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Reformatory CP - June 2001

masthead Sunday Times, London, 17 June 2001

Russians thrash their drug takers to stop addiction

By Mark Franchetti
In Yekaterinburg

picture of miscreant tied to his bed

Cold turkey: young addicts in Yekaterinburg are beaten with leather belts then chained to their beds while they detoxify. Some claim it is a regime based on sadism

Photograph: Y Kondakov


THE teenage heroin addict knew what would happen when his mother brought him to the City Without Drugs rehabilitation centre. He had heard about the beatings given to new arrivals. It was just after midnight when his turn came.

Accompanied by another young addict, he was taken in silence from a damp, overcrowded cellar where he had briefly been held and escorted to a derelict house nearby.

He was strapped face down to a narrow bed and his trousers were pulled down. Moments later the screaming began.

The "treatment" he received is meted out by City Without Drugs, a group that has declared war on narcotics in the industrial city of Yekaterinburg, 900 miles east of Moscow. The group's founders, three wealthy businessmen, claim remarkable success in curing addiction - but the cure is intimidating in the extreme.

Standing in darkness on either side of the teenager's bed, the guards pulled out leather belts and folded them for extra thickness. They then beat his buttocks, taking it in turns to strike while his cries grew louder and more desperate with each passing minute. One of the assailants used a cigarette lighter to inspect red buckle marks on raw flesh. Satisfied, he barked a few threats and called for his next victim.

The second addict, who had been lying terrified on an adjacent bed, was beaten without delay. At one point the pain was so great that he passed out. His tormentors hit him in the face to bring him round and resumed the thrashing. By the end of the session each had received 300 lashes; both had to be helped back to the cellar, where they were to spend the rest of their first week at the centre.

"On the first day we beat them with belts until their buttocks turn blue," boasted Igor Varov, one of the three businessmen behind City Without Drugs. "Every week we have to buy a new belt because they go too soft, but we have been impressed with the quality of Gucci belts.

"Drug addicts are animals who have lost all sense of values. This way, the next time they think about getting a fix they remember the pain of the thrashing rather than the rush of the drugs. It's very effective. You cannot solve this with mild manners - you need tough measures."

It was two years ago that Varov, one of the richest men in Yekaterinburg, and his partners launched their campaign against the drug menace. They said they had been forced to take matters into their own hands because the local authorities had failed to address a level of addiction that is among the worst in Russia.

Their followers mounted ferocious punitive raids on drug dealers. One suspected dealer was tied to a tree with a sign saying he was poisoning the city's youth. Others had their legs broken or their homes set on fire. But such was the demand for places at the rehabilitation centre that a second one has opened.

After their initial beating, addicts spend their first few weeks handcuffed to a bed, left to face their withdrawal symptoms with nothing stronger than bread and water. Later the inmates are put to work chopping down trees or labouring.

Nobody is allowed to leave during the treatment, which lasts a year. The few who have tried to escape have been brought back and punished. Former inmates who test positive for drugs are also subjected to beatings.

Before handing over their children, parents are required to sign a form absolving the managers of responsibility for any harm that might be done. Some 200 young addicts are under their supervision. Varov claims his methods have cured 50 former addicts in less than 18 months, several of whom have stayed on to work at the centre. Drug consumption and trafficking in the city have also dropped sharply, he says.

Many condemn the methods. Police officers have gathered evidence of inmates being beaten with batons and sticks. They have also recorded testimony from addicts who claim to have been handcuffed to iron bars and left dangling. Such allegations are denied by the centres.

Andrei, 20, who was treated at the centre and is too afraid of reprisals to give his full name, described how he tried to escape from one centre but was beaten so badly that he spent three weeks in hospital and was scarred for life.

"I was made to lie on the floor. Then two guys, one with a rubber baton and another with a wooden handle from a spade, beat me until I was unconscious," he said. "I was then left to hang handcuffed for three days from a wall. They are sadists. They love the power - that's what it is all about. You can hardly call it therapy."

Copyright 2001 Times Newspapers Ltd.

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