Russia lauding torture was unthinkable – now it is proud to do so

Moscow’s proud promotion of the brutal treatment of men accused of Crocus City Hall attack marks watershed moment

Warning: contains descriptions of torture readers may find distressing

There was no attempt to hide the evidence of torture. In fact, its perpetrators – serving officers in the Russian military and intelligence services – may have already received state awards for bravery.

By the time the men accused of murdering 137 people at a concert on Friday night appeared in court in Moscow on Sunday, their faces were swollen and disfigured, their eyes vacant.

One, named as Saidakrami Murodali Rachabalizoda, arrived with gauze over his ear. A video released online showed one of his captors, who appeared to be Russian military personnel, slicing off his ear and shoving it in his mouth, telling him to eat it. Others beat him with their rifle butts.

After his arrest, Shamsidin Fariduni appeared in a photo lying on the floor of a school gym, his pants pulled down around his knees and with wires connected his genital area. The photograph was published by a Telegram channel connected to the Wagner paramilitary group and suggested Fariduni had been shocked with 80 volts and water had been poured over his body to “intensify the effect”.

Dalerdzhon Barotovich Mirzoyev arrived with new bruises after his interrogation. He also had a plastic bag wrapped around his neck that observers think might have been used to asphyxiate him.

Muhammadsobir Fayzov was brought into the courtroom in a wheelchair and appeared to lose consciousness during the hearing. Photographs circulating online appeared to show that one of his eyes was missing, Reuters reported.

There is little to no sympathy in Russia for the gunmen who stormed the Crocus City Hall on Friday night and carried out the worst terrorist attack on Russian soil since the Beslan school siege of 2004.

Video filmed by the men themselves and published by Islamic State shows them cold-bloodedly killing wounded men and women attending a rock concert as they urged themselves on to “show no mercy” and “kill them all”.

But the promotion of the suspects’ brutal treatment by law enforcement and high-ranking Russian officials after their capture has surprised even seasoned observers of the Russian security services.

After two years of war in Ukraine, videos of death and torture have become commonplace in Russia. And methods of torture once only spoken about in witness testimonials are now being promoted online by the perpetrators themselves as they publish photos and videos of brutality for bragging rights.

Human rights researchers said that it was no revelation that Russian security services employ torture against terror suspects. In 2017, after an IS bombing of a St Petersburg Metro station, Human Rights Watch found that one suspect during his detention was threatened with rape with a stick; two were given electric shocks to their genitals.

But those facts were uncovered via testimony to researchers, and not released as videos by the torturers themselves.

“What is different now is the clear demonstrative nature of the torture,” said Tanya Lokshina, the Europe and central Asia associate director at Human Rights Watch. “The footage of the torture seems to be shared not by accident, but in order to warn others who are planning attacks on Russia that they will face the same consequences. The Russian authorities are no longer shy about showing that its security services torture people. There are no window dressing exercises any more.

“Such videos show the level to which violence has become normalised in Russia over the past two years of war; previously, there were widespread allegations of systematic torture by Russian law enforcement, but it would have been unthinkable for them to proudly publicise the video evidence.”

The Crew Against Torture, a Russian NGO that was previously known as the Committee Against Torture, said with regards to the original attack that “all those responsible must be punished for this crime”. But it added that “the answer to barbarism must not be barbarism”, and that the value of testimony extracted by law enforcement agents under torture was critically low.

However, the Russian defence ministry on Monday released footage of an awards ceremony showing several members of an elite border unit who caught the gunmen and might have taken part in their brutal treatment.

VChK-OGPU, a Telegram account that regularly leaks information from the Russian intelligence services, said that military personnel in the border guard cut off Rachabalizoda’s ear. Members of the FSB security service and GRU military intelligence also engaged in torture. “They all ‘had fun’ with the terrorists as much as they could,” it claimed.

The commander of the Leningrad military district “presented well-deserved awards to the servicemen and personally congratulated everyone”. The men received medals “for Bravery” and “for military distinctions”.

As Russia seeks pretexts to blame the terrorist attack on Ukraine, Lokshina noted that forced confessions received by torture are notoriously untrustworthy. “It is obvious that any evidence given under torture cannot be viewed as trustworthy,” she said. “Someone who has electric shock wires attached to their genitals will pretty much confess to anything.”

The Kremlin declined to respond to allegations that the men had been tortured.

Russian officials have publicly lauded the brutal treatment of the suspects. The Russian prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin, said the suspects “deserve no mercy”.

“Well done to all those who caught them,” said ex-president Dmitry Medvedev.

He added: “Should they be killed? They should be. And will be. But it’s much more important to kill everyone involved. Everyone. Those who paid, who sympathised with them, who helped them. Kill them all.”

As a result of the attack, some Russian MPs have called for the reinstitution of the death penalty. There has been a moratorium on executions since 1996. Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov distanced the Kremlin from such calls, saying: “We are not taking part in the discussion at the moment.”

The officer who cut off Rachabalizoda’s ear had military patches including a far-right Totenkopf (dead person’s head) previously worn by Nazi SS units.

The knife he used has been auctioned off online as the “ear-cutter”, according to Evgeny Rasskazov, a member of the far-right paramilitary battalion Rusich, who facilitated the sale.

“The auction is closed, the lot was sold by the [state] employee privately,” he wrote. “Congratulations to the lucky owner of the ear-cutter. 🔪”

This article was amended on 26 March 2024. In an earlier version, a quote from the Crew Against Torture that “all those responsible must be punished for this crime” should have made clear that this related specifically to the perpetrators of the attack at Crocus City Hall. This has been clarified, and further reaction from the group has also been added.