Worse than the mafia: Moscow police who tortured and murdered in crime rackets

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There is nothing new about police corruption and brutality in most countries, but in crime-hardened Russia it is positively yawn-inspiring. Yet the sheer scale and gall of the latest alleged cop crimes have appalled even the more cynical observers.

Prosecutors in Moscow are investigating a gang of law enforcement officials accused of a four-year reign of terror in which they murdered, robbed, tortured and extorted money from businessmen in a manner no different from the gangsters whom they were employed to suppress. The only aspect of their case more horrifying than their alleged crimes is the membership of the group, whose qualifications will outshine almost every other gang in the annals of violent crime.

It was allegedly led by an officer of the interior ministry's main criminal investigation directorate (GUUR). According to the newspaper Kommersant, it also comprised officers from narcotics, commando, and economic crime units, a dozen cops from the GUUR, a police colonel, and - presumably to unravel any troublesome legal hitches - a lecturer from the ministry's law academy.

Whenever any trouble arose with the full-time crooks in competing mafias, they reportedly arrested them. And if any honest cop flagged them down when they were en route to an armed robbery, they only needed to pull out their police ID.

The gang - whose leader shot himself when the police arrived to arrest him - also appears to have been well versed in technology and record-keeping. According to the English language newspaper the Moscow Tribune, they kept a database of their potential victims - businessmen, drug dealers and assorted mafiosi - and kept a photograph album of those whom they had already tortured, extorted of all their cash, and finally murdered. Officials say they committed 12 murders in Moscow, where they ran drug and protection rackets, before they were caught.

The case, now awaiting trial, is one of the most graphic examples of corruption in Russia's police force, which led to the arrest of a breathtaking 11,000 law enforcement officials last year. Last week, Anatoly Kulikov, the interior minister, acknowledged that the problem was undermining public confidence. He and Boris Yeltsin have pledged to clean up corruption in Russia, although progress has been slow.