plays its own role when people working in the prosecutor's office more often than not have relatives working in the Supreme Court, and at the Ministry of Interior. You walk along the corridor and the surnames on the doors of influential officials are all and the same.
There was an attempt to somehow break up this situation, when nine months ago, a new Republican Minister of Interior was appointed. Hope had sprung up. But the rest of the personnel are the same people as before, and I am not quite sure whether what is happening in the republic is being reported to him. In any event, they are doing their best to prevent me from meeting the new minister.
THE MOTHERLAND WILL BE TRIED FOR THE DEATH OF HER DAUGHTERS