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Free Russia Foundation is closely following the news surrounding the activities of the Wagner Group inside Russia with grave concern.
The events themselves, the diverging agendas advanced by various Russian power groups, and how they may unfold in the coming days are highly dynamic and uncertain. What is clear is that the political situation in Russia is extremely unstable and volatile, with the potential to escalate quickly and posing risks far beyond Russian borders.
This development, however, is a logical evolution of the lawlessness, violence, and corruption purposefully harnessed by Putin in order to remain in power and brutally wielded against Russian civil society in the form of repressions, and against the people of Ukraine in the form of military aggression.
Free Russia Foundation calls on the democratic world to provide Ukraine with all it requires for a decisive victory on the battlefield against Russian forces and to strengthen its commitment to pro-democracy Russians, both in-country and those forced into exile—as the two prerequisites for peace and stability in the region.
On February 24, 2022, war censorship was de facto established in Russia: Roskomnadzor, the government’s media watchdog, demanded that the media and information resources that cover the situation in Ukraine cite only official sources. For spreading what the Russian authorities deem as “deliberately false information,” media outlets could be blocked and fined. Over a year and a half, Roskomnadzor blocked more than 10,000 sites, dozens of independent publications were declared foreign agents and “undesirable organizations.” About 15 editorial offices moved abroad, some were forced to shut down, some changed their format. Two dozen of the new Russian-language media were launched as well: journalists sought to understand what was unraveling as a result of the war and cover it. These newly emerging media are organized and function differently compared to their old counterparts—they have a different relationship with their audience. The search for a new language, focus on people’s stories, and mutual support make their work possible and even successful.
New media began to emerge immediately after the Russian full-fledged invasion of Ukraine and the introduction of war censorship. On March 5, 2022, the Astra Telegram channel was launched: its team publishes news, videos and photos, eyewitness accounts, interviews with Ukrainians and Russians affected by the war, and conducts investigations.
In April, one of the first socio-political online publications in Russia Polit.Ru, creator and partner of many humanitarian projects, launched its project called After, which is dedicated to conversations “with various interesting people about possible options for the Russian future.”
At the end of April, another new publication, Verstka, was launched. Without initial funding or established audience, the team could only respond to readers’ requests, according to its founder, journalist Lola Tagaeva, who spoke about it at the recent Brussels Dialogue forum. “There is plenty of issues: the state creates problems for people every day and simultaneously imposes its agenda. We could not and cannot leave these people to be overcome by propaganda. They need free journalism. It turned out that if you answer [people’s questions] on time, if they get something first, readers come.”
On May 11, 2022, Ilya Krasilshchik, former publisher of Meduza and former head of Yandex.Lavka, a food delivery service, launched Helpdesk.Media, a media project and assistance service for the war victims in Ukraine and beyond. In March 2023, Ilya introduced the mobile app through which readers can set up a news feed, get support and donate to deliver urgent help to those in need.
At the end of May2022, the Cedar (Kedr) project was launched focusing on how the war affects the environment in Russia, Ukraine, and the world.
On June 1, Ochevidtsy (Eyewitnesses) was launched, offering a public platform for Russians and Ukrainians, both celebrities and ordinary people, to speak about the ways their lives have changed since the outbreak of the war. “There is this large-scale historical event that will change the lives of many people forever,” says one of the project’s creators Viktor Muchnik, former editor-in-chief of the independent Tomsk television channel TV2. “And I have witnesses of these events—ordinary people to whom I can come with a camera talk [about it].”
Political scientist Kirill Rogov and his team launched the Re:Russia project, an expert platform for discussing Russia’s political, social, and economic issues. “Russia is at a tragic turning point in its history, the events taking place are comparable in significance, perhaps, only to the events of a century ago—the Bolshevik coup and the civil war, because their consequences are likely to determine Russia’s place in the world and its historical track for decades to come. In this situation, a deep, non-opportunistic understanding of the processes taking place in the country seems to be critically important and, in the end, can influence the future, exposing its imaginable scenarios and forks,” the project manifesto says.
Journalists Farida Rustamova and Maxim Tovkailo launched the Faridaily news channel: “Today, simply informing the public to promote [certain] values is not enough. Direct communication with the audience is very important to us. Every day people write to me, saying ‘thank you for not leaving us alone.’ Russian officials also read [our channel], it is, too, important to keep in touch with them: not all of them are directly involved in the war crimes,” Farida said during the Brussels Dialogue forum.
On June 30, 2022, the independent research media Beda (Disaster) was launched. The publication was founded by an anonymous team of journalists, translators, anthropologists and researchers, whose goal is to tell the stories of “those who have faced authoritarianism, military and police violence, exploitation and oppression,” creating a knowledge-based platform dedicated to Russian colonialism.
In the summer of 2022, Drone was launched, one of the few Russian-language publications that does not only focus on news from Russia, but also covers events in Georgia, Moldova, Belarus and, of course, Ukraine.
Writer and journalist Linor Goralik and her team launched two anti-war media projects—News-26, a daily publication about Russian politics for teenagers, and ROAR (Russian Oppositional Arts Review), an online magazine that publishes literary and artistic work about the war in Ukraine.
This is, by no means, a complete list. Below are the projects that appeared instead of the ones that had been forced to shut down.
The community of journalists who do not support the Putin regime was agile even before the war: many were familiar with each other, moved easily from one media to another; former colleagues launched their own projects (as happened, for example, with The Bell). Overall, mutual support was strong. The closure of individual projects could have become a disaster, but the habit of reassembling, creating new associations and new formats has already been in place.
On March 1, 2022, at the request of Russia’s Prosecutor General’s Office, the Echo of Moscow radio station stopped broadcasting. On October 3, the online edition of Echo was launched: the new media includes shows from YouTube channels of several editorial teams and independent journalists who previously collaborated with Echo of Moscow, including the Zhivoy Gvozd (Live Nail) channel.
Ilya Shepelin and Masha Borzunova, former employees of TV Rain (an independent television channel, which was forced to stop broadcasting in Russia and restarted abroad), created individual YouTube channels dedicated to exposing fake news.
The journalists of Novaya Gazeta who left Russia after the suspension of the publication on March 28, launched Novaya Gazeta Europe. The publication covers both Russian and European news, and also offers a Free Space service that allows readers to subscribe to the topics and authors of their interest. The editor-in-chief of the new publication Kirill Martynov also writes weekly personal takes on recent Terrible News.
On March 6, 2022, Roskomnadzor blocked the website of the main publication of the Russian scientific community, Troitsky Variant—Science, for publishing an anti-war letter signed by more than 8,000 scientists—one of the first statements by a professional community condemning the invasion. The T-invariant project, edited by scientific journalist Olga Orlova, was relaunched in February 2023, focusing on science under the conditions of war in Ukraine.
The Bell project, created by a team of journalists who had departed leading Russian business publications Vedomosti and Forbes, launched the Telegram channel titled What do you get out of it?, which discusses how political economic news affect everyone on a personal level. Meduza also started a newsletter titled Signal, which explains the current developments instead of simply delivering facts, since “under the new conditions, the ability to understand news is not just useful, it is a vital skill.” The St. Petersburg-based Bumaga (Paper) created a newsletter titled Inhale. Exhale. Every evening, the publication recounts the events of the day, and then gives “one story about people that allows [readers] to look at the world with hope. It’s an exhale.”
Closer to the ground, closer to the common pain
“The Russia of the future, if it is meant to be, must be reassembled from below. If the reassembly begins again in Moscow, [the country] will most likely become the same as it is now: imperial, colonizing, a threat to its neighbors. Therefore, the assembly point of the new country should be in the regions: Siberia, Kuban, Bashkortostan, Tatarstan, the Urals …”, this is how independent regional journalists from Russia announced their new project about the regions titled Says NeMoskva (some of them continue to work on the ground, others fled the country). The online publication covers issues of local identity and interests, possible institutions and tools for protecting these interests and coordinating efforts.
In May 2022, the New Tab was launched, another online publication featuring longreads about life in the regions. “It was literally a new tab that you can open and where you can read a dramatic story—not from the battlefield, but about how people’s lives are changing at home,” the authors explain.
Employees of some regional media faced issues of splitting the team: while leaders left the country due to persecution and settled to manage editorial offices remotely, correspondents continued to to their job on the ground. “We have to protect our employees: hide their names, remove bylines, encrypt communication,” explains Ivan Rublev, editor-in-chief of Yekaterinburg media It’s My City.
Andrey Maslov, editor-in-chief of the Belgorod publication Fonar.tv, offers another view: “We haven’t left Russia: I may disagree with something, but I have an audience, and I believe that it is necessary to work here, otherwise the context is lost, you start thinking abstractly, not fully understanding how the audience perceives it. When you are away from the place you are writing about, it is harder to understand the pain.”
“Journalists in Russia, I think, need to write about what ordinary people in Russia are worried about. As for the foreign policy situation, I think there are enough high-quality and very good journalists who have left Russia and can write on these topics calmly,” argues Vladislav Postnikov, editor-in-chief of Vecherniye Vedomosti from Yekaterinburg.
The possibility of collective action
“It is important that new projects live for a long time, even if they are small,” notes journalist and publisher Sergey Parkhomenko. “The duration of the effort and the ability to cooperate are important.”
Among such collective projects is the project titled “Who answered for the words”—the result of the work of three teams: Tomsk TV2, St. Petersburg Paper, and the Editor-22 project. This is a platform where editors and media owners, media lawyers and other legal professionals explain what happened to Russian regional journalism after February 24, 2022.
For the Russian audience, investigative media, such as Project, Important Stories, The Insider, Bellingcat, and Alexei Navalny’s team have launched a free mobile application Samizdat, which gives access to their texts without a VPN.
The latest impressive example of the collective efforts of independent media and their audience inside the country has been the June 12 marathon of solidarity with political prisoners and all Russians who oppose to war. In 12 hours, the participating publications managed to collect 34 million rubles ($400,000) in donations. “We are doing great at helping [civil society] organizations and media: they are effective, indestructible, recover even after a direct “nuclear strike,” relentlessly self-renew, and adapt to the needs of reality. And look with what energy and appreciation people use the opportunity to do something noble and at the same time effective,” commented political scientist Ekaterina Shulmann, who joined the marathon with her own YouTube channel. “That is, not to sacrifice yourself for symbolic purposes, but to take a risk in order to really help someone.”
Independent media themselves, new and old, also need help to stay in touch with readers and viewers. In June, Reporters Without Borders and independent Russian media appealed to the Big Tech companies, including Meta, Google, Twitter, etc., with a request to create a group “Engineers against Dictatorship” to prevent the shutdown of the Russian segment of the Internet: “As the [presidential] election time approaches, we have serious reasons to suspect that this fall, YouTube and Telegram may be completely blocked in Russia, which will turn more than 140 million people into hostages of the state propaganda apparatus.” The initiative was supported by the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta Dmitry Muratov (“Now in Russia, the entire system of content delivery is under threat of destruction. Freedom of speech today is about technology,” he noted) and was signed by 40 human rights activists and editors of Russian media, from Mediazona to Memorial. The European Federation of Journalists and the Association of Journalists of the Netherlands also joined the initiative. February 24, 2022, put an end to the market of independent Russian media as we knew it. Almost all media that are not controlled by the Kremlin now are forced to work from abroad, their websites are blocked in Russia, while free journalism inside the country became dangerous. Nevertheless, we observe the growth of a diverse group of independent media projects; new ones sprout in place of the liquidated ones, journalists react to the audience’s changing needs and continue to carry out their mission. This includes serving as a bridge between those who left Russia and those who stayed, working to ensure that Russian civil society not only does not split, but also expands.
On September 26, 2022, police raided the apartment of a 31-year-old Moscow poet Artyom Kamardin. They beat and tortured everyone in the apartment. Mr. Kamardin was raped with a dumbbell. Consequently, Nikolai Daineko, Artyom Kamardin and Yegor Shtovba were prosecuted under part 2 of Article 282 (“Degrading social cohesion with threat of violence with the use of the Internet,” up to 6 years in prison), because of writing anti-war poetry. Here is the story of three poets.
Who are Nikolai Daineko, Artyom Kamardin and Yegor Shtovba?
Nikolai Dmitrievich Daineko, born June 2, 1996, is a resident of Moscow. He is a poet, participant of Mayakovsky Readings event, civil activist, and a rock-musician. Accused under paragraph “a” of part 2 of article 282 of the Criminal Code (“Degrading social cohesion with threat of violence with the use of the Internet”, up to 6 years in prison). He has been imprisoned since September 25, 2022.
Artyom Yuryevich Kamardin, born on October 10, 1990, is a resident of Moscow. He is a poet, participant of Mayakovsky Readings event, and a civic activist. After graduating college, Artyom worked as an engineer. Accused under item “a,” part 2, article 282 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (“Degrading social cohesion with threat of violence with the use of the Internet,” up to 6 years in prison). He has been imprisoned since September 26, 2022.
Yegor Olegovich Shtovba, born on December 26, 2000, is a resident of Moscow. He is a poet, participant of the Mayakovsky Readings event, and a civic activist. He is a student of Russian philology at the Institute of History and Philology specializing in pedagogical education. He is charged under item “a” of part 2 of article 282 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (“Degrading social cohesion with threat of violence with the use of the Internet,” up to 6 years in prison). He has been imprisoned since September 25, 2022.
On September 25, 2022, the Mayakovsky Readings, a traditional monthly poetry recitation, took place on the Triumfalnaya Square in Moscow. This tradition was established in Moscow in 1958, as a tribute to poet Vladimir Mayakovsky and after a break was revived in 2009. The last installment of the Mayakovsky Readings had been conceptualized by organizers as “anti-mobilization,” protesting forced mobilization of Russian citizens for the war with Ukraine. On September 25, 2022, about three dozen people attended the readings.
That same evening, videos of the event were published on the Internet. Poet Artyom Kamardin, addressed the audience: “Do you remember how the Luhansk and Donetsk terrorists were called eight years ago? Militia!” He then moved to read his 2015 poem “Kill me, militiaman!” Then, Mr. Kamardin recited what he called “a folk couplet about referendums” (referring to the so-called referenda on the annexation of Ukraine’s regions to Russia: “Glory to Kievan Rus’! Novorossiya — suck it!”.
The police arrived forty minutes after the start of the event and began detaining participants and even members of the audience. Nikolai Daineko, Yegor Shtovba and several other people were taken to the police station, accused of participating in an unauthorized rally and issued protocols.
The Arrest and the Criminal Case
The next day, on September 26, 2022, Ilya Myalkin, the prosecutor of the Investigative Committee’s Tverskoi district department of Moscow, opened a criminal case under paragraph “a” of part 2 Article 282 of the Criminal Code against “unidentified persons.” According to his ruling, during readings of literary works, an unidentified person made statements “regarding members of the volunteer armed formations of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics” that “allegedly contain signs of inciting hatred or hostility, and also called for the use of violence against them and members of their families.”
On the same day, around 2 p.m., the apartment where Artyom Kamardin, his girlfriend Alexandra Popova, and their roommate Alexander Menyukov lived, was stormed by the police offers yelling “Get down! On the floor!”. All three of them were beaten. Their injuries can be seen in the photographs and police footage, and are confirmed by medical records and testimonies of the victims. Under the pretext of a search, the law enforcers, judging by the photos and Ms. Popova’s testimony, ransacked the apartment.
Artyom Kamardin then reported through his lawyer that during the “search” he was severely beaten and had the bar of a dumbbell forced up his anus, and was compelled to apologize for writing his poems. Alexandra Popova, who, as she says, was aggressed in the adjacent room, heard the sounds of violence towards Artyom Kamardin, and the law enforcers showed her a video of his rape. Alexander Menyukov also heard Mr. Kamardin’s screams.
During the search, Mr. Kamardin was forced to apologize on camera because of his words. The video shows the activist kneeling in an apartment with handcuffs behind his back, his face showing signs of beatings. In the footage, he apologizes for what he said at the Mayakovsky Readings. “I apologize, ask for forgiveness and repent in front of the Russian multinational people for what I said yesterday at theTriumfalnaya Square.” In the recording, Mr. Kamardin promises “never again to read” the poem “Kill me, militiaman!” which he delivered at the Mayakovsky Readings, nor to engage in political activities.
Ms. Popova reported that she was also tortured in the meantime: she was threatened with gang rape, her hair was pulled out, and her face and mouth were covered with superglue. In addition, she discovered that $600 was missing from her apartment after the search.
Mr. Kamardin’s lawyer Leonid Solovyov was not allowed into the apartment, saying that it was not a search, but an operational and investigative measure (ORM), which, allegedly, does not provide for the presence of a lawyer.
Then the detainees were taken to the Investigative Committee’s Tverskoi district office in Moscow and formally interrogated. The ambulance team there did not find any bleeding in Mr. Kamardin, but preliminarily diagnosed concussion of the brain, closed cranial trauma, bruised chest and numerous facial abrasions. The activist was taken to the hospital, where he was examined.
Alexandra Popova and Alexander Menyukov were released as witnesses in the criminal case, and Artyom Kamardin was detained as a suspect and sent to the temporary detention center (IVS).
Nikolai Daineko and Yegor Shtovba were arrested in connection with this case and held for two days as suspects.
After they were released, Ms. Popova and Mr. Menyukov visited doctors. The woman was diagnosed with concussion of brain, contusion of soft tissues of head, hips and shins, crushing of skin of the left hand and closed craniocerebral trauma. The young man sustained multiple contusions to his right auricle, left wrist and back.
On September 28, 2022, a judge of the Tverskoy District Court of Moscow, Anatoly Belyakov, put Yegor Shtovba and Nikolai Daineko in pre-trial detention, and another judge of the same court, Irina Buneeva, put Artyom Kamardin in pre-trial detention for two months as suspects during the preliminary investigation. On October 6 and 7, 2022, Mr. Savchenko, prosecutor of the Investigative Committee, issued orders to bring them in as suspects. On November 24, 2022, the court extended the defendants’ detention for another month.
All three now face up to six years in prison for reading poetry.
Why Does the Memorial Center Recognize Nikolai Daineko, Artyom Kamardin and Yegor Shtovba as Political Prisoners?
Having examined the documents of the case, the Human Rights Center Memorial concludes that Nikolai Daineko, Artyom Kamardin and Yegor Shtovba are the victims of political persecution.
The expert who examined the statements and the poem “Kill me, militiaman!” by Artyom Kamardin at the request of the prosecutor, concluded that they contained linguistic attributes of degrading the “militia”. The expert did not find any incitement to violence, and the Memorial lawyers would agree with him. The leading expert organization in the field of extremism, the Sova Information and Analytical Center, holds the same opinion.
Thus, the prosecutor, in his decisions to bring the defendants in custody, unreasonably refers to the expert opinion and asserts without evidence that the defendants called for violence against the “militia.” This means that the charges under paragraph “a” of Part 2 of Article 282 of the Criminal Code are unlawful.
Lieutenant Savchenko brought up threats of violence as pretext because he could not otherwise bring charges in principle, the Memorial believes. Since 2019, degrading people without the threat of violence is a crime under part 1 of Article 282 of the Criminal Code only after being brought to administrative responsibility for a similar act (Article 20.3.1 KoAP RF) within one year. None of the three defendants had been brought to such responsibility.
In addition, Memorial agrees with the Sova Center’s earlier position that the undefined, evaluative concept of “social group” should be removed from anti-extremist legislation. Its presence in Russian criminal law is criticized not only by human rights activists, but also in the academic legal community. The concept of a social group is not disclosed in the criminal law, and there are no relevant explanations in the acts of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation.
If we still analyze Artyom Kamardin’s poem for “degrading the dignity” of the Donbass “militia,” then we can call the work provocative, and his words could possibly be perceived as insulting by the “militia” and their family members. However, Memorial lawyers believe that people, especially poets, have the right to express angry irony, negative emotions, and critical assessments of other people and groups. In the poem the author obviously expresses his negative attitude to the fratricidal war in Ukraine, indicates his rejection of war crimes provoked by Russian state propaganda, which were committed by the “militia” with the explicit support of the Russian state. The author’s rejection of the unprovoked armed aggression of his country against the people of the neighboring state goes as far as “screaming” and “calling” on the “militia” to kill him.
In fact, there is no explicit humiliation of the “militia” in the poem: neither a statement about their inferiority, nor a statement about the superiority of others over them. The poem only expresses, in an artistic, figurative form, the author’s legitimate and justified critical attitude toward this group.
In the Memorial’s opinion, Artyom Kamardin’s harsh rhetoric is permissible within the framework of the exercise of the rights to freedom of speech and expression, guaranteed by Art. 29 of the Russian Constitution and international conventions. Moreover, it is worth taking into account that the validity of his critical position regarding the “militia” is proven by numerous factual data and court decisions, that this is criticism of persons who are members of illegal armed formations, with whose hands the Russian authorities unleashed a war against the people of Ukraine.
Artyom Kamardin’s speech did not contain incitement to any actions against the “militia”, and the probability of harm to them as a result of his speech is practically zero. In addition to the lack of inherently humiliating dignity of this group in the speech in question, recall that it was made before an audience of only less than three dozen peaceful, non-aggressive Muscovites.
The texts of the investigator’s rulings on arraignment of all three defendants are short and identical. They do not specify what specific criminal act each of them committed. Memorial hypothesizes that the prosecution might claim that Nikolai Daineko and Yegor Shtovba repeated the incriminating statements in the square after Artyom Kamardin. Or were they just nodding? Memoria considers imprisonment and prosecution for such “deeds” to be obviously inhumane, unjust and unlawful.
The independent human rights project “Support for Political Prisoners. Memorial”, which continues the work of the thematic Program of the liquidated by the state HRC Memorial, in accordance with the international guidance on the definition of “political prisoner,” finds that the criminal case against Artyom Kamardin, Nikolai Dayneko and Yegor Shtovba is politically motivated, aimed at involuntary termination of their expression, public activities of critics of the authorities and intimidation of society as a whole, i.e. consolidation and retention of power by subjects of authority. Their imprisonment violated the rights to freedom of speech, fair trial, and other rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Russian Constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Based on the above, Memorial considers Artyom Kamardin, Yegor Shtovba, and Nikolai Daineko political prisoners and calls for his release and for a review of his sentence with respect for the right to a fair trial.
A Russian campaigner and human rights activist is facing charges of spreading “knowingly false information about the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation” on social networks, for which he could be imprisoned for up to 10 years. Here is the story of Gregory Vinter.
Who is Gregory Vinter?
Gregory Marcus Severin Vinter (Grigoriy Electronovich Vinter before the name change) was born on February 14, 1969. He is a resident of the city of Cherepovets in Russia’s Vologda Region, an activist and human rights advocate. He is a former chief of the radiation control laboratory. He also used to serve as coordinator of the Vologda branch of the movement For Human Rights. For years, Gregory was involved in protecting forests from logging and the defense of prisoners’ rights. Between 2019-2022, he was convicted under Art. 319 (“Insulting a representative of the authorities”), Art. 207.1 (“Public dissemination of knowingly false information about circumstances that endanger the life and safety of citizens”), parts 1 and 2 of Art. 297 (“Insulting the court”) of the Criminal Code.
Gregory has previously been subjected to numerous administrative and criminal as well as extrajudicial prosecutions in connection with his human rights and advocacy work. In 2018, he was severely injured in an attack by an unknown perpetrator, presumably in connection with his active participation in the defense of the Pulowa Forest. In 2019, he was found guilty of insulting former Cherepovets mayor Elena Avdeeva and current city head Margarita Guseva in a post on his personal VK page condemning deforestation. He was sentenced to 280 hours of mandatory labor under Article 319 of the Criminal Code (“Insulting a representative of authority”) when the case was retried. The original conviction was overturned due to numerous violations.
Another criminal prosecution involved charges of “spreading knowingly false information” about coronavirus. At the peak of the epidemic, in a social media group he administered, Vinter reported that prisoners were being transported to the Cherepovets SIZO in violation of sanitary and epidemiological regulations (some prisoners had obvious symptoms of the coronavirus). On March 31, 2021, he was sentenced under Article 207.1 of the Criminal Code (“Public distribution of deliberately false information about circumstances endangering life and safety of citizens”) and Article 319 (“Insulting a government official”), added during the investigation for his alleged use of obscene language against an officer during a raid, to six months (the appellate court reduced the original sentence to two years) of corrective labor with a 5% monthly deduction of earnings to the state.
The Arrest and the Criminal Case
On August 24, 2022, the prosecutor of the Vologda region Investigative Committee, Senior Lieutenant of Justice A.A. Nesterov initiated a criminal case against Mr. Vinter under the “e” part 2 of article 207.3 of the Criminal Code (“Public distribution of deliberately false information about the use of the armed forces of the Russian Federation, the execution of their powers by state agencies of the Russian Federation on grounds of political, ideological, racial, national or religious hatred or enmity or on grounds of hate or hostility toward any social groups.”)
On the same day Vinter was detained. He had remained in custody from the moment of his arrest on August 24, 2022, and on October 19, 2022, he was transferred from the pre-trial detention center to house arrest.
According to the indictment, Mr. Vinter, “in order to form a negative attitude towards the actions of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation in Ukraine during a special military operation, having a persistent dislike for the state authorities of the Russian Federation, including the head of state, … acting on grounds of political and ideological hatred and hostility, … conducted a dissemination [on the Vkontakte public page] under the guise of reliable messages deliberately false information containing data that the soldiers of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation raped women and children, killed civilians and tried to burn their corpses in the cities of Bucha and Irpen of Ukraine”.
The “falsity” of the information in the indictment is substantiated by the phrase: “The information disseminated by G. M. S. Vinter according to the official position of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, is false.”
At the time of this writing, the post cited in the charge, made on April 4, 2022, in a group of social network Vkontakte, was still available in the public domain. Mr. Vinter’s imputed text was a comment on another user’s post. The full text of Mr. Vinter’s comment is as follows:
“It breaks my heart to see photos and videos from Bucha and Irpen. Occupiers from Russia raped children, and raped women were killed and abandoned right on the road, corpses were burnt. Everything that we knew about Afghanistan, Chechnya, Syria — everything is repeated in Ukraine — a wild herd of scum without family or tribe has carried out a monstrous massacre — GENOCIDE — of the peaceful Ukrainian population. This is the end of “Russian civilization” — no one will fall for Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky now — everyone will know that this is just a screen for Aleppo, Grozny and Bucha. Lord, take to heaven the tortured from Bucha and other Ukrainian places — may they be angels! Sorrowful tears.”
The defendant faces up to 10 years in prison.
Why the Memorial Center Recognizes Gregory Vinter as a Political Prisoner
Having examined the documents of the case, the Human Rights Center Memorial concludes that Gregory Vinter is a victim of political persecution.
A week after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, on March 4, 2022, the Russian State Duma adopted emergency laws (not as separate bills, but by amending others that had already passed first reading) to amend the Code of Administrative Offenses and the Criminal Code. These laws dealt with calls for sanctions, “spreading fakes” about the Russian armed forces, “discrediting” them, as well as calls to obstruct their use. The same day, the Federation Council approved the laws, and in the evening, they were signed by President Putin. The amendments took effect on March 5, 2022, the date of their official publication. The Memorial’s attorneys assert that this article contradicts both the Russian Constitution and Russia’s international obligations, as well as the basic principles of law.
According to Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, “Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference … shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.” Similar guarantees are contained in Article 29 of the Russian Constitution, which guarantees freedom of thought and speech.
The restrictions of freedom of expression established by Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code clearly do not serve the purpose for which such restrictions might be established, the Memorial emphasizes.
It is important to note, that legitimate restrictions on freedom of expression cannot be justified by military censorship, as stipulated by par. 15 of Article 7 of the Federal Constitutional Law “On Martial Law.” Even under martial law, therefore, the law does not impose special restrictions on freedom of speech and opinion. Moreover, there are no grounds for them in a situation where martial law is not imposed.
De facto, the norms of Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code allow prosecution for expressing any opinions on the use of the Russian Armed Forces and the activities of its government agencies abroad.
The aforementioned innate defects of Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation determine its unlawful nature, which does not even allow its application in good faith. However, the fact of urgent introduction of this article into the Criminal Code immediately after the beginning of the armed aggression against Ukraine, and the rhetoric of officials that accompanied its consideration and adoption, and, most importantly, the context of its application — the ongoing military actions and accompanying state military propaganda exclude such good faith. In a situation where the only truthful information and assessments are those of official Russian sources, which not only justify the war of aggression and deny numerous accounts of civilian deaths as a result of Russian strikes and war crimes committed by Russian forces, but also prohibit calling events that from any perspective constitute war the word “war”, the application of this article of the Criminal Code, which is by its nature illegal, is also extremely unconscientious and unlawful.
Based on the above, the Independent Human Rights Project “Support for Political Prisoners. Memorial” asserts that Article 207.3 of the Russian Criminal Code is unconstitutional, was created to conduct political repressions against critics of the authorities, and must be abolished. Any prosecutions under this article are unlawful and must be stopped.
Memorial’s lawyers further assert that Mr. Vinter’s statement is an emotional reaction to the crimes committed by the Russian military in the course of its armed aggression against Ukraine. The facts of shelling of cities, looting, killing of civilians and refugees, violence against women in the occupied territories have been documented and established, in particular, the facts of killing of civilians in Bucha and Irpen. As for the violence against children, this information was voiced by a representative of the official Ukrainian authorities at the time, which may well have been credible. The fact that these data were subsequently questioned by the Ukrainian authorities cannot impose responsibility on Mr. Vinter “retrospectively”. As for the the numerous violations of the rights of the population in Chechnya or Syria during military operations in those territories, these facts have been repeatedly confirmed by international human rights organizations and, in particular, by Memorial.
Human rights activists have not found either calls for violence or direct insults against specific individuals in Mr. Vinter’s statements, which could lead to the application of the exclusionary rule under the Guidelines on the recognition of political prisoners.
The independent human rights project “Support for Political Prisoners. Memorial”, which continues the work of the thematic Program of the liquidated by the state HRC Memorial, according to the international guidance on the definition of “political prisoner”, finds that the criminal case against Gregory Vinter is politically motivated, aimed at involuntary termination or change of the nature of public activities of critics of the authorities, as well as intimidation of society at large, that is, consolidation and retention of power by subjects of authority, while his incarceration was applied to him in violation of the right to freedom of expression. Moreover, the human rights organization believes that the persecution of people for their anti-war stance is related exclusively to their political views and the exercise of their freedom of expression.
Based on the above, Memorial considers Gregory Vinter to to be a political prisoner and calls for his release and for a review of his sentence with respect for the right to a fair trial.
Hieromonk of the Russian Orthodox Church Ioann (Dmitry) Kurmoyarov was detained in St. Petersburg and charged under the criminal article for public dissemination of false information about the Russian Armed Forces. Kurmoyarov faces up to 10 years in prison for this charge. The following is his story.
Who is Ioann Kurmoyarov?
Dmitry Kurmoyarov was born in 1968 in the region of Perm. Because Kurmoyarov’s father was a Soviet military officer who was often transferred from one region of the USSR to another, he and his family would later move to Belarus, and then to Ukraine. At the time of Kurmoyarov’s arrest, he was a resident of St. Petersburg. Kurmoyarov is a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR), an alternative to the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). It was in 2011 that Dmitry Kurmoyarov was tonsured as a monk by the name of Ioann. In the same year, Father Ioann received his PhD in theological studies from the Orthodox Theological Institute in Chernivtsi.
Kurmoyarov was active on his social media, with his earliest posts on Facebook dating back to2014, following Euromaidan and the change of power in Ukraine. Father Ioann wrote extensively about church issues, although political topics remained in a prominent focus. He referred to the war in Donbass “civil”, criticized Euromaidan and some Ukrainian politicians.
Kurmoyarov also denounced the shutdown of Russian television channels in Ukraine.
After moving to Russia in 2017, Father Ioann accepted a position as Associate Professor at the Novosibirsk Theological Seminary, where he taught theology for two years. At the same time, Ioann actively posted on Facebook and in 2017 he created a YouTube channel Orthodox Virtual Parish. On social media, Father Ioann criticized the reality of modern Russia, including the activities of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Father Ioann became notorious for his systematic criticism of the Church of the Armed Forces in Moscow (which he dubbed “pagan temple”) for featuring of NKVD officers, Yuri Gagarin, other secular characters, and Soviet symbols. As direct retribution for this criticism, in the summer of 2020, Kurmoyarov was banned from conducting services, wearing a cassock and cross, teaching, and preaching in church. This ban was imposed due to “inconsistency” within the title of a cleric of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Father Ioann tried to find another place of service since the ban was technically only valid for two months, but he could not secure employment due to derogatory references issued by the Novosibirsk Diocese.
Father Ioann tried to sue the diocese to get reinstated in the service, but so far these attempts have been unsuccessful. He later moved to St. Petersburg, joined the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCOR), found a secular job at a security company, studied music, and continued to be active on social media. Kurmoyarov did not give up his criticism of the Church of the Armed Forces. In December 2021, he even filed a lawsuit against Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu asking to prosecute him for insulting the feelings of worshippers. The suit was related to this particular church. During this time, independent media outlets such as Snob and Dozhd interviewed Kurmoyarov which boosted his popularity.
Father Ioann condemned the “special military operation” in Ukraine two days after it began in a video titled “Why Putin will not win this war”. Father Ioann later released many more videos criticizing the military’s actions, however his video “Who will be in hell and who will be in heaven”, which was posted on March 12, 2022, attracted particular attention from law enforcement. In the video, Kurmoyarov comments on Putin’s statement that “we as martyrs will go to heaven, and they will just croak.” Father Ioann commented that, instead, only peacemakers will go to heaven “and the one who unleashed aggression, well, he won’t be in heaven, no matter how hard he tries”.
The authorities didn’t react to the published video immediately, however, according to Father Ioann’s brother, Alexander Kurmoyarov, some action was anticipated. “We discussed the situation with these videos and so on, in principle, we were ready for the arrest, we expected it, we assumed that some pressure from the authorities would be. We thought that they would summon us, talk to us. He thought that if the persecution were to be very aggressive, he would be pushed out of the country somehow, or he would leave on his own, but we didn’t make any specific plans. He was going to stay in Russia and live here,” said the priest’s brother.
In April, Father Ioann was stripped of his priestly ministry by a decree of Patriarch Kyrill, who stated that the “former hieromonk Ioann (Kurmoyarov) was actively engaged in media activities in support of the nationalist regime in Ukraine, forming false information about the armed forces of the Russian Federation, and the schismatic organization of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCOR).”
The Arrest and Criminal Case
On June 7, 2022, law enforcement officers searched the home of Ioann Kurmoyarov, known as Father Ioann, and confiscated equipment, two icons, a wooden cross and a cassock. The man was detained and charged under “e” part 2 article 207.3 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation. According to the ruling of the investigating authorities, Kurmoyarov was charged, because of four of his video uploads to the social network VKontakte. In the videos, Father Ioann expressed his views on the war with Ukraine. Linguists, who conducted an assessment of the videos, concluded that Kurmoyarov “expresses ‘knowingly false information’ about the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation”.
In his videos about the war with Ukraine, Father Ioann criticizes Russian aggression from the standpoint of the Christian doctrine. A popular segment of his was a video where Father Ioann stated that Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine will go to hell, not heaven. “In heaven turn out to be ‘blessed peacemakers’, ‘peacemakers’ you know what the problem is? And those who unleashed aggression — they will not be in heaven,” the priest says in the video.
Kurmoyarov’s YouTube channel features not only his own videos, but also videos by other authors, such as reposts of the Popular Politics channel, which was created by associates of Alexei Navalny, as well as Ilya Varlamov and Maxim Katz. Here are just some of the titles: “Putin and Repression in Russia: Who is the Real Traitor of the Motherland?”, “Why Does the Kremlin Propaganda Make Russians Hate Ukrainians?”, “About 40,000 Residents Dead in Mariupol!”, “The Patriarch Blessed Aggression Against Ukraine!”, “Why Did Putin Start This War?”
On June 8, 2022, Judge Tatyana Alkhazova of the Kalininsky District Court of St. Petersburg ordered Father Ioann was to be held in jail. The session was held without the participation of Kurmoyarov’s defender, lawyer Leonid Krikun, despite the fact that he had been notified of the investigation during his entry into the case the same morning. The prosecutor, on the contrary, assured the lawyer that the trial would take place only on June 9, 2022.
Kurmoyarov pleaded not guilty in the “military fakes” case, noting only that “he may have seemed harsh in his statements to some,” but they were “only evaluative, with reliance on the Gospel.” “I am a Christian pacifist. In my videos I insist that the basic commandment is ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ there should be no war. I’m not talking about extremism. I’m for peace! — Ioann Kurmoyarov said at the trial. — I didn’t blame everything on Russia. I was talking about the two sides where people were dying. The accusations are far-fetched. My position is that everyone should stop the war and everyone should sit down at the negotiating table.”
The clergyman also assured the court that he posed no threat to society and had no intention of going into hiding. However, the court granted the petition of the prosecution and sent Kurmoyarov to custody until August 6, 2022.
Under a new Russian law, Kurmoyarov faces up to 10 years in prison for “knowingly spreading false information about the Russian Armed Forces”.
On June 10, 2022, attorney Krikun was not able to locate his client in pre-trial detention center-1 (Kresty-2) where he was supposed to be held after the June 8, 2022 trial. Father Ioann was also not located in pre-detention center-6 (Gorelovo), nor at the temporary detention center, where they reported that he “had already departed.”
It was not until June 14, 2022, that Leonid Krikun found his client in SIZO-1. The lawyer fears that his client may have been subjected to torture: “I have a strong conviction that the behavior of the prosecutor Luzhetsky on the first day of ‘work’ with Father Ioann, his hints to me that he would continue exercising pressure against the accused, as well as the absence of Father Ioann for his defense counsel in all institutions of the SPbFU, point to the use of unauthorized investigation methods and attempts to cover the tracks of this crime”. According to the lawyer, the prosecutor previously said that “despite all his efforts Father John does not want to admit guilt,” and asked the lawyer to “work” with him, promising to add mitigating circumstances to the case.
Why Does the Memorial Center Recognize Ioann Kurmoyarov as a Political Prisoner?
Having examined the documents of the case, the Human Rights Center Memorial came to the conclusion that Ioann Kurmoyarov is a victim of political persecution.
A week after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, on March 4, 2022, the Russian State Duma adopted emergency laws (not as separate bills, but as riders, by amending others that had already passed their first readings) to amend the Code of Administrative Offenses and the Criminal Code. These laws penalize calls for sanctions, “spreading fakes” about the Russian armed forces, “discrediting” them, as calls to obstruct their usage. These laws were approved by the Duma and signed by President Putin on the same day. The amendments took effect on March 5, 2022, the date of their official publication. Memorial attorneys firmly believe that this article contradicts both the Russian Constitution and Russia’s international obligations, as well as the basic principles of law.
According to Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, “Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference … shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.” Similar guarantees are contained in Article 29 of the Russian Constitution, which guarantees freedom of thought and speech.
The Memorial emphasizes that the restrictions on freedom of expression established by Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code hold no ground.
Restrictions on freedom of expression cannot be justified by military censorship, as stipulated by par. 15 of Article 7 of the Federal Constitutional Law “On Martial Law.” Even under martial law, the law cannot impose special restrictions on freedom of speech and opinion. Moreover, there are no grounds for them in a situation where martial law is not imposed.
De facto, the norms of Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code allow prosecution for expressing any opinions on the use of the Russian Armed Forces and the activities of its government agencies abroad.
The aforementioned features of Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation establish its unlawful nature and cannot be applied in good faith. For instance, the circumstances surrounding the adoption of this article into the Criminal Code—immediately following the start of the armed aggression against Ukraine—along with the rhetoric of officials who encouraged its adoption and, more importantly, the circumstances surrounding its application alongside state military propaganda—exclude such good faith. In an environment where only official Kremlin-affiliated sources are deemed as those purveying truthful information and assessments—justifying the war of aggression, denying facts of civilian deaths as a result of Russian strikes and war crimes committed by Russian forces and even prohibiting calling events that from any perspective constitute war “war”, the application of this article of the Criminal Code, which is by its nature illegal, is also extremely unconscientious and unlawful.
Based upon the provided information, the Independent Human Rights Project “Support for Political Prisoners. Memorial” asserts that Article 207.3 of the Russian Criminal Code is illegal, was created to conduct political repressions against critics of the authorities, and must be abolished. Any prosecutions under this article are unlawful and must be stopped.
Memorial also notes that this is not the first time Father Ioann (Kurmoyarov) has been persecuted for expressing an opinion. In the summer of 2020, after criticizing the Church of the Armed Forces, he was suspended by the Archbishop from the ministry for two months due to “non-compliance with the title of clergyman of the Russian Orthodox Church”. Father Ioann was also stripped of his position as Associate Professor of Church Theology in the Novosibirsk Seminary.
On April 1, 2022, by decision of Novosibirsk diocese and decree of Patriarch Kirill, Father Ioann was stripped of his rank for his public position against the war with Ukraine. Father Ioann is currently ordained in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia under the omophorion of Metropolitan Agafangel. This is a non-canonical Orthodox association that broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in 2007. The residence of the head of this church is in Odessa.
The independent human rights project Support for Political Prisoners and Memorial continue work of the liquidated HRC Memorial. According to the international guidance on the definition of “political prisoner”, Memorial finds that the criminal case against Ioann Kurmoyarov is politically motivated and aimed at involuntary termination for his critiques on the changes of the nature of public activities, of authorities, and of his thoughts about society at large, most particularly the consolidation and retention of power by subjects of authority. Father Ioann’s incarceration is in violation of his right to freedom of expression. Moreover, the human rights organization believes that the persecution of individuals for their anti-war stance is related exclusively to their political views and the exercise of their freedom of expression.
Because of these circumstances, Memorial recognizes Ioann Kurmoyarov as a political prisoner and calls for his release and for a review of his sentence with respect for the right to a fair trial.
Mikhail Savva, a sociologist and human rights activist, who emigrated to Ukraine from Russia in 2015, spoke about his involvement in documenting Russian war crimes on the Ukrainian soil.
Tatyana Felgenhauer, a journalist and former host of the Echo of Moscow radio station (which, similar to thousands of other media outlets, ceased functioning after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine), was among many other independent journalists who left Russia, fearing mass repressions and criminal prosecution for her activities. Over the years, she has written columns for Deutsche Welle, hosted a program on Dozhd TV channel, and blogged on MBH Media’s YouTube channel. Tatiana now runs her own popular YouTube channel and talks to Russian opposition politicians, human rights activists, and experts.
The guest of her latest issue was Mikhail Savva who left Russia at the beginning of 2015 fearing for his safety. Mikhail Savva, a renowned Krasnodar scientist and professor, has been actively involved in public activism for many years. He worked for a non-profit organization Southern Regional Resource Center, lectured at the Kuban State University (KubSU), was Deputy Chairman of the Human Rights Council under the Governor of Krasnodar Krai, served on the Public Advisory Council under the Regional Directorate of the Federal Migration Service, worked as Deputy Chairman of the Krasnodar Krai Public Supervision Commission (PMC) for three years, and monitored human rights situation with Russia’s prisoners.
In April of 2013, Mikhail Savva was detained by the Federal Security Service and arrested on charges of fraud. He was accused of misappropriating funds from a grant received from the Ministry of Social Development of the Russian Federation. Savva was also accused of illegal payments while at KubSU on a scale of more than 71 thousand rubles. On April 2, 2014, the Pervomaisky District Court in Krasnodar found the professor guilty and sentenced him to 3 years of suspended imprisonment with a probation period of two years and a fine. He spent eight months in a pre-trial detention on a fabricated criminal case. He was pressured to confess to subversion and to incriminate another person, calling him a member of some intelligence agency. In the second half of 2014, when Savva was already at large, he was summoned as a witness to another criminal case. From the very first interrogation appointment it became obvious that all these persecutions were launched to put him behind bars again. This is when he decided to move to Ukraine.
Today, Mikhail Savva, former political prisoner on the Memorial list, is the chairman of the board of the Sova Expert Group, an NGO that specializes in the examination of political motives behind criminal prosecutions. He partners with lawyers from around the world, non-governmental organizations, and the Free University, and investigates war crimes committed by the Russian army in Ukraine.
The latter topic, the investigation of the war crimes, was the subject of this interview.
— Mikhail Valentinovich, even before the war began, before February 24th, your biography is quite worthy of a screen adaptation in some kind of a thriller movie: the work within the system, the human rights activities, the cooperation with the governor, the head of the region, the criminal prosecution, the SIZO, the status of a political prisoner, and as a result you are a political refugee in Ukraine. By February 24, 2022, when Russia started this war, when they invaded Ukraine, how did you define yourself by that point: are you a Russian, a Ukrainian, a political refugee, or generally a person above it all?
— I think, yes, you could make a pretty good thriller about “How People Don’t Change.” Because the amazing thing is that it seems to me that I have remained the same all these years since the late 1980s. I did not change, but Russia, my country, has been changing, and changing radically, and, therefore, changing my place in this system. By February 24, I saw myself as an enemy of Putin’s regime. I was no longer a Russian in the full sense of the word. I have a Russian citizenship, but I have been living in Ukraine for 7 years, I have a refugee status here.
I am very closely connected to this country; I love this country. I don’t consider myself Ukrainian yet, although I speak Ukrainian fluently. I have a lot of friends. I am a member of Ukrainian society, yes, but the time has yet to come for ethnic consciousness. Perhaps it will not come, but the fact that I am an enemy of Putin’s regime, that was absolutely certain for me. Otherwise, there would have been no detention center, no court verdict, no immigration. And, so when everything began, I recalled what I was taught very well back in the army, in the Soviet army, during the two years of conscript service: specifically, the algorithm of a prisoner of war. If you are suddenly captured, your first task is to survive, your second task is to escape, and your third task is to inflict damage on the enemy. I already had a very clearly defined foe: the Putin’s regime. I understood that I was at the third stage: I had to inflict damage on them. How, and in what way… The war itself put everything in its place.
War is such a dense stream of events, which carries a man away. Whether he wants it or not, it’s very hard to resist war. You need to find your niche there. It puts everything in its place. In my case, I found that niche very quickly. To be more precise, my colleagues and I from the Expert Council of the Center for Civil Liberties , a Ukrainian human rights organization, talked about what we could do in case of war —just a few days before the start of a large-scale war. On the first day of the aggression, we got together online again and talked about more detailed options: what we would do under the occupation, what we would do if the occupation did not happen, and a few other cases like this. So, I had a pretty good understanding of myself under such circumstances. I was fine. All that was left to do was to act, and so I started.
— But as far as I understand, you started with the territorial defense battalions?
— I first started with the fact that a day after the aggression began, when I realized that the town where I lived (a suburb of Kyiv) would be under the occupation, I moved literally a few kilometers to a neighboring village, to be with my friends who were already in a territorial defense battalion (and I had no other options). Rural territorial defense in Ukraine in those days was a very interesting phenomenon: anyone who wanted could go there. The problems were different: there were not enough weapons, catastrophically not enough, except for light firearms and hand grenades. And not a single person in these small villages in the territorial defense was not officially drafted. That is, there were no lists, no orders, no assignments, people just came and did what they could. I even had a personal foxhole, almost a personal foxhole. We were on duty there together with friends I came to visit. March was freezing, but nevertheless, we worked in shifts. It was important because the Zhytomyr highway was literally five hundred meters away, and we could perfectly see everything that passes along the highway. And the Zhytomyr highway is the main direction that connects Kyiv with the West.
This highway was taken over by the Russian troops literally during the first days. Even though not completely, it was just a small area. But this small area that was taken under control, from Makarovka to Stoyanka, that’s where I was, so we saw everything that was moving along this highway. It was there, that I witnessed and documented the first war crime that happened before my eyes. That began the work, which then went on for several months and continues now (only in a different format), of documenting war crimes. This work is very important (about 50 percent of my time during the war was devoted to documenting war crimes to the west of Kyiv along the Zhitomir highway).
— Mikhail Valentinovich, I want to talk to you about the documentation and how war crimes are recorded in general, but I also want to talk about the territorial defense, about how you, a doctor of political science, sociologist, human rights activist, found yourself in a trench with a weapon in your hands: did you have any doubts on whether or not to take a weapon?
— I would have loved to be in a foxhole with a firearm in my hands, but I found myself in a trench unarmed because there wasn’t enough of weapons. As I said, there was a very small number of weapons available. As for the people who took weapons in their hands… You know, when I started coming to Kyiv in early March, and we found car fuel, we had to go there for humanitarian aid (we organized our own humanitarian aid deliveries for the village where we lived from Europe). I drove past some military recruitment offices in Kyiv and, these are not legends, I saw it myself, I saw men there, crying, lamenting because they were not taken, well, there, they tried to sign up for the territorial defense, but were not taken because there were not enough weapons. There were a lot of people who wanted to fight.
Once, we were loading a minibus with humanitarian aid for our village, and we were helped by guys from the National Guard unit that was there. We needed to load several tons into the car very quickly, we could not have done it ourselves, so they came. I was paired with a man a little younger than me, and we had to bring a big heavy pallet on such a special device (I don’t even know what it’s called, similar to a dolly), he and I walk up to this cart, he says thoughtfully: “My Ph.D. doesn’t allow me to figure it out.” I look at him and I say, “My two degrees don’t allow either, but we’re going to have to do it, there’s no way out.” And we then loaded everything we needed in there.
People took up arms no matter who they were. Regardless of the extent to which they could use a gun. In my estimation, some [people] would have been more useful in another capacity, but there was simply no way to stop that. In the house where we lived, we packed everything we had in the hallway that could be used as a weapon, just in case. There were hay forks, there were axes, there was this big household sledgehammer. Just in case. Because the threat was absolutely real: we saw Russians from several hundred meters away. They did not enter our village: they moved along the road, they did not have enough forces to occupy indiscriminately, so there was no such direct confrontation. If there had been… well, I did not have and do not have the slightest doubt which side I was on. I am a retired major of the Soviet Army, a former squad leader, I know what weapons are, I love them very much, but in peacetime I have shunned them, because weapons are such a nasty thing … once you take them in your hand, there is a situation where you will need them. But that’s in peacetime, but in war it’s just such a necessity.
— Now, let’s talk about something that you started doing quite soon after the start of the war, as I understand it: collecting and documenting evidence of war crimes. I know that you were involved in proving a political component in criminal prosecutions. When you need to prove that someone is being persecuted for political reasons, you help formulate and analyze this political motive, whether it exists or not. Is there such a story in war crimes or not, how does it work in general?
— Yes, that’s a very good question, relevant, so to say. I spent 7 years, literally from the first days after my emigration to Ukraine, working as an expert with lawyers and providing expert opinions about political motivation behind criminal prosecutions. Cases were very different, but mostly of two types: a person urgently fled somewhere in Europe, for example, filed documents for legalization, and a local judge or migration officer, if it has not yet come to court, just does not understand how you can persecute a person without any slightest reason. Well, I mean, they, I mean, first of all, Europeans, Israelis, Americans, just do not understand this. They have no experience with such cases. And, therefore, a situation arises where this Russian looks like he is not telling the truth. But he is telling the truth. In such cases, independent expertise helps a lot. I did that, and it turned out to be a very useful skill when the war started. Because when you work as a forensic scientist, some very important skills are formed.
For example, consider tough evidence. You’re not allowed to lie as an expert, and you have to provide evidence for everything you state, give all the irrefutable facts and clearly spell out all the dependencies between those facts. In documenting this, it seriously helped. On March 3, literally a few days after the start of the war, there was the first case that literally pushed me into this work, into documentation. We saw a Russian military convoy, a caravan of military vehicles that was driving along the Zhytomyr highway. We went out to get a better look at it, everything was literally visible as in front of our eyes: a combat infantry vehicle (BMP) was in front of the convoy, and then it suddenly opened fire. Two shots, two hits on two civilian cars. Well, I mean, these were ordinary vehicles that still had white rags wrapped around them as a symbol of them not being military vehicles. These cars were not painted in camouflage. There were clear signs on these vehicles that they were not military vehicles. Nevertheless, they were targeted.
On the same day, when it got darker and there were gaps between the Russian military convoys, it was possible to photograph what was left of the two vehicles. I even managed to find the license plates, which were blown off and landed pretty far away. There were three dead people in one car and three dead people in the other. All we could tell was that there were a man, a woman and a child in each car because all that was left was their legs. A 30-millimeter BMP shell literally blew the car apart, sometimes tearing off the top part, but the legs remained where they were. Then relatives of one of the dead, one of the drivers, started looking for him. We knew from the license plate number who he was, and now we know. He was a volunteer, a man from Kyiv, who was taking someone out of the combat zone in his car. He hoped to make it on time. But, unfortunately, he didn’t make it on time. We don’t know who the other people were.
I recorded it all, it was a photo fixation, it was my description that I made as a witness, and then I worked on the documentation as a member of the civil initiative “Euromaidan SOS”. This is an initiative that was created during the hours of the Maidan, the last Maidan, in 2012. It was established to document crimes that were committed against the protesters to protect the rights of these people, and during the war this initiative was renewed. We worked in a video recording mode. That is how it happened in my life, “one day in the life of Mikhail Valentinovich”…
— God forbid anyone such a day, honestly…
— I had those, just not in the Solzhenitsyn format, it was a detention center, but not a Stalinist camp, fortunately. Well, now such a paraphrase is appropriate because it happened many many times. The village where I lived then was not under the occupation, the Russians controlled only the highway, as I said, but they were constantly shelling this village. Why? I cannot say, because apart from the posts of territorial defense, there was nothing in this village, there were no units of the Armed Forces of Ukraine there and then. There were never any military facilities, military units, nothing but a sawmill, nothing at all. And a farm where they grow mushrooms. Nevertheless, every morning, very early, there was shelling, and when it was light, I would go either by car or on foot, if it was close, to the neighbors who had “arrivals”.
There were many hits. Fortunately, there were no fatalities, although sometimes the fact that no one died was just a miracle. I was recording the results of the Grad rocket launcher shells landing in the backyard of a retired village teacher with a profound disability. A grad shell exploded five meters from her house. But he went under a concrete slab (such massive slabs paved her yard), he went in, the explosion put this slab literally vertically, and this slab took the entire impact. If it hadn’t been there, this woman wouldn’t have been alive, there wouldn’t have been this shack, but even the windows were still intact. Such miracles happen at war. They flew in very often. They flew in, including one that was very close to the house where I lived. The closest arrival was 80 meters away, fortunately, on an empty lot, and it was a Russian tank shell. Shrapnel went into the house of another of my neighbors, who moved out. And when he phoned a couple of days later, my neighbor and I explained to him that no, there was no need to come, no need to repair the roof. The roof was fine, you just have a gate now, you know, a design. And his three-millimeter-thick metal gate turned into such a sieve, which, really, no designer had ever projected.
There were a lot of cases like that. This is also a war crime, I mean the indiscriminate shooting of civilians and civilian infrastructure without any slightest military necessity, —and we have also documented this. As of today, our public initiative “Euromaidan SOS” alone has recorded over 9,000 war crimes of all kinds: murders of civilians, rapes, destruction of civilian infrastructures, destruction of residential buildings, demolition of cultural monuments, well, even driving a tank over a cemetery. Some Russian tank crew wanted to drive over cemeteries, and it damaged several dozen graves, went somewhere into the field then into the forest. Then we found a burnt tank there, I don’t know if it was the right one or not, but I hope it was the exact one.
— The fact that you have documented all kinds of crimes, serious, very serious, monstrous crimes, does this have any kind of a procedural status, can you pass this on to investigative groups, or is this the amount of information that will now be accumulated, and then someone else will decide what to do with it?
— Investigative teams are already working with this material. There is a database of war crimes, which is inaccessible to almost everyone except for the Ukrainian and international law enforcement agencies. From it, cases are selected based on urgency, examined quickly, including the investigators of the International Criminal Court. Some refer to it as “The Hague Tribunal”, yes, there are tribunals there, but a large group of inspectors work there, they come to Ukraine, and this base is open to them as well. The accumulation of evidence continues, you are right, and the accumulation is very important, because such a record of war crimes allows, first of all, to try to bring to justice everyone who is guilty, from an individual or a sergeant who committed it, to those who are the leaders of the Russian regime, who created the conditions for the execution of such crimes.
But another important thing is that in the war, people just vanish very often. When we document crimes, we are sometimes able to find traces of these individuals. I’ll return to that incident along the Zhytomyr highway. The next convoy of Russian vehicles just scattered the remains of these cars. And if we had not taken the photos, these people would have simply vanished into oblivion, everything, as if they never existed. Because there were only partial remains of the human bodies, parts that would then just inevitably disappear. So that’s an important task, too. These people are being looked for, they have relatives, they have loved ones who would rather know where and how the person died than not know anything, as in many cases.
And one more point, I will just mention it: this is such an important, long, separate topic. A large file on war crimes allows us to analyze them, because when we know what was committed, it is much easier for us to conduct an examination of who and how created the conditions for these crimes. And here I recall the trial of former Yugoslav President Milosevic, who did not give orders to kill civilians or rape women, but he was convicted. He was judged precisely because there was a huge amount of confirmed evidence of war crimes, and then there was the expert work, which proved that it was he and the people around him who created such conditions that soldiers of the Yugoslav army were committing crimes en masse. That is exactly what is being established right now. That being said, the International Criminal Court has a very high standard of proof. From what I know, it’s the highest standard of proof. They don’t have that many criminal cases that come to a verdict. So, you need a very skilled expert to work there, and I’m very glad that I’m one of the elements of this complex expertise in proving their guilt.
— Tell me, about the documenting: how would you rate Ms. Denisova’s work? How much damage has she done to the work that you’re doing?
— No, I don’t think she did any great damage from a legal perspective. She was talking about sexual assaults of children, with the evidence base not yet assembled by that time. I would not be surprised at all if, after a while, it turned out that her estimates were about right, that it really was a mass phenomenon. It was just when confirmation and evidence was needed that she was unable to provide it. But you have to understand that establishing such proof is a complicated task, it takes time. When it comes to sexual offenses, it’s incredibly difficult. People don’t want to talk about it. People don’t even want to talk about things that have nothing to do with sexual assaults, they’re just scared.
When I came to Bucha, to Yablunska Street, where the largest number of people were killed by the Russians, there was just their base. The vehicles were just standing there, there was their headquarters. We just went through the backyards, we knocked on every gate, and when people came out to meet us, and some houses were already empty, we asked, “Were you here during the occupation?” — “Yes.” — “And are you willing to talk about what was here on camera and give your last name?” And in many cases we heard, “No, I’m not.” People are terrified… And when all the horror of a sexual assault is added to that, it’s very difficult to get testimonies.
There’s another point, which is absolutely objective, and Ms. Denisova certainly had no influence whatsoever on this. Many victims of sexual crimes from Ukraine have left for Europe. They departed for two reasons. First, they don’t want to stay in that social environment where they know what happened. And second, they needed very serious, very deep psychological rehabilitation. I know one such case: literally a few blocks from where I live, one of the volunteers, an acquaintance of mine, I can already say my friend, who used to come here when this area was under the occupation (he would bring food here, we would load him up, they would drive two electric cars, we would load him up with food, and then he would take people back and then drive on), and once he transported a woman, well, a girl of 15, who was actually raped for several days, who miraculously got out. She was sent to a Baltic country, and the girl is still being rehabilitated there. To expect any kind of testimony in such a state is simply impossible. It would worsen the psychological state of the victim.
— A clarifying question about Denisova’s situation: it’s just that she herself admitted that she exaggerated some things, if not invented them; do you as an expert question everything around you in general? Or are you, after all, biased?
— As an expert, I question absolutely everything, so in the course of the documentation I listen to and record one person, but when the investigative team starts working, they work with that comprehensively. My task as an expert is, firstly, to record, and secondly, to gather as much clarifying information as possible through interviews. I must be psychologically and emotionally neutral, I must not send any signals during the interview (I remind you that video recording is in progress, that is, I talk and at the same time it is recorded on camera), I must not give any clues, I must not emotionally exacerbate person’s condition, I must get information from that individual. The kind of information that can be checked later.
— Mikhail Valentinovich, you have been in Ukraine since 2015, and all this time you have dealt with the situation in Donbas in one way or another. So, when asked “Where have you been for eight years,” you can tell everyone exactly where you have been, and you have seen exactly what is happening on the line of demarcation in parts of these self-proclaimed entities and everything that was nearby. Who needed help there in the first place. And over these eight years, what mistakes would you highlight both on the part of the Ukrainian administration, because it was there all the time, and maybe the European Union, which, in general, took a calm attitude toward the annexation of Crimea and toward what was happening in the eastern Ukraine?
— Yes, I have traveled to Donbas every year since the fall of 2015, sometimes for long periods, sometimes for months. I have the feeling that I have been there in every “hromada” (that is, every settlement). Yes, at times I was asked to wear a bulletproof vest on the line of demarcation because it was literally the border. I worked as an expert, as a consultant for international programs, and in the course of this work I got a lot of information about the attitudes of the people, about what was going on, and I can draw conclusions about mistakes very confidently.
In one of the focus groups I moderated, we were talking about sources of information for local government, —what is needed, what is missing, and one of the participants, a local deputy, as I recall, suddenly said: “And you know, I watch Russian TV channels in general. I don’t watch Ukrainian channels because life is complicated enough! When I turn on a Russian channel, I wonder how beautiful it is! Successes, achievements, flights into space, solving problems, everything is so great… But when you turn on the Ukrainian channel, well, here’s some life, why do I need it?”
That was one of the main problems of the Ukrainian government, a problem that persisted until the beginning of the large-scale war in 2022: the information flow. In some bordering regions of Ukraine, there is very little or no Ukrainian television broadcasting. People watch Ukrainian proigraming, if we talk about the west of Ukraine, Poland, Hungary. If we talk about the east, they, unfortunately, watch Russian broadcasts. This is also a problem of coverage, just a problem of television towers, these transponders of the Strugatskys, of which there are fewer on the Ukrainian side. And it’s a problem of the content of this information flow. Democracy is always harder. In a democracy, the journalist works with information, they deliver facts, and these facts are far from always being pleasant.
When we talk about a non-democratic society, an authoritarian society, and now Russia is moving very steadily towards a totalitarian regime, toward neo-totalitarianism, there are far fewer journalists, and these people are mostly engaged in propaganda. They maipulate consciousness in order to change one’s point of view. And this requires a positive picture, something that one wants to portray in a good light, and hatred and denial of enemies. This is exactly the kind of information flow supported by the Russian propaganda stream, in which the inhabitants of Donbas have lived for several years. I can honestly say: you need a very powerful patriotic inner strength to withstand this struggle with Russian propaganda.
And now, by the way, I noticed that literally in the second echelon of the Russian occupation troops, along with the Rosgvardia, there are engineers who are working on the reconfiguration of television towers. That is, the Russian regime sees what it has been able to do to the Russians with the help of propaganda, and it plans to do the same to the Ukrainians in the occupied territories.
— About contacts that are now possible or impossible: in the field of human rights, legal assistance, do you see any possibility for Ukrainian human rights activists and lawyers to work together? There are prisoners on both sides.
— I don’t just see it, but we’re working on it. We do this literally on a daily basis and in a variety of formats. Just recently, after one of the meetings with the Russian and Ukrainian human rights activists, we created a joint monitoring working group on prisoners of war. There are Russian prisoners of war in Ukraine and Ukrainian prisoners of war in Russia. We need to understand the conditions under which these people are held, whether their rights are violated, whether they are tortured, whether politically motivated criminal charges are brought against these people, and whether they are allowed to communicate with their relatives or at least to tell them where they are (we have no information about many people).
This is a huge field of work, and we have to cooperate here, there’s just no other way. Because I can’t imagine how a Ukrainian lawyer would go to Russia to defend Ukrainian prisoners of war and a Russian lawyer would come to Ukraine. It is simply impossible. At the same time, there are Russian lawyers who are willing to work in good faith to protect Ukrainians in Russia, not as “nodders” and not as servants of the investigation.
— Is there any way to find out what happens to Ukrainian prisoners of war who are now in the hands of people from the so-called DNR and LNR? We recently talked to Vladimir Osechkin from Gulagu.net, and he told us that it is the worst in such areas, not in Russia, but in areas where there is complete lawlessness. And he was talking specifically about torture.
— And he is absolutely right. These unrecognized states are a legal no man’s zones, where formally there are some local laws, but in fact no one has ever observed them. There is indeed torture there, there is indeed an information vacuum. We simply do not know where these people end up. In very rare cases when someone manages to escape through an exchange, we study information about the conditions of detention. And the conditions of Ukrainian prisoners of war in these DNR and LNR do not meet any standards. Even worse, these legal black holes officially have the death penalty. And now they, or rather not they, but the Russian Federation is blackmailing the world with the death penalty against POWs for alleged crimes “against the people of Donbass.”
Such sentences are handed down to foreigners who are members of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. There are already two death sentences for Brits and one for a Moroccan with Ukrainian roots. And this is done with one objective: to force other countries to talk to these non-recognized quasi-states, and to somehow legitimize them, somehow bring them into the political field. This is a crude political blackmail, which is terrorism in essence. But even in these areas it is possible to at least try to establish control over rights. I am not only referring to the Red Cross, but also to the people who have the authority in the local administration to monitor the observance of the rights of prisoners of war. They are citizens of Ukraine, and they know very well that if they constantly and grossly violate international law, they will be punished. Accordingly, they are motivated to cooperate. The countries will not cooperate with them, but for public organizations it is quite possible. And we are now trying to establish this process.
— One question on today’s most current agenda: Vladimir Putin has ordered that all Ukrainians should be granted Russian citizenship under a simplified procedure. Is he doing this out of desperation? What kind of strange thing is this?
— No, this is an absolutely normal political move. He wants to demonstrate that Russia is attractive to Ukrainians. He wants to show that despite everything that is going on, Ukrainians are attracted to Russia, they find protection there, it is such an attempt to distort the image. This is also a calculation, such, you know, a statistical calculation. There are just a lot of Ukrainians stuck in Russia. According to the most conservative estimates, on the eve of the war, about 2 million citizens of Ukraine who permanently resided in Russia. Some got married, some worked there. When the war began, the opportunities to return decreased dramatically. And now these people are in a very difficult situation — they are under pressure, and they have to make a choice: either they return [to Ukraine] (which is through third countries, through Europe, for example), or they accept a Russian citizenship. Thus, Putin has an opportunity to show that Ukrainians are massively ready to accept the citizenship of the Russian Federation. The fact that this is done out of desperation does not deter him.
— As someone who was a political prisoner and had to flee the country, how closely do you follow what’s going on in Russia in terms of politics and repressions?
— I keep track not only because of my biography, but also because I am regularly approached by the Russian attorneys for expertise. Now there is a myriad of cases under Article 207.3 for fakes about the actions of the Russian army and state authorities. It was introduced literally in March, and there have already been more than 60 criminal cases under this article. There is a similar article in the Administrative Code, but it counts in the thousands. There is already a real sentence for a municipal deputy, several people are in pre-trial detention, and they are charged with the part that involves being locked up in a detention center. A person is essentially held under the torturous conditions.
— This is a political, blatantly political article. In the past, the Putin regime came up with some options to fight the opposition. For example, Alexei Navalny was always jailed under some economic articles, and I’m not even talking about Khodorkovsky. Somehow, all the time they are coming up with ways to pretend that this is not politics. But here it’s just political articles.
— Yes, in their pure form. These articles have no right to exist at all! They do not only contradict Article 207 and the like — the Constitution of the Russian Federation, they contradict the International Pact on Political and Civil Rights. It simply should not be the case when a person is put in jail for disseminating information. It is a recognized as a constitutional right to collect, store, and disseminate information by any legal means. And when such an article is introduced, one must understand that it is being done out of despair. Because information about what is happening in Ukraine, if it were open and accessible, would simply overwhelm Russians.
It is impossible for a normal person to withstand this and remain a Putinist patriot. There are a lot of abnormals there already, I understand that, but still, for a large part of people, it would be such a sobering drug. So the information is being shut down, shut down in an absolutely illegal way. And the very article is so insidious, because it says that the punishment is allegedly for disseminating false information. False information is not a reason to prosecute a person, but even this restriction is not observed by Russian prosecutors. Because knowingly false information is something that contradicts reality. And people are put in jail because their information contradicts the data from the Russian Ministry of Defense. I’ve read the indictments, I’ve read the so-called “expertise” of Russian so-called “scientists” who support these charges. They directly say that “this information is knowingly false, because this is not what was said in the Defense Ministry briefing.” It’s just a legal nightmare that Russia is now plunged into.
— Could this become another point of accusation at the international court?
— It will. It certainly will!
In Altai, the Gorno-Altaisk City Court put columnist and founder of the weekly newspaper Listok, Sergei Mikhailov in pre-trial detention. A criminal case was opened against Mikhailov for spreading fake news about the Russian military after investigators received a complaint about his articles about the “special military operation” of the Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine. These articles had been published in Listok and on the mirror site of the newspaper’s website.
Who is Sergei Mikhailov?
Sergey Mikhailov was born on August 1, 1976. He has a young child and currently resides in the city of Gorno-Altaisk in the Altai Republic of Russia. Mikhailov is the founder and a columnist of the opposition weekly newspaper Listok and is a member of the federal political council of the democratic party Parnas. He is charged under Article 207.3(2)(e) of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (“Public spreading of deliberately false information about the use of the Russian Armed Forces and containing data about the exercise of their authority by Russian government agencies outside the Russian Federation for reasons of political hatred” — up to 10 years in prison). He has been in custody since April 13, 2022.
Russian authorities have accused Sergei Mikhailov of publishing false information on the destruction of a maternity hospital and drama theater in Mariupol by Russian troops, which resulted in the death of civilians, in Listok’s Telegram channel from March 9 to April 4, 2022.
In addition, between March 20 and April 8, 2022, according to the case investigator, Mikhailov published false information on the killing of civilians by the Russian Army in the town of Bucha, Kyiv region, on the Telegram channel and newspaper website and in print issue No. 13(14)/1183 on April 6, 2022.
“By his actions, Sergei Mikhailov committed a crime under Article 207.3(e) of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation — public dissemination under the guise of reliable reports of knowingly false information that contains data on the use of the armed forces of the Russian Federation in order to protect the interests of Russia and its citizens, maintaining international peace and security, as well as containing data on the performance of their powers by state agencies of Russia outside the territory of Russia for such purposes, committed on grounds of political hatred and hostility,” concluded the above decision dated April 14, 2022 by V. Ageyev, the prosecutor for high-profile cases of the Department of Investigation,
The Arrest and the Criminal Case
On April 13, 2022, Sergei Mikhailov was detained in the town of Lyubertsy near Moscow where he had recently been living (hiding, according to prosecutors).
“On April 13, 22 at 6:00 a.m. I wake up to a sharp knock on the door of a room in a dormitory near Moscow. There is a shout from the door — open up, police! Immediately the flimsy plywood door flew open with a good kick. A crowd of people rushes into the room. A little later I counted 15 people, led by two SWAT officers in bulletproof vests, with assault rifles and faces covered with balaclavas. There was a cry of ‘Face down!’ I lay face down, handcuffs snapped on my hands. ‘Stand up, face the wall!’” Sergei Mikhailov describes his detention.
On the same day, law enforcement officers searched the Listokoffice in Gorno-Altaisk and confiscated documentation and office equipment. Searches were also conducted in the apartments of the news outlet’s employees.
On April 14, 2022, Mikhailov was taken under convoy to Gorno-Altaisk and placed in the temporary detention facility of the Department of Internal Affairs. Judge Elena Kuznetsova of the Gorno-Altaisk City Court placed him in the pre-trial detention center until June 7, 2022, on the recommendation of the investigation.
It should be noted that the criminal prosecution of Sergei Mikhailov was preceded by actions against him and his media outlet. At the end of March 2022, hackers tried to infiltrate Mikhailov’s Telegram channel, and in early April, VKontaktesocial media blocked Listok’s community group. On April 6, 2022, Olga Komarova, director of Publishing House Listok LLC, was summoned to the prosecutor’s office for drawing up a protocol under the administrative article on appeals to sanctions against Russia (Article 20.3.4 of the Administrative Code). In April 2022, the Gorno-Altaisk City Court fined Listok founder Mikhailov, director Komarova, and the media legal entity several times for publishing several articles allegedly discrediting the army, totaling over a million rubles.
On April 25, 2022, two criminal cases were opened against Mikhailov under the article on spreading “knowingly false information” about the Russian army (Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code). The first case was initiated due to reposts of entries about the war with Ukraine in the newspaper’s Telegram channel, and the second due to the publication of a summary of an article about the atrocities in Bucha from Wikipedia.
“S. Figulin, the head of the Republican Center “E” and his subordinates talked to me without any lawyer. They said — the investigator allowed it… The Telegram channel of Listok was insistently demanded to be eliminated. After hinting at some mitigation, Mr. Figulin demanded that I record a video of me apologizing… I refused … Figulin voiced aloud his desire to consider the criminal case “in a special order” …Figulin: “You are ruining Listok with your own hands.”
Sergei Mikhailov categorically refuses to admit to the charges and considers the criminal prosecution as obstruction of his professional journalistic activities.
Why Does the Memorial Center Recognize Sergei Mikhailov as a Political Prisoner?
After studying the documents of the case, the Human Rights Center Memorial came to the conclusion that Sergei Mikhailov is a victim of political persecution.
A week after the Russian invasion of Ukraine on March 4, 2022, the Russian State Duma adopted emergency laws (not as separate bills but by amending others that had already passed the first reading) to amend the Code of Administrative Offenses and the Criminal Code. These laws deal with calls for sanctions, “spreading fakes” about the Russian armed forces, and “discrediting” them, as well as calls to obstruct their use. The same day, the Federation Council approved the laws, and in the evening, they were signed by the president. The amendments took effect on March 5, 2022, the date of their official publication. Memorial attorneys strongly believe that these articles contradict both the Russian Constitution and Russia’s international obligations, as well as basic principles of law.
According to Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, “Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference … shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.” Similar guarantees are included in Article 29 of the Russian Constitution, which guarantees freedom of thought and speech.
The restrictions on freedom of expression established by Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code clearly do not serve the purpose for which such restrictions might be established, Memorial emphasizes.
It is important to note that legitimate restrictions on freedom of expression cannot be justified by military censorship, as stipulated by paragraph 15 of Article 7 of the Federal Constitutional Law “On Martial Law.” Even under martial law, the law does not impose special restrictions on freedom of speech and opinion. Moreover, there are no grounds for them in a situation where martial law is not imposed.
The norms of Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code allow prosecution for expressing any opinions on the use of the Russian Armed Forces and the activities of its government agencies abroad.
The aforementioned defects of Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation determine its unlawful nature, which does not allow its application in good faith. The immediate introduction of this article into the Criminal Code after the beginning of the armed aggression against Ukraine, the rhetoric of officials that accompanied its consideration and adoption, and the context of its application — the ongoing military actions and accompanying state military propaganda — exclude such good faith. In a situation where the only accepted information and assessments are those of official Russian sources, which justify the war of aggression, deny Russian war crimes and accounts of civilian deaths, and prohibit the labeling of the events as “war,” the application of this article of the Criminal Code is extremely unconscientious and unlawful.
Based on the above, the Independent Human Rights Project “Support for Political Prisoners. Memorial” believes that Article 207.3 of the Russian Criminal Code is anti-legal—that it was created to conduct political repressions against critics of the authorities and must be abolished. Any prosecutions under this article are unlawful and must be stopped.
When considering the prosecution of Sergei Mikhailov, it should be noted that he has been an opposition politician and journalist for many years, was elected deputy in Altai, and criticized the work of the authorities and law enforcement agencies both at the republic and federal levels. Thus, there is reason to believe that an additional motive for the unlawful criminal prosecution was the desire on the part of the Altai law enforcement to stop his outspoken criticism.
Memorial considers Sergei Mikhailov to be a political prisoner and calls for his release and for a review of his sentence with respect for the right to a fair trial.
This is the story of a St. Petersburg-based artist Aleksandra “Sasha” Skochilenko, who tried to help Russians cope with depression and is now arrested for “war fakes.”
Who is Aleksandra Skochilenko?
Sasha Skochilenko was born on September 13, 1990. She is a resident of St. Petersburg, a journalist, feminist, artist, and musician. When Sasha was diagnosed with cyclothymia, a form of bipolar affective disorder, she created The Book of Depression to support people with similar health problems. The book has been translated into English and Ukrainian.She was active socially and politically and has repeatedly participated in protests against the war in Ukraine.
She was charged under paragraph “e” of Part 2 of Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code:”Public dissemination under the guise of reliable reports of knowingly false information containing data about the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, committed on grounds of political, ideological, racial, national or religious hatred or enmity or on grounds of hatred or enmity toward a social group,” up to 10 years in prison.” She was charged for replacing price tags in a grocery store with anti-war placards. She has been in custody since April 11, 2022.
On the evening of March 31, 2022, anti-war flyers appeared in a Perekrestok supermarket on the first floor of Shkiperskii Mall on Vasilyevsky Island of St. Petersburg. Attention was drawn to these flyers by a customer — a 75-year-old retiree. The woman filed a police report.
As the Bumaga newspaper discovered, supposedly for more than 10 days the law enforcement officers questioned the employees of Perekrestok, and reviewed video surveillance cameras. Eventually, they established who had put the flyer in the price tag and where this person went.
The Arrest and the Criminal Case
On the morning of Monday, April 11, law enforcement officers conducted a special operation. They went to the apartment of the alleged suspect — his house was 900 meters away from Perekrestok. What exactly occurred in the apartment is unknown. The man living there turned out to be a friend of 31-year-old Sasha Skochilenko.
That morning, the Skochilenko received a message from the friend saying they were “looking for a body” in his apartment, asking her to come over. When she was on her way, the young man texted her that “everything was fine.” Skochilenko’s friends believe that the law enforcers could have texted Sasha from her friend’s phone.
When Skochilenko arrived at the apartment, she was detained. It was around 11 am. There was no news from Skochilenko for more than four hours, and law enforcement agencies did not comment on the situation.
During the search, the computer and the clothes on which Skochilenko allegedly replaced price tags with flyers were seized.
After the search, Skochilenko was taken for questioning to the Vasileostrovsky District Investigative Department of the Main Investigative Directorate of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation for St. Petersburg, where her detention as a suspect was formalized.
According to the media outlet Setevye Svobodi, the interrogation continued until 3 a.m. During this time the charges against Skochilenko became more serious, with an added motive of political hatred or enmity: “d” part 2, article 207.3 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, providing for 5 to 10 years in prison. How the information on the anti-war leaflets could be “knowingly false” and where the “motive of political hatred” came from is not mentioned in the documents provided by the investigation.
On April 12, 2022, Mr. Proskuryakov, an investigator from the investigative department of the Vasileostrovsky district of St. Petersburg petitioned for the court to apply a measure of restraint in the form of detention to Skochilenko.
The following day, April 13, 2022, the judge of the Vasileostrovsky District Court of St. Petersburg E.V. Leonovagranted the petition for restraint, issuing an order for the detention of Aleksandra Skochilenko until May 31.
According to Dmitry Gerasimov, Skochilenko’s lawyer confirms that she posted anti-war leaflets with information about the Russian Federation’s use of military force in Ukraine and its consequences. However, she does not believe that the information in them was false, as follows from the article of the Criminal Code imputed to her.
The Judge Sent Skochilenko to the Detention Center. She Has a Critical Health Condition: Gluten Intolerance and Celiac Disease
Sasha Skochilenko spent the night of April 12, 2022 in jail. As she said later in court, she slept there, but was not given any of the water or food that her friends had brought to her. The first hearing on Skochilenko’s case was postponed to the next day — and shespent another day in the temporary detention center.
The hearing on Skochilenko’s restraint began at 9 a.m. on 13 April in the Vasileostrovsky District Court. More than 40 people gathered in the hall — friends, journalists, as well as human rights activists. Skochilenko was taken to the court hall in handcuffs and put in a caged cell. She looked exhausted and begged for water — but there was no water in court and visitors were screened for food or drink. Despite her depressed state, she thanked the crowd.
Judge Elena Leonova did not consider the fact that Skochilenkowas diagnosed with bipolar affective disorder and celiac disease — a genetic intolerance to gluten, which requires a strict diet — to be a legitimate reason to refuse to send her to the detention center.
The judge specifically noted that Skochilenko “has no serious illnesses diagnosed” and that “there is no data that [the girl] needs emergency medical care.” In response to the fact that Skochilenko’s lawyer gave her a medical report, the judge said that the document “is not taken into account, because the source of information is not mentioned.”
Later it became known that Skochilenko faced psychological pressure and bullying in the detention center by her cellmates. The inmates forced Sasha to wash all her clothes every day, including bulky sweaters and a robe. It took her half of the day, wastingtime she could have spent writing letters to friends and statements about her case.
On April 20, after her meeting with Skochilenko in jail, herlawyer Yana Nepovinnova said that she felt “very sick” and vomited because of the poor diet. By April 25 (by that time the artist was still transferred to the pre-trial detention center), according to Nepovinnova, Skochilenko’s health had further deteriorated.
Affidavit of guarantee for Skochilenko were signed by deputies of the Legislative Assembly of St. Petersburg, Boris Vishnevsky and Mikhail Amosov; politician Lev Shlosberg; and municipal deputy Sergei Troshin. The court also received a positive reference from Kirill Artemenko, the general director of Bumaga media outlet. Hundreds of posts appeared in social networks about her case, calling it absurd. The case has been covered by the independent media. An action in support of Skochilenko was held in London.
Amnesty International and the American PEN Center issued statements in Skochilenko’s defense. Costume designer Ksenia Sorokina, who won this year’s Golden Mask Award for her work on the play Finist the Clear Falcon, decided to give Skochilenkoher award “in gratitude for all that she does.”
What’s more infuriating in its injustice is not only the prosecution for anti-war stance (that too), but rather the possible sentence of up to 10 years in prison, and the fact that she was sent to adetention center despite her illness.
“I remind you that none of the men who threatened to ‘cut off their heads’ ever got anything,” wrote Legislative Assembly deputy Boris Vishnevsky. “And nothing for the two attempts to kill my friend Vladimir Kara-Murza. But for the anti-war speeches — jail and then prison for 10 years. Notice the difference.”
At the same time, many of those in favor of Skochilenko’sfreedom are pessimistic. For example, Vishnevsky himself tells the Bumaga media outlet that he “would be glad to be wrong” if the outcome of the case is still positive. Journalist Arseniy Vesninrecalled how he knew they would send Skochilenko to jail, even though he didn’t believe it.
A petition demanding the artist’s release also appeared on Change.org. At the time of writing, it has already been signed by over 130 thousand people.
A separate petition in support of Skochilenko was created by mental health activists and journalists. “Aleksandra is a person who has made a tremendous contribution to the fight against prejudice about mental disorders. In her Book of Depression, she explained and showed in simple language where the disease, which affects millions of Russians, comes from and how it is treated. It was one of the first Russian-language works to draw attention to an illness that affects more than 300 million people worldwide,” they stated.
Why Does the Memorial Center Recognize Aleksandra Skochilenko as a Political Prisoner?
Having reviewed documents of the case, the Human Rights Center Memorial has concluded that Aleksandra Skochilenko is a victim of political persecution.
The center asserts that the article about spreading knowingly false information about the actions of the Russian army (Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code) contradicts the Constitution of Russia, Russia’s international obligations, and the basic principles of law.
Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression,” and restrictions on the exercise of these rights “shall be provided by law and shall be necessary: for respect of the rights and reputations of others; for the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals.” The restrictions on freedom of expression established by Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code do not serve any of the above purposes and are a manifestation of censorship.
This article criminalizes any statements about the use of the Russian Armed Forces and the activities of its government agencies abroad. During an armed conflict, it is impossible to establish the truthfulness of information disseminated by various sources. It is also impossible to establish whether or not the information is known to be false. These defects determine the unlawful nature of Art. 207.3 of the RF Criminal Code.
The timing and context of the appearance of Art. 207.3 of the Russian Criminal Code — after the beginning of large-scale Russian military aggression against Ukraine — allow Memorial to argue that this article was specifically created as a tool for persecuting critics of the Russian authorities, of which Aleksandra Skochilenko is an example.
Finally, it is important to note the particularly cynical nature of the court’s decision to place Skochilenko in pretrial detention despite her vulnerable state of health. As a result, her friends and relatives are now trying to secure a special diet for her in the pretrial detention center. The denial of a gluten-free options directly threatens Skochilenko’s health, which could lead to serious complications for her, including cancer.
The independent human rights project Support for Political Prisoners. Memorial, which continues the work of the thematic Program of the liquidated by the state HRC Memorial, finds that the criminal case against Aleksandra Skochilenko is politically motivated, aimed at involuntary termination or change of character and intimidation of society as a whole. The government’s punitive efforts were carried out solely because of her non-violent exercise of freedom of expression and information, by which she intended to protect human rights and her beliefs.
Based on the above, Memorial considers Aleksandra Skochilenkoto be a political prisoner and calls for her release and for a review of her sentence with respect for the right to a fair trial.
Vladimir Kara-Murza has been illegally removed from political office, poisoned twice, and declared a “foreign agent” by the Russian state. Despite all of these dire threats, he’s remained in Russia and continued to fight for democracy. On April 22, Kara-Murza was charged under Criminal Code Article 207.3 for spreading discrediting information about the Russian military and sent to prison. This is his story.
Who is Vladimir Kara-Murza?
Vladimir Kara-Murza, 40, is a prominent Russian activist, political opposition leader, senior advisor for human rights accountability, journalist, and historian. He served as a member of the Federal Council of the Political Party Union of Right Forces, a member of the Political Council of the All-Russian Democratic Movement “Solidarnost,” a member of the Bureau of the Political Party People’s Freedom Party, and Chairman of the Board of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom. Kara-Murza is a longtime vocal critic of the Kremlin who held leadership roles in Open Russia and Free Russia Foundation, organizations that the Russian government has deemed “undesirable.” Kara-Murza also hosted a weekly program on the since-shuttered Echo of Moscow radio station and writes columns for The Washington Post.
Kara-Murza has directed three documentary films: They Chose Freedom, Nemtsov, and My Duty to Not Stay Silent. He is also the author of Reform or Revolution: The Quest for Responsible Government in the First Russian State Duma. He has received several awards, including the Sakharov Prize for Journalism as an Act of Conscience, the Magnitsky Human Rights Award, and the Geneva Summit Courage Award. He holds an M.A. (Cantab.) in History from Cambridge.
The effectiveness of Kara-Murza’s work can be clearly seen in his advocacy for the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act. This crucial document, adopted in the United States in 2012, allows for the imposition of sanctions on those responsible for “extrajudicial killings and other gross human rights violations.” It now includes those who, according to the U.S., were involved in the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who had uncovered a scheme to steal 5.4 billion rubles.
Kara-Murza was poisoned twice. In 2015, Kara-Murza suddenly felt unwell during a meeting with colleagues. Doctors diagnosed him with acute kidney failure due to poisoning. During an extended period of hospitalization, he was in an induced coma and on life support. Two years later, in February 2017, Kara-Murza was again hospitalized in a critical condition to a Moscow hospital with the same symptoms. Kara-Murza survived. As he later recounted, doctors estimated his chance of survival at about 5 percent.
After Alexei Navalny’s poisoning, Kara-Murza said in an interview that the symptoms described by Navalny were “exactly the same as the symptoms” that he himself experienced in both poisonings. An investigative effort published on February 11, 2021 by Bellingcat and The Insider teams discovered that FSB officers shadowed Kara-Murza on his travel. Their report found that a group of FSB officers implicated in the poisoning of politician Alexei Navalny and other prominent opposition leaders, made two attempts to poison Kara-Murza in 2015 and 2017.
He has pushed for a criminal investigation of his poisoning, but proceedings have not yet progressed.
It is believed that the two poisonings of Kara-Murza were revenge for the fact that he and Boris Nemtsov advocated in the U.S. (and later Canada and the European Union) to pass the Magnitsky Act.As a result of their work, sanctions were imposed throughout the Russian bureaucracy: on employees of the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN), the General Prosecutor’s Office, the Investigative Committee of Russia (IC), and judges. Later, the sanctions list was expanded to include the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov; Andrei Lugovoi, a deputy who is suspected of poisoning Alexander Litvinenko in London; and other Russian politicians and officials.
On April 11, 2022, Vladimir Kara-Murza was detained in the courtyard of his home in Moscow. According to the police report, he “disobeyed the lawful demand” of police officers. After his arrest, Kara-Murza was held overnight at the Khamovniki police station, where a report was drawn up under Article 19.3 of the Code of Administrative Offences of the Russian Federation (“disobedience to legal demands of police officers”). The police officers stated that they had put him under a “Fortress” plan while he was in the police station, and that his lawyer was not allowed to see him on that basis.
The police claim that they were on patrol and noticed that Vladimir Kara-Murza “at the sight of police officers behaved inadequately, changed the trajectory of movement, accelerated his step and on their demand to stop tried to escape.” They claim that ”when arrested he showed active resistance, refused to provide identity documents and to follow into the police vehicle.”
Kara-Murza claims that he arrived at his house by car, where an unmarked white minibus was already waiting for him. The officers of the 2nd Special Police Regiment ran up to the car and detained Vladimir Kara-Murza as he parked near his house. His phone was taken away from him immediately, in violation of the law, and he was not allowed to call his wife and inform her about his arrest until several hours later. He was then taken to the police station in a white van.
According to Kara-Murza, his arrest was filmed by two persons in civilian clothes.
The Arrest and the Criminal Proceedings
On April 12, 2022, the Khamovniki District Court of Moscow found Kara-Murza guilty of disobedience to the lawful demands of the police and sentenced him to administrative arrest for 15 days.
On April 22, 2022, Vadim Prokhorov, Kara-Murza’s lawyer, announced that his client was facing charges under Art. 207.3 of the Criminal Code (“public dissemination of knowingly false information about the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation”) and had already been taken from the special reception center to the main investigation department of the Russian Investigative Committee. Later, the Basmanny District Court of Moscow specified that the investigation petitioned for a measure of restraint in the form of detention, and that Kara-Murza was charged with paragraph “e” of Part 2, 207.3 of the Criminal Code (“public dissemination of deliberately false information about the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation for reasons of political hatred”).
According to Prokhorov, the basis for the criminal case against Kara-Murza was his March 15, 2022 address before the House of Representatives of the State of Arizona. Neither Kara-Murza’slawyers nor the defendant himself can explain why, out of a series of his public speeches in the United States, the IC has chosen to prosecute that particular one.
According to the ruling on the initiation of criminal proceedings, Kara-Murza “has knowingly spread false information under the guise of reliable reports, containing data on the use of the Russian Armed Forces to bomb residential areas, social infrastructure facilities, including maternity homes, hospitals and schools, as well as the use of other prohibited means and methods of warfare during a special military operation in Ukraine, thus causing substantial harm to the interests of the Russian Federation.”
The content of Kara-Murza’s March 15 speech is not much different from the Anti-War Committee’s first declarations`. It is, in fact, a brief critical analysis of the 23-year development of Vladimir Putin’s regime. The Basmanny Court emphasized the following statement made by Kara-Murza: “[…] today, the whole world sees what Putin’s regime is doing to Ukraine. It is dropping bombs on residential areas, on hospitals and schools […]. These are war crimes that were initiated by the dictatorial regime in the Kremlin.” Independent resources pointed out that the translation of the speech was not made by a professional interpreter, but by Danila Mikheev, who had done research as an expert on behalf of the IC in a number of other cases against opposition figures.
On the same day, April 22, the Basmanny District Court of Moscow remanded Kara-Murza in custody until June 12, 2022.The arrest has been now extended through August 2022.
The investigators justified the request for Kara-Murza’s placement in custody by the fact that he has “informal ties” with the leaders of “unfriendly” countries, cooperates with “undesirable” organizations such as Free Russia Foundation, and has accounts in foreign banks. The investigators argued that if a more lenient preventive measure were chosen, Kara-Murza might obstruct the investigation. They also claim that Kara-Murza is a British citizen,is the owner of real estate in Washington, DC, and has a residence permit in the US, so he may abscond.
The defense argued that there was no evidence pointing to the elements of a crime and that there were no other legitimate grounds for imposing detention on Kara-Murza. The lawyers drew the court’s attention to the fact that the politician had children, including minors, and was permanently registered in Moscow. They explained that there was no evidence that Kara-Murza had real estate in Washington, accounts in foreign banks, or had worked for an undesirable organization. They also argued that the report substantiating the criminal nature of Kara-Murza’s speech had been prepared by a biased specialist.
The defense drew the court’s attention to the un-investigated poisonings of Kara-Murza in 2015 and 2017, the consequences of which would pose health risks for the politician in the detention center.
The defense counsel insisted on the political nature of the case and asked the court to refuse to put the politician in custody. The court was also presented with guarantees from deputies of the Moscow City Duma: Mikhail Timonov, Maxim Kruglov and Vladimir Ryzhkov.
Despite all arguments of the defense, the court agreed with the arguments of the investigation and put Vladimir Kara-Murza in custody until June 12, 2022.
The International Reaction
The arrest of Vladimir Kara-Murza provoked a flood of statements from politicians and human rights organizations around the world, as well as a barrage of comments on social media. The hashtag #FreeKaraMurza was used to tweet messages of support and demand a fair trial and the immediate release of the politician.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted the U.S. is “troubled” by Kara-Murza’s detention. He called for his immediate release.
In a statement, The Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan said Kara-Murza has “repeatedly risked his safety to tell the truth about Vladimir Putin’s heinous violations of human rights” and said the charges against him were for a “sham offense.” He added, “Americans should be infuriated by Putin’s escalating campaign to silence Kara-Murza. […] And everyone who values press freedom and human rights should be enraged by this injustice and join in demanding Kara-Murza’s immediate release.”
Twenty-five international human rights organizations called on UN Secretary General António Guterres and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet to condemn the arrest and detention of Russian opposition politician and demand his immediate release along with all others detained and arrested for protesting against the war in Ukraine. A statement from human rights activists, including representatives from major organizations such as the United Nations Human Rights Watch and the Human Rights Foundation, declared that “[t]he accusations against Kara-Murza are false and aimed only at silencing dissent within Russia. They reflect the Putin regime’s fear of the truth.”
A number of leading advocates have condemned Kara-Murza’simprisonment. Among them is Michael Breen, President and CEO of Human Rights First: “We are deeply concerned for our friend Vladimir Kara-Murza’s personal safety, and we call on Russian authorities to release him immediately […]. Putin and his regime have shown themselves to be willing to break any law, domestic or international, to suppress political opposition at home and subjugate neighboring countries like Ukraine. We call on all of democracy’s allies to oppose criminal behavior like this to protect human rights in Russia, Ukraine, and around the world.”
A joint statement by Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin and co-chairman Rep. Steve Cohen, as well as ranking members Sen. Roger Wicker and Rep. Joe Wilson reads, ”Vladimir is not a criminal but a true patriot motivated by the potential of a democratic future for Russia and freedom for its people. He must be allowed access to his lawyer and should be released immediately.”
In a separate statement, Steve Cohen wrote that “Vladimir Kara-Murza is a political prisoner of Putin. He must be released immediately. Putin is afraid of Vladimir because he has a voice and speaks the truth to the Russian people about the kleptocrats who commit financial crime and their leader who is a murderer.”
“Vladimir has been taken hostage by the Putin regime for criticising the war. He’s a British citizen and the U.K. government should use all means to get him released,” writes Bill Browder, CEO Hermitage Capital, Head of Global Magnitsky Justice campaign.
On May 26, 2022, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and colleagues applauded the Senate’s passage of their bipartisan resolution honoring Vladimir Kara-Murza and condemning his unjust detention. The resolution pays tribute to Kara-Murza’sadvocacy for human rights in Russia and support for the anti-war movement. It urges the U.S. and allied states to secure his immediate release and calls for the U.S. government to support the cause of democracy and human rights in Russia.
After Kara-Murza’s arrest, his wife Yvgenia Kara-Murza led a campaign for his release. She regularly gives interviews to the press and meets with politicians on both sides of the Atlantic to encourage the speedy release of her husband, describing her husband’s long history of resistance to Putin’s regime. On May 232022, she gave a speech at the Oslo Freedom Forum. She quoted her husband: “The other day a fellow prisoner asked if I wish I’d stayed silent [on the war]. ‘No’ was the easiest answer I’ve ever given. To stay silent means to be complicit.”
A large number of international media outlets, including The Washington Post, The Guardian, and National Review have published materials about and interviews with Kara-Murza. In addition, dozens of international politicians, U.S. senators, and even hundreds of ordinary people published posts on social networks with words of support and demands for the immediate release of Kara-Murza.
Why Does the Memorial Center Recognize Vladimir Kara-Murza as a Political Prisoner?
After studying the documents of the case, the Memorial Human Rights Center (Memorial) came to the conclusion that Vladimir Kara-Murza is a victim of political persecution as a result of his political activism.
A week after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, on March 4, 2022, the Russian State Duma adopted emergency legislation to amend both the Code of Administrative Offences and the Criminal Code.
The corpus delicti of the crime under the new Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code is formulated as follows: “Public dissemination under the guise of reliable reports of knowingly false information containing data on the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation to protect the interests of the Russian Federation and its citizens, to maintain international peace and security, as well as containing data on the performance by state bodies of the Russian Federation of their powers outside the territory of the Russian Federation for the above purposes.”
Memorial believes that this article contradicts both the Russian Constitution, the international obligations of the Russian Federation, and the basic principles of law.
According to Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, “Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference [… and] shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.” Restrictions on the exercise of these rights “shall be established by law and be necessary: for respect of the rights and reputations of others; for the protection of national security, public order, public health or morals.”
Similar guarantees are contained in Article 29 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation, which protects freedom of thought and speech. Restrictions on these freedoms are related to the prohibition of propaganda or agitation that incites social, racial, national or religious hatred and enmity; propaganda of social, racial, national, religious or linguistic superiority; and state secrets.
The restrictions on freedom of expression set forth in Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code clearly do not serve the purpose for which such restrictions might be imposed.
In fact, the norms of Article 207.3 allow prosecution for expressing any opinions about the use of the Russian Armed Forces and the activities of its state bodies abroad. Judgments as to whether or not the actions mentioned in the article have the goals of “protecting the interests of the Russian Federation and its citizens and maintaining international peace and security” are, by their very nature, evaluative expressions of opinion.
But even with regard to information itself, for example, statements of fact under conditions of military operations or contradictory information from various sources, it is extremely difficult to judge veracity. Moreover, it is impossible to establish the knowingness, i.e. the intent to disseminate false information.
The aforementioned organic defects of Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code determine its non-legal nature, which does not allow its application in good faith.
Based on available evidence, the Independent Human Rights Project “Support for Political Prisoners. Memorial” believes that Article 207.3 of the Russian Criminal Code is anti-legal, was created to carry out political repression against critics of the authorities, and must be abolished. Any prosecutions under this article are unlawful and must be stopped.
The facts cited by Kara-Murza and his defense and the videofootage of his detention indicate falsification of evidence of an administrative offense under Article 19.3 of the CAO. Kara-Murza arrived at the house in a car, where police officers were already waiting for him. The story about the police patrol noticing Kara-Murza changing his trajectory was fabricated by law enforcement. These fabrications once again confirm his pre-planned political persecution, which began with imprisonment on an administrative charge.
The speed with which this criminal case has developed is an indirect indication of the political motivations involved in Kara-Murza’s persecution.
Following Russia’s attack on Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Kara-Murza, along with other politicians and public figures, created the Russian Anti-War Committee. One of the committee’s primary objects is to hold Russia’s political leadership accountable for unleashing the war.
The political motive for the prosecution is additionally confirmed by the inclusion of Kara-Murza on the list of “foreign agents.”The Russian Ministry of Justice did so on the same day that hewas arrested.
The independent human rights project “Support for Political Prisoners. Memorial” continues the work of the Thematic Program of the RC, which had been liquidated by the state.Memorial, according to the international guidance on the definition of a political prisoner, finds that the criminal case against Vladimir Kara-Murza is politically motivated, aimed at involuntary termination or change of character of his public activities and intimidation of society as a whole. The consolidation and retention of power by subjects of authority wascarried out exclusively because of Kara-Murza’s non-violent activities aimed at protecting human rights and his convictions in connection with the non-violent exercise of freedom of expression and information.
Based on the above, Memorial considers Vladimir Kara-Murza to be a political prisoner and calls for his release and for a review of his sentence with respect for the right to a fair trial.
A journalist was sentenced to 6 years in prison and fined for “collecting information for the benefit of the Ukrainian intelligence services”, and during his arrest an explosive device was allegedly found in his car. The journalist himself does not admit guilt and asserts that law enforcement officers slipped a grenade into his car, and then tortured him with electricity and beat him. Here’s his story.
Who is Vladislav Esipenko?
Vladislav Esipenko was born on March 13, 1969, in Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine. He is married and has a young child. Before his detention, he worked as a freelance journalist for Radio Svoboda (the “Crimea.Realities” project). While he is a citizen of Ukraine, he also has a Russian passport as result of forced passportization of residents of annexed Crimea where Esipenko and his family lived from 2013 to 2015.
According to the prosecution, Esipenko, who was planning a business trip to Crimea, agreed with an unknown person to purchase a hand grenade RGD-5. The grenade was placed in a hideout in the village of Pravda of Pervomaisky district of Crimea. On February 26, Esipenko supposedly took a grenade from the stash, and put it in his car. In Simferopol, he replaced the ring of the fuse and tied a nylon thread to it. The investigation claims that the explosive device was acquired by the journalist to ensure his personal safety while collecting information for “Crimea.Realities” media outlet.
On March 10, 2021, FSB officers stopped Esipenko’s car in Crimea and during search with a service dog “found” a grenade in his car. According to the FSB, Esipenko was questioned and then released under the obligation to come to the UFSB in the morning, which he did. Esipenko later said that on the night of 10-11 March he was forcefully held in a basement in Bakhchisarai and tortured.
The Arrest and the Criminal Case
On March 11, 2021, a criminal case was opened regarding the discovery of an explosive device. At the same time, Esipenko was officially detained. On that day, an interrigation was conducted in which the journalist supposedly told FSB officers about the location of the hideout. Witnesses from the FSB told the court that they brought the suspect to Pravda village from Simferopol; he himself says that he was brought directly from the basement in Bakhchisarai, and before the investigative action, they coached him on what place he should point to.
On March 12, 2021, the Kyiv District Court of Simferopol chaired by V.V. Krapko took Esipenko into custody.
On March 16, 2021, the decision to bring him as a defendant was made by the senior investigator of the investigative department of the FSS of Russia in the Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, Major of Justice V.O. Vlasov.
Initially, Esipenko pleaded guilty. The first testimony states that the journalist collected information in Crimea not only for his editorial office, but also for Viktor Kravchuk, “who introduced himself as an employee of the Ukrainian intelligence services (SBU).” It was Kravchuk, according to the testimony, who suggested that he acquires a grenade.
Esipenko was represented by an appointed lawyer, Violetta Sineglazova, who recommended that he plead guilty and, according to Esipenko, did not respond to claims of torture. As the Ukrainian newspaper “Grati” found out, on March 11, she was not a duty lawyer of the Crimean Bar Association and should not have been involved in the case.
On March 15 and 17, independent lawyers Emil Kurbedinov and Alexei Ladin were not allowed to meet with Esipenko. The staff of the pre-trial detention facility claimed that the journalist declined their services in writing.
On March 19, the TV channel “Krym.24” in its news program published an interview with the arrested journalist, entitled “Revelations of a spy: an exclusive interview of the TV channel “Krym 24” with the detained Ukrainian saboteur.” In the interview, Esipenko answers the interviewer’s questions in a monotonous voice, answering affirmatively to every question. According to his answers, he took the grenade from the stash, which was planted by the SBU. In addition, Esipenko said that as a freelancer for Radio Svoboda in Ukraine, he cooperated with the SBU, communicating with a certain Viktor Kravchuk there since 2017. His cooperation with the SBU included making copies to the SBU “via Google disk” of all the materials he filmed for Radio Svoboda. However, Yesipenko was never officially charged with espionage or sabotage. Esipenko was able to meet lawyer Mr. Ladin for the first time on April 6, 2021 in court as he appealed his arrest. At that time, he submitted a statement in which he said that FSB officers had planted a grenade in his car and then tortured and beaten him.
On March 23, outlet “Grati” published a report, citing a source in the pre-detention center of Simferopol, saying that Esipenko was tortured with electric shocks with connecting wires to his head. According to Esipenko, on April 12 and 13, an FSB officer approached him and threatened him with torture and death if he refused to confess. Esipenko claims that the officer was detective Denis Korovin, who was assigned to the criminal case. Subsequently, the Military Investigative Committee refused to initiate a criminal case in connection with Yesipenko’s statement about torture.
In July 2021, Judge Dilyaver Berberov of the Simferopol District Court commenced hearings on the case. On February 15, 2022, the representative of the state prosecution Elena Podolnaya asked to sentence Esipenko to 11 years in prison with a fine of 200 thousand rubles.
On February 16, the Simferopol district court sentenced the journalist to six years in a general regime penal colony and a fine of 110 thousand rubles. Judge Dilyaver Berberov found Esipenko guilty of possession (Article 222 of the Criminal Code) and manufacture of explosives (Part 1 Article 223.1 of the Criminal Code).
Why Does the Memorial Center Recognize Vladislav Esipenko as a Political Prisoner?
After studying the documents of the case, the Human Rights Center “Memorial” came to the conclusion that Vladislav Esipenko is a victim of political persecution, which is due to his professional activities.
The Center experts assert that possession of a grenade as a means of self-defense makes practically no sense: it can explode along with those from whom you are defending yourself. The likelihood that a journalist, who is aware of the specifics of repressions in annexed Crimea and drives a car with Ukrainian license plates, would risk carrying a prohibited item that cannot be used in almost any way, is extremely low.
Secondly, the testimonies of key witnesses during the trial contradict each other, and the grenade simply does not physically fit into the glove compartment of the car in which, according to the accusation, it was found. The trial gave serious grounds to believe that the testimony of the FSB operatives who searched Esipenko’s car and the witnesses who were present were false. Operative Grishchenko claimed that he himself found the grenade during the inspection of the car by opening the glove compartment, while dog handler Brodsky said that the smell of explosives was detected by the dog, after which he called the explosives expert.
Some witnesses claimed that the grenade was in the glove compartment, while others said that it was in a compartment under the steering wheel. The defense performed a forensic experiment, during which they showed that the grenade did not fit into the glove compartment of the model car Esipenko drove.
When the officers stopped Esipenko’s car, Elizaveta Pavlenko, in whose apartment Esipenko and his wife were staying in Crimea, was riding in the car with him. According to Pavlenko, FSB officers immediately put her in another car and took her home for a search, even before the grenade was discovered. This indirectly indicates that the operation to detain Esipenko was orchestrated. Had the operatives not known in advance what they would “find” in the car and how it would be presented in the case, they would have waited for the results of the car inspection and would have checked Pavlenko’s involvement in the storage, transportation and refinement of the grenade.
Thirdly, the officials’ claim that after the inspection of his car on March 10, 2022, Yesipenko was released on a pledge to appear, which he fulfilled, and that he was not detained until March 11, is considered by “Memorial” a cynical lie intended to cover up the evidence of torture: Yesipenko says he was tortured on the night of March 10-11. In Memorial’s view, the investigators barred the arrested journalist from meeting with independent lawyers for almost a month for the same purpose.
The political motivation of the persecution of Vladislav Esipenko is obvious. He is a journalist working for an independent media outlet that does not recognize the legitimacy of the annexation of Crimea. His arrest fits into the campaign against non-state journalism. Esipenko’s case is used to intimidate all those who disagree with the occupation and annexation of Crimea and discourage Ukrainian journalists from working on the peninsula.
The report on the “Krym.24” TV channel clearly shows the use of the case against Esipenko by propaganda. The viewers are told that the journalist is not really a professional reporter, but an accomplice of the Ukrainian intelligence services. Apparently, the official charge of carrying a grenade seemed petty to the propagandists, so initially Esipenko was forced to talk about himself as a spy. Later, the authorities simply “forgot” about “collecting information for the SBU,” because they had already achieved the desired effect by creating the image of a “spy and saboteur” in the pro-government media.
Based on the above, Memorial considers Vladislav Esipenko to be a political prisoner and calls for his release and for a review of his sentence with respect for the right to a fair trial.
Maxim Reznik is a well-known St. Petersburg opposition politician. After he launched his 2021 election campaign, he was placed under house arrest on charges of marijuana possession. Prosecutors charge Mr. Reznik with possession of 18.2 grams of marijuana “for personal consumption.” They claim that Maxim, present during the search of an apartment owned by his distant relative Ivan Dorofeev, put two packs of gum on the table from his bag, in which the drug substance was later allegedly found.
Here’s his story.
Who is Maxim Reznik?
Mr. Reznik was born on September 13, 1974, in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad). He is a well-known non-partisan opposition deputy, a supporter of Alexei Navalny, and one of the harshest public critics of St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov, Vladimir Putin’s protégé. In his public addresses at sessions of the city’s parliament, he frequently criticized the Kremlin’s decisions.
Reznik has been a member of the opposition “Yabloko” party since the mid-1990s, and from 2003 was head of its St. Petersburg branch. In 2012 Reznik left “Yabloko.” He himself linked his departure to a conflict with the party’s federal leadership. According to the party’s official version, he was expelled along with dozens of other St. Petersburg “Yabloko” supporters for “actual consent with fraud” in the December 2011 elections to the St. Petersburg legislature — that is, for helping the city authorities to get their deputies into the parliament.
For some time Reznik was a supporter of Mikhail Prokhorov’s Civic Platform, but left the association after its founder announced that he was leaving the party.
In 2016, Reznik was re-elected as a member of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly from the “Party of Growth.”
In September 2021, Reznik was going to run again for the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly. In early June, he opened his campaign headquarters. The politician was planning to run in the 21st electoral district of the city.
On March 9, 2021, a criminal case was initiated against the relative of Maxim Reznik, artist Ivan Dorofeev, under part 3 of article 30, paragraph “b” and part 3 of article 228.1 of the Criminal Code (attempt to illegal production, sale or sending of drugs).
The search in Dorofeev’s workshop was in progress when Reznik arrived there. During the search operatives found a grow box with plants similar to raw materials for drugs and two cans of chewing candy with banned substances.
On the basis of this search, on March 11, 2021, Nevskiy district court arrested Dorofeyev for two months. The investigation accused him of purchasing a plant-based drug (cannabis) “weighing more than 6 grams but less than 100 grams.” The prosecutors allege that Dorofeev stored it not for personal use, but with the purpose of subsequent sale.
Reznik himself believes that this pressure was applied against Dorofeev to force a testimony. The deputy also claimed that law enforcement officers met with him and demanded that he publicly condemn the rallies in support of Alexei Navalny. Otherwise, they “promised to give the case a go.”
On April 2, 2021, Reznik was summoned for questioning in the drug case as a witness. The deputy said that the investigator “verbally explained” to him that the interrogation was connected with the fact that narcotic substances were found in the apartment where the deputy had been on March 9.
After that, the case began to develop rapidly.
The police detained Maxim Reznik on May 1, 2021, during a May Day march along the Nevsky Prospect, where he was leading a column carrying a banner reading “Petersburg vs. the “United Russia” Party.” The deputy was, however, almost immediately released.
On the same day, media outlets controlled by the St. Petersburg administration (including businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin’s media conglomerate, which is usually linked to the Kremlin’s many “dirty assignments”) reported on the May Day parade and concluded that the protesters themselves forced the police into detention. Similar posts appeared on several federal TV-channels. Every channel repeated the same thesis, almost verbatim: Maxim Reznik, “under cover of his deputy status,” framed his comrades-in-arms for the arrests.
An hour after the May Day procession ended, accusations of provocation were added to those of drug use. Yevgeny Prigozhin’s holding media outlets published a news story titled “Reznik was stoned at May Day parade in St. Petersburg” and spoke about the deputy’s “highly inadequate” behavior at the demonstration, again without specifying what it consisted of.
Overall, media outlets (both those belonging to Prigozhin’s holding and those not affiliated with him) published several hundred news items about the deputy. News items were taken out of thin air. The day after the May Day parade, the campaign to discredit the deputy went offline. On May 2, a picket was held in front of the St. Petersburg parliament with two people holding banners reading “Reznik, go smoke”. The editorial board of the Nevskie Novosti newspaper even devoted a round table to Reznik’s behavior under the title “Youth Drugs in Adult Politics.”
In the evening of May 11, 2021, Reznik’s wife, Ksenia Kazarina, said that her husband had had a heart attack and explained that it was “intense emotional pressure.” The deputy’s wife would not comment on the situation in more detail, citing the inviolability of private life. According to their publications, employees of the media outlets controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin were on nightly duty at the house of Maxim Reznik’s mother, following his wife everywhere — even to the dentist.
The Arrest and the Criminal Case
On June 17, 2021, the police searched the apartment of Maxim Reznik as well as that of his mother and his summer house. After the search, the politician was detained, and the next day the Oktyabrsky District Court sentenced him to house arrest. On August 13, the same court extended his house arrest for another three months, and on October 27, another five months, until April 20, 2022.
The searches were conducted in the case of the purchase of marijuana without intent to sell — the deputy of the City Council allegedly bought 18.2 grams of marijuana “for personal consumption.” According to the investigation, Reznik in front of witnesses (but before the formal start of the search) put the drug substance from his bag on the table, and then, referring to the fact that he is a member of the Legislative Assembly, left the premises.
Maxim Reznik was charged under part 1 of article 228 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (“Illegal acquisition, storage without intent to sell drugs in a significant amount”). He is under house arrest from June 18, 2021, and faces up to 3 years in prison. The deputy pleads not guilty.
“We associate the criminal case against Maxim Reznik with his harsh criticism of the “United Russia” party and personally Governor Alexander Beglov, as well as a statement about his participation in the elections to the Legislative Assembly of St. Petersburg,” said the deputy’s team.
The authorities viewed Reznik as a popular politician with a high chance of winning in a single-mandate district — this is what ultimately led to his detention, Grigory Golosov, a professor at the European University in St. Petersburg, said in a conversation with the BBC. “Apparently, at some point it was decided that he should not be represented in the city parliament,” the professor suggested. In his opinion, Reznik’s detention isn’t so much due to his direct support for Navalny, but rather to the general trend of cleansing the political field of those politicians “whose presence in the government seems undesirable.”
Why Does the Memorial Center Recognize Maxim Reznik as a Political Prisoner?
The Human Rights Center “Memorial” considers the St. Petersburg politician Maxim Reznik to be a political prisoner according to the international criteria. The Center suggests that prosecution of Reznik is aimed at involuntary cessation of his social and political opposition activities, while house arrest is conditioned by the aspiration of the authorities to eliminate the politician from the public space.
Persecution of Maxim Reznik is a part of the repressive campaign which the Russian authorities are launching against the independent politicians who are able to compete with the pro-governmental candidates in the 2021 Russian elections.
Having studied the materials of the case, the Human Rights Center has come to the conclusion that Maxim Reznik is a victim of political persecution, which is caused by his social and political activities.
“First of all, we have doubts about the objectivity of the witnesses for the prosecution. One of the main witnesses in the case is a former employee of the Interior Ministry, the second is his fellow. The rest are security officers, who searched Dorofeev’s apartment.
Secondly, there are signs of fabrication of evidence in the case. Thus, it is known that the cans, allegedly left by Reznik, were not opened during the search, but the investigator pointed out in his testimonies that one of them contained a vegetable substance with a specific odor. How the investigator was able to establish that before the examination, he could not explain. It should be noted that there is no unequivocal evidence that the narcotic substance belonged to Reznik. When and from whom the deputy allegedly purchased it, the investigation has not established.
Third, Reznik remained as a witness in Dorofeev’s case for more than three months and was arrested only when the election campaign started. Being in pre-trial detention all that time Dorofeev was under pressure to testify against Reznik and on the eve of the meeting on April 21, 2021, unknown people stopped the deputy in the street and demanded to “denounce” the action and threatened that in case of refusal he will be charged on “case on drugs” and get real imprisonment term.
Fourthly, Reznik was put under house arrest as soon as he was arrested, which effectively made it impossible for him to take part in the new election campaign. It is noteworthy that the very next day after the election, the court ruled that it was illegal not to let Reznik see a notary, which previously prevented the deputy from filing documents to the election commission on time, and also allowed him a two-hour walk, which he had been denied many times before.
Considering the mass persecution of opposition politicians prior to the Russian elections of various levels in 2021, we believe that the initiation of the criminal case against Reznik was not accidental.
Finally, we believe that possession of marijuana for personal consumption poses very little public danger. Putting a popular opposition politician under house arrest on such a charge seems not only completely disproportionate, but also seems clearly aimed at preventing him from participating in the election race,” reads the resolution of the Human Rights Center. Based on the above, Memorial considers Maxim Reznik to be a political prisoner and calls for his release and for a review of his sentence with respect for the right to a fair trial.
Alexei Navalny, the most prominent critic of the Putin regime, was sentenced to nine years in a maximum-security penal colony.
On March 22, 2022, the Lefortovsky Court in Moscow sentenced Alexei Navalny to nine years in a strict regime penal colony for “fraud and contempt of the court.” The trial took place not in Moscow, but in a penal colony in the Vladimir region, where Navalny has been serving his sentence on the Yves Rocher case since last year. Four days before the verdict, Judge Margarita Kotova was promoted to the Moscow City Court.
A judge of Moscow’s Lefortovo Court sentenced politician Alexei Navalny to nine years in a strict regime penal colony and a fine of 1.2 million rubles, finding him guilty of fraud and contempt of court. Earlier the state prosecution asked the court to sentence Alexei Navalny to 13 years in a strict regime penal colony and a fine of 1.2 million rubles.
The sentence announced on March 22 will probably not be fully added to the term of imprisonment that the politician is already serving in the colony. However, the exact term of imprisonment he faces has not yet been explained.
The new term will commence on the moment of sentencing, that is, from March 22, 2022. If his imprisonment is not interrupted earlier, Navalny will be released from prison in 2031.
Alexei Navalny, who has been in the penal colony for more than a year after his suspended sentence in the “Yves Rocher” case was replaced with a real one, will be transferred to a strict regime penal colony. This means that he will be allowed fewer visits and can receive fewer parcels and other deliveries.
After Navalny was sentenced, the politician’s lawyers Olga Mikhailova and Vadim Kobzev were seized outside the penal colony. They were detained while giving an interview and were taken to the city police department. Subsequently, they were released.
What is the Essence of the Charges Against Navalny
The investigation alleged that Alexei Navalny, acting together with his associates Leonid Volkov and Roman Rubanov, committed fraud by collecting donations to conduct anti-corruption investigations and for the 2018 presidential campaign. In the latter case, according to investigators, Navalny misled supporters because he could not be a candidate due to his criminal record. Navalny and his associates allegedly intended to spend the collected money “for personal purposes as well as for the activities of the non-profit FBK.”
Press releases from the Investigative Committee claimed that 356 million rubles out of the 588 million collected by Navalny had been spent for personal purposes. Four victims where presented in the case, who cumulatively transferred about 2.7 million rubles. Two of them were pronounced fake by the opposition leader’s associates, while the other two were real supporters of Navalny whom investigators had blackmailed into write statements because of their own legal problems.
The fraud case was combined with a contempt of court case, brought forth as a result of last year’s defamation trial. According to the investigation, during the trial Navalny insulted the judge and other participants of the process.
The Conduct of the Hearing
The Moscow Lefortovo court heard the case in Correctional Colony No. 2 in the Vladimir region, where Navalny is being held. This is very rare — such off-site sessions most often concern petitions for parole and other issues related to serving one’s sentence. There are no known examples of when a Moscow court held a session in another region at all. Navalny’s defence indicated that such a decision was taken to close the process from the public.
The trial was held in the assembly hall, but most journalists were following the process from another location via video broadcast. They could enter the assembly hall itself without electronic equipment — only with a notebook and a pen. The sound and picture quality was simply awful; sometimes the broadcast was completely cut off. This happened, in particular, on the penultimate day, when Navalny spoke during the debates and his final speech.
“Fake” victims are considered by Navalny’s associates to be the handyman Alexei Koshelev, who donated 1.02 million rubles in 2020 and then allegedly disappointed, and pensioner Mikhail Kostenko, who transferred 50,100 rubles in 2017 (and then sued Leonid Volkov for the return of this amount). The size of Koshelev’s donation — just over a million rubles — corresponds to the size of the amount, after embezzlement of which a case of fraud on a particularly large scale can be initiated. The size of Kostenko’s donation – a little over 50 thousand rubles – allowed for his lawsuit to be considered in the district court, not in the magistrate’s court.
Navalny’s lawyers drew attention to the fact that Koshelev transferred money using an account number that was not publicly available. Questions were also raised about the significant size of the donation — Koshelev himself said that he earned about a million and a half rubles per year. Koshelev was unable to substantively answer these claims in court. The victim also demands that Navalny compensate him for moral damages because his daughter was allegedly detained at a rally in support of Navalny and is now “drinking antidepressants.”
Pensioner Mikhail Kostenko, who had already sued Navalny’s associates over his donation, appeared in court via video link. He said that he had been helped to write his statement by lawyer Ilya Remeslo, a man who positions himself as an opponent of Navalny and, for example, appears as an “expert” on the oppositionist on federal television. Remeslo represented him in court in 2017 and was a witness for the prosecution at this trial; as Navalny’s team told us, Remeslo is an old acquaintance of Mikhail Kostenko’s son-in-law. During the trial, the pensioner, according to broadcasts from the court, answered many questions that he did not remember, refused a civil suit against Navalny, and said that he had no claims against him.
Vyacheslav Kuzin of Samara, who donated 957,000 rubles over several years, spoke in closed session. According to Navalny’s side, he is under house arrest for his “past banking activities” and faces up to 10 years in prison. Entrepreneur Alexander Karnyukhin, who donated a total of 665,000 rubles, admitted during the hearing that he only felt like a victim when he was invited to the Investigative Committee. “They explained to me in the Investigative Committee from the very beginning that the organization [FBK] is extremist, which means that the money was not used as intended,” he said.
The highlight of the trial was the recantation of testimony by Fyodor Gorozhanko, a former FBK employee whom the prosecution had brought in as a witness. Gorozhanko had a conflict with Navalny’s associates — a year ago they accused him of stealing the database left on the website by Navalny’s supporters; he denied everything.
At the trial, Gorozhanko said that he intended to act as a witness for the defense and called the case against Navalny absurd and “falsely staged.” He also said that the investigators put pressure on him, demanding that he memorize the wording of the indictment.
After his speech, Gorozhanko left Russia. Only when he found himself abroad, he confessed that on the eve of his trial he had been to the IC, where he was not only forced to learn the wording of his testimony, but also hinted that he himself, as a former FbK employee, could become a defendant in a criminal case. On March 22 — the day of the verdict — Gorozhanko, together with Navalny’s associates, published a recording of the investigator’s statements.
Numerous defense witnesses also spoke in support of Navalny at the trial, including The New Times editor-in-chief Yevgenia Albats, who called her regular donations to Navalny’s projects her “best investment in life,” politician Ilya Yashin, human rights activist Sergei Davidis, journalist Bozhena Rynska, and other donors who said they did not believe they had been misled by Navalny.
“Numbers Don’t Matter. It’s a Plaque Above the Prison Cells.” What Navalny Said After the Verdict
After the verdict was pronounced, Navalny posted a statement on his social networks in which he urged his supporters to continue their activities.
Here is his statement in full:
“Nine years of maximum security.
My spaceflight is a bit delayed — the ship got caught in a time loop.
It occurs to me that I’m like that guy from “Interstellar” in this saga. Remember, the main protagonists enter the station, having come up from a planet where time flows several times faster. And they are greeted by a dude with a beard in a bathrobe, “I’ve been waiting for you for 23 years, 4 months and 8 days.”
However, I immediately dismissed this thought. First of all, I have neither a beard nor a bathrobe. And secondly: it’s all nonsense. Numbers don’t matter. It’s a sign above the bunkhouse, that’s all. And just “wait” neither I nor my comrades will.
As I said in my “last word,” we are not just continuing the work of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, we are taking it to a new level. The Fund will become a global international organization. And we need you very much in it. Come on in.
The monetary part of the Sakharov Prize awarded to me by the European Parliament will be the first contribution to this fund. The citizens of the EU, through their representatives, gave me this prize for the fight against corruption. I am grateful and I will use their money to continue this fight.
By the way, notice that my “last word” was jammed by interrupting the broadcast.
Of course, words have power. Putin is afraid of the truth, I’ve always said so. Fighting censorship, getting the truth to the people of Russia has remained our priority.
The Kremlin is demolishing the media, and we are creating new ones in response. On March 5, I announced “The Popular Politics” [Navalny’s team new YouTube channel] — it now has almost a million subscribers. Join us, and together we will make the best media in Russia.
I’m very grateful to everyone for their support. And, guys, I want to say: the best support for me and other politicians is not sympathy and warm words, but action. Any activity against Putin’s lying and thieving regime. Any opposition to these war criminals.
The next thing I wrote when I heard my first sentence in 2013, and I repeat it now: don’t be idle. This toad sitting on the oil pipe is not going to throw itself off.
Hugs and love to all!”
Reaction to the Verdict
Amnesty International called the verdict on Alexei Navalny “a cynical violation of human rights.” “Navalny faces nine years in prison for accusing the Russian elite of corruption and abuse of power. This sentence was predictable, but it has not become any less shocking. The world should not ignore this sentence and its significance against the backdrop of the horrific human rights violations we are witnessing as a result of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine,” said Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia director.
The European Union condemned the new conviction of Alexei Navalny and the extension of his “politically motivated imprisonment.” This was said in a statement by EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Joseph Borrell, released on Tuesday, March 22. According to him, Russia’s crackdown on civil society, independent media, journalists, and human rights defenders is “intensifying against the backdrop of Russia’s ongoing military aggression against Ukraine,” and the Russian government “continues to blatantly ignore” all international obligations to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Sergei Davidis, a member of the board of the human rights center Memorial, says: “This is yet another stage in the transformation of the instruments of criminal prosecution and the judicial system into pure fiction. In the past, they tried to give the repressions at least some semblance of legal form. The process of constantly shedding the scenery has long been under way, and these charges and the trial and conviction of Alexei Navalny are just another milestone along the way. Because the accusation is absolutely absurd, it contradicts the accusation that he is facing in other criminal cases. There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever.”
“The new Navalny sentence is all you need to know about Putin’s real popularity inside Russia. If he were so popular, he would not need to keep in prison Navalny. It’s just that simple,” former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul tweeted.
“The hypocrisy of the sentence handed down today to Alexei Navalny is disgusting. The prosecutor demanded thirteen years, the «humane” court gave nine. In fact, the term does not make any difference. Neither thirteen nor nine years can last this regime. The trial was clearly designed to make Alexei a high-security prisoner. Well. Now the whole of Russia has turned into a strict regime zone, and soon it will turn into a special regime. Freedom to Alexei Navalny. Freedom to Russia,” wrote Russian writer and social activist Boris Akunin.
“For Alexei Navalny, strength, stamina, and a soon release. The formal deadline, of course, does not matter. He will be released on the same day that Putin “leaves” the Kremlin. And it’s very likely that they will switch places,” Russian opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza commented on the court verdict.
“Nine years of strict regime. Forgive us sinners, Alexei. You did everything you could to bring the beautiful Russia of the future closer, you believed in it, as you believed in Russians, and this belief that we are just like the Europeans, we only need to change the authorities <…> Russians will now pay for the dream of reason and conscience with a long and painful payback. It was not Alexei who was sentenced to a strict regime today, but the entire country,” Russian journalist Andrei Loshak wrote about the verdict.
The politician’s wife Yulia Navalnaya also commented on the verdict. “Since Alexei quoted what he wrote after his first sentence, I will also remember 2013 and say what I already said at the Sakharov Prospekt rally: family is the strength of any normal person, especially a real politician. We have been together for more than 20 years, and year after year we learn how to be good parents and good spouses, but if we have to constantly resist pressure, we will learn this science, too. And the number nine doesn’t mean anything at all.”
On March 23, in Kyiv, we lost our dear colleague Yana Sedova. Yana worked as Free Russia Foundation Foreign Office podcast producer which she coauthored with Michael Weiss.
Yana was a talented editor and world-class journalist. For over 10 years as she fought cancer, she produced a podcast “I and IT. How to beat cancer.” She was an unbelievably strong, kind, open person and an awesome professional.
Yana was a true warrior, and we are convinced that if it were not for the war, she could have successfully combatted her illness for a long time.
We express our condolences to all those who knew Yana, and to all those who were supported and inspired by her work.
Evgeny Yesenov, a resident of Moscow, was born on January 22, 1983. He is an entrepreneur and the general director of an LLC. He is married and has a young child. On May 20, 2021, he was sentenced to 4 years in a penal colony for hitting a riot policeman’s helmet at a rally in support of opposition politician Alexei Navalny by the Tverskoi Court in Moscow.
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been in prison since January 2021. He was detained at the Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow after returning from Germany, where he had been treated after being poisoned with the Novichok chemical warfare. On February 2, 2021, the Simonovsky District Court commuted Navalny’s suspended sentence in the “Yves Rocher” case to a real one. Initially it was thought that taking into account the time previously served under house arrest, Navalny would spend 2 years and 8 months in a minimum-security penal colony. But on March 22, 2022, Navalny was sentenced to 9 years of imprisonment in a strict regime penal colony under part 4 of article 159 of the Criminal Code (large-scale fraud) and part 1.2 of article 297 (contempt of justice).
Nationwide protests broke out all over Russia on January 23, 2021, in support of the jailed opposition leader. The protests were met with police crackdowns, with thousands citizens detained. Since the time of the protests, more than 100 criminal cases have been opened against their participants and the number continuous to grow. Protesters are being charged with using violence, blocking roads, involving minors in illegal activities, and violating sanitary and epidemiological rules.
Mass actions occurred on January 23, January 31, February 2 and April 21, 2021. According to OVD-Info, over 4,000 people were detained on January 23, over 5,500 on January 31, over 1,400 on February 2, and over 1,974 on April 21.
On January 23, 2021, a 38-year-old businessman Evgeny Yesenov physically resisted law enforcement officers who detained participants of a rally in support of Alexei Navalny on Pushkin Square in central Moscow. Channel Mash on Russian social media platform Telegram later published a video, which allegedly captures the fight involving Yesenov, but the recording shows only the back of a man who takes a swing at law enforcement officers.
On January 24, 2021, the investigative department for the Central Administrative District (CAO) of the Main Investigative Directorate (MDI) of the Investigative Committee (IC) of Russia in Moscow initiated criminal proceedings against unidentified persons on grounds of a crime under part 1 of Article 318 of the RF Criminal Code.
On January 25, 2021, Judge of the Ostankino District Court of Moscow A. A. Terekhova found Yesenov guilty of committing an administrative offense under part 5, article 20.2 of the CAO (“Violation by a participant of a public event of the established order of holding meetings and rallies”). “Yesenov did not respond to repeated demands to stop his unlawful actions, thus disobeying police officers and resisting arrest,” reads the court decision. He was sentenced to a fine of 10 thousand rubles.
On January 25, 2021, police officer Zaraev went to the medical clinic (the record of the examination result: “visually no changes”), which referred him for examination to the departmental clinic of the Federal State Medical and Forensic Hospital of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs. At the hospital, Zaraev was diagnosed with “bruising of the left frontal area” and a “concussion of the brain.” He was admitted as an in-patient and hospitalized there until February 16, 2021. The forensic medical examination, carried out subsequently by order of the investigator, considered that the specified injuries caused light damage to the health. In this regard, the investigator reclassified the charges from Part 1 to Part 2 of Article 318 of the Criminal Code.
At the same day, on January 25, 2021, Evgeny Yesenov was detained by the Investigative Committee as a suspect. On January 26, 2021, he was charged under Part 1 of Article 318 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation for intentionally striking police sergeant Zaraev with his right fist in the face “causing the latter physical pain and suffering, and also humiliating his honor, dignity and undermining his authority as a representative of authority”.
On January 26, 2021, the investigator petitioned the court for the selection of a preventive measure for Yesenov in the form of detention for the duration of the preliminary investigation. The Presnensky District Court of Moscow granted the petition for a period of two months until March 24, 2021. His arrest was then extended.
Evgeny Yesenov pleaded not guilty. The defense points out that the video recordings do not prove that the accused hit the victim’s head with his fist, and the testimony of police witnesses should not be trusted.
On May 20, 2021, Alexei Krivoruchko, judge of the Tverskoi District Court of Moscow, sentenced Evgeny Yesenov to 4 years in a penal colony under Part 2 of Article 318 of the Criminal Code. The prosecutor requested that he be sentenced to 5 years in a penal colony.
On October 14, 2021, a panel of the Moscow City Court chaired by Judge Yelena Ivanova rejected the appeal of the defense and upheld the sentence.
Why Does the Memorial Center Recognize Evgeny Yesenov As A Political Prisoner?
Despite the fact that formally the actions of Evgeny Yesenov contain signs of an offense, the important thing is the context of what happened, as well as the degree of reaction to his actions from the law enforcement and judicial systems.
1. Evgeny Yesenov’s confrontation with the police occurred during an urgent peaceful rally of many thousands of people that was expressing public outrage at the blatantly illegal arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny following an assassination attempt against him. The rally in Moscow (as at other venues across the country) was characterized by law-breaking, unwarranted violence and mass detentions. This created an atmosphere in which each demonstrator’s right to demonstrate peacefully had already been violated, and each was at risk of being beaten and detained by the security forces without a legal basis. The atmosphere of police violence during those hours suggests an element of necessary defense in Yesenov’s actions. This was confirmed by the police officers, who testified that they detained Yesenov for resisting the detention of other demonstrators.
2. There is an obvious asymmetrical assessment by law enforcement agencies of the actions of demonstrators and law enforcement officers. “OVD-Info” recorded numerous cases of violence by law enforcement agencies, at least 64 demonstrators in Russian cities were injured that day. Detainees reported bruises, broken fingers, dislocations, and smashed heads and noses. People were beaten on the head with truncheons and tasers, thrown onto the floor of the trolleys, and kicked. However there are no known criminal cases of violence by law enforcement officers, including the well-known case of Maria Yudina, a St. Petersburg resident, who was hospitalized in intensive care units after being hit by a Rosgvardiya officer. All criminal prosecutions, usually on questionable grounds, are conducted exclusively against demonstrators.
The video of the incident with Yesenov shows him being hit with batons by several policemen in bulletproof vests: at least one of them strikes Yesenov’s legs with the baton, while the other strikes his neck or head from above with the baton. However, neither the investigation nor the court investigated the adequacy and legality of the blows made by the law enforcement officers, nor whether Evgeny Yesenov was harmed by these blows.
3. The injured policeman, who was wearing a protective helmet, did not suffer any serious damage, even if we believe the materials of the investigation (the defense casts doubt on the diagnosis of the Interior Ministry clinic). After the blow to his helmet at about 2:40 p.m., which he allegedly received from Yesenov, the policeman continued working until late in the evening and did not see a doctor until two days later. In court, the enforcer stated that he had no claims against the accused and asked for a mitigation of punishment for him.
4. Memorial has repeatedly noted differences in the enforcement of Article 318 of the Criminal Code in “political” and other cases. In “non-political” cases, courts usually impose significantly less restrictive measures and more lenient sentences, limiting them to fines or suspended sentences.
5. A massive campaign has been waged in the pro-government media and social networks to vilify opposition protesters and create an image of any protests as actions of particular social danger, from potential mass unrest and violence to the danger of pandemic contagion.
Without in any way condoning the use of violence, Memorial considers the punishment handed down to Mr. Yesenov disproportionate to the danger to society of his actions, and sees in it a political motivation to suppress freedom of expression and assembly, as well as to preserve the authority of their subjects. The overall context of the situation of police violence in those hours on Pushkin Square in the Russian capital allows us to speak of an essential element of necessary defense of the victims of this violence on the part of Yesenov and self-defense on the other hand. The investigation and the court established that Evgeny Yesenov was arrested precisely because he resisted the obviously illegal, in our opinion, forceful detention of peaceful political manifestation participants. On the other hand, given the specific circumstances, the attempt to hit the helmet of a heavily equipped police fighter, regardless of whether it achieved the result, can hardly be regarded as intentionally aimed at causing real damage to his health.
Based on the above, Memorial considers Evgeny Yesenov to be a political prisoner and calls for his release and for a review of his sentence with respect for the right to a fair trial.
Vadim Duboisky was born on February 28, 1990. He is a citizen of Belarus who lived in Brest. Accused under part 2 of article 293 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus (“Participation in mass riots accompanied by violence against persons, rioting and destruction of property”, up to 8 years’ imprisonment). He left for Russia in the fall of 2020. He has been held in Russian custody since April 11, 2021.
The presidential election in Belarus on August 9, 2020, which, was falsely claimed as victory by Alexander Lukashenko, caused a strong wave of peaceful civil protest in connection with the huge scale of electoral fraud. The opposition refused to recognize the election results, demanding a recount and a repeat of the election. The Belarusian security forces, led by Alexander Lukashenko, suppressed the protests in most brutal and violent ways. Many detainees were tortured, some were killed or disappeared. Not a single case of prosecution of law enforcement officers is known, although there are numerous reports of unlawful prosecution of citizens, including journalists, who were subjected to police violence.
The results of the elections in Belarus were not recognized by most European countries, as well as the U.S. and Canada. Violence against protesters by Belarusian security forces was condemned by key international organizations, and sanctions were imposed on the state authorities.
The Belarusian authorities use criminal prosecution as the main tool for suppressing any attempts to express opposition to the illegitimate government and intimidate the society in order to prevent its citizens from exercising their constitutional rights. Participants of protests against the falsified results of the presidential election were sentenced to significantly long sentences on various charges, including charges of participation in mass riots.
As of January 31, 2022, there were 1,004 political prisoners in Belarus, recognized as such according to the international Guidelines on the Definition of Political Prisoners by a group of leading human rights organizations in the country. According to the Belarusian Human Rights Center “Vesna”, as of the end of January 2022, more than 2,200 people are known to have been criminally prosecuted for protesting against the fabricated results of the 2020 presidential election, and more than 5,500 criminal cases related to protests have been filed.
Full Description of the Case
On August 10, 2020, investigative authorities of Brest region initiated a criminal case under part 2 of article 293 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus against unidentified persons in connection with their participation in the “mass riots, accompanied by violence against persons, looting and destruction of property.” According to the reports announced in January 2021 by the Investigative Committee of the region, “the investigation has identified 66 participants in the mass riots” in Brest.
On August 11, 2020, Vadim Duboisky was detained by Belarusian security forces while dispersing a mass protest demonstration against the rigged presidential election held on August 9.
According to Duboisky, he and seven other detainees were held and beaten for three days in the basement of the House of Justice in Brest (the building houses several regional courts), and then forced to sign a statement saying they had no claims to the law enforcement agencies and released without any protocols.
A few days later, Vadim Duboisky went to the city hospital, where he was diagnosed with a contusion of the right hip and bruise of the left half of the chest.
On September 4, 2020, Duboisky was detained on suspicion of committing a crime under part 2 of article 293 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus on his way out of the house and taken to the Investigative Committee. He was kept in the temporary detention facility (IVS) of the Leninski district of Brest for a week, and then was released on his pledge not to leave.
In September 2020, Vadim Duboisky fled to Moscow.
After that, the Investigative Committee of Belarus declared him wanted as a defendant in the case of participation in the riots. It is known that Brest law enforcement officers questioned his mother and asked her to identify her son on videotape. The Investigative Committee of the Republic of Belarus sent a request to the General Prosecutor’s Office of the Russian Federation for the extradition of Duboisky.
Upon his arrival to Russia, the young man planned to apply for temporary asylum, but after cases of detention of citizens of Belarus at the request of the authorities of this country, he decided to apply for asylum in Ukraine.
On April 11, 2021, Duboisky was detained by the Russian border guards while attempting to cross the Russian-Ukrainian border outside the checkpoint in the Belgorod region of the Russian Federation.
On April 16, 2021, a court arrested him and placed him in the detention center in Belgorod. Vadim Duboisky applied for refugee status and temporary asylum in Russia.
On August 4, 2021, it was reported that the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office granted the request of the Belarusian authorities and issued a decree on the extradition of the accused. The ruling states that Vadim Duboisky is accused of having “together with other persons moved at least three benches to the roadway, thus participating in the erection of barricades” during the protests in Brest. In addition, Duboisky, also together with other persons, allegedly broke the paving tiles. As a result of the actions of the protesters “one of the officers of Internal Affairs suffered light injuries and at least twenty-five officers were beaten.” The Belarusian authorities allegedly failed to identify the law enforcement officers who beat Vadim himself.
On September 9, 2021, the Belgorod Regional Court dismissed the complaint filed by the defense of Vadim Duboisky against the ruling of the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office to extradite him at the request of Belarus. In court, the prosecutor read out the ruling of the Belarusian law enforcement authorities not to institute criminal proceedings because of the beating of Duboisky after his detention in August 2020. The ruling confirms that he was indeed detained. The medical expert confirmed that the injuries were and could have been caused during the detention. But, according to law enforcement officers, the police under the law can use violence in case of illegal actions, which Vadim allegedly committed and, thus, violence was used to him reasonably.
In October 2021, the lawyer filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) against Russia’s decision to extradite Duboisky and his unjustified imprisonment. The complaint alleges that the extradition poses a threat to Vadim’s life, as well as a risk of torture, cruel and inhuman treatment. Thus, it substantiates a violation of Articles 2 (“Right to life”), 3 (“Prohibition of torture”) and 5 (“Right to liberty and security of person”) of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms in respect of him.
On October 20, 2021, the ECHR applied Rule 39 of its regulations and prohibited Russia from extraditing Vadim Duboisky until his case was heard in Strasbourg. The ECHR agreed with the arguments of the lawyer, who pointed to the unlawful political persecution and the possibility of torture of Duboisky in case of his extradition to the Belarusian authorities.
On October 21, 2021, Federal Judge of the First Appeal Court in Moscow Sergey Kurokhtin dismissed the defense complaint and upheld the decision of the Belgorod Regional Court regarding the competence of the Russian General Prosecutor’s Office to extradite Duboisky. However, he continues to be held in the Belgorod pre-trial detention center pending consideration of his case by the ECHR.
Why Does The Memorial Center Recognize Vadim Duboisky as a Political Prisoner?
In accordance with international guidelines, Memorial Human Rights Centre (MHRC) considers Vadim Duboisky, a Belarusian national who lives in Russia, a political prisoner.
Vadim Duboisky has not been charged with the use of violence but with a vaguely defined ‘participation’ in riots.
“In our opinion, the protests in Belarus, which began in August 2020, cannot be qualified as riots. The demonstrators did not commit arson or pogroms and did not use armed resistance against the authorities. It was not the protesters who used violence at the rallies, but the law enforcement agencies of Belarus. Moreover, there are no known cases of the prosecution of law enforcement officers, although there are numerous reports of unlawful prosecution of citizens who were victims of police violence.
According to Belarusian human rights defenders, there are approximately one thousand political prisoners in the country. Neither the grounds for the politically motivated charges that have become known, nor the procedures of criminal prosecution, meet the minimum standards for fair trial or for the protection of human rights in general. We concur with the European Court of Human Rights that there are no grounds to expect the Belarusian authorities will ensure the rights of Vadim Duboisky are respected in the event of his extradition. We therefore consider Russia must refuse his extradition and grant him temporary asylum. This position is based on both Russian and international legal norms.” — the statement published on the website of Memorial Human Rights Centre reads.
By Leah Silinsky, FRF Fellow
The violence unleashed by the government against Russians who came out to protest Navalny’s arrest in early 2021 demonstrates that Putin’s regime has no tolerance for any form of dissent or criticism of the political status quo. 24-year-old Pavel Grin-Romanov is yet another victim of the Kremlin’s assault on civil liberties in Russia.
Pavel was born on July 7, 1997, in Krasny Luch. Krasny Luch is a city in Luhansk Oblast, which is a region of Ukraine that has been occupied by Russia since 2014. Pavel is a citizen of both Ukraine and Russia. After graduating high school, he moved to Moscow where he lived with his wife Polina and worked as an MC, promoter, and as an administrator of an internet cafe. He is known by others for his love of computers and technology.
Pavel Grin-Romanov was arrested on January 31, 2021 for allegedly pepper-spraying a riot police officer during a street protest he attended with his wife on the Komsomolskaya Square by the Leningradsky railway station. Pavel has remained in police custody since February 2, 2021. On April 9, 2021, the Meshchansky District Court of Moscow sentenced him to a 3 year and 6 month prison sentence to be served in a penal colony.
Pavel was charged under Article 318, Part 2 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, for “violently threatening the life of an official on duty”. Though Pavel did plead “partially guilty”, this sentence is disproportionate and is the symptom of a corrupt legal system designed to punish those who openly criticize the Russian government.
Despite his extremely difficult circumstances, Pavel has maintained an optimistic, positive attitude. His lawyer, Artem Nemov, confirmed that Pavel has remained in relatively high spirits given the situation. Unfortunately, it has been very difficult for Pavel’s wife, Polina, to visit him in detention.
Upon examination of the evidence in his case, it becomes clear that Pavel Grin-Romanov not only lacked the intent of carrying out a supposed “violent attack,” but that he also inflicted no physical or psychological harm on said OMON officer, Lieutenant Colonel-D.N. Terletsky.
OMON officers and riot police were attempting to disperse the protest on Komsomolskaya Square— attended by Pavel and his wife Polina. Videos provided as evidence by the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation showed a chaotic crowd, with many confused individuals pushing against each other. Witnessing riot police officers acting violently, Pavel doused pepper spray in the air, to protect his wife and himself from riot police near him. Pavel stated that he sprayed pepper after seeing an officer beat a protester on the head with a truncheon.
On February 4, 2021, Pavel was taken to the Presnensky District Court of Moscow. Seven days later, he was officially charged under Article 318, Part 2, although his initial charges were under Article 318, Part 1. Part 2 of Article 318 provide for far harsher punishment and can result in a 5-to-10-year sentence. Analysts from MediaZona hypothesize that his sentence was increased because the OMON officer went to Botkin Hospital and received papers for sick leave from his departmental polyclinic despite suffering no injuries. Originally, the prosecution sought to sentence Pavel to 8 years, though this was reduced to 3 years and 6 months. On July 30, 2021, Pavel’s sentence of three years and six months was shortened to three years. Despite being reduced, Pavel’s sentence is still highly unjust.
Pavel’s lawyer Artem Nemov asserted that his client’s sentence is entirely unjust given that it is based on false evidence, and that the prosecution could not prove that Pavel had any intent to harm, despite the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation posting the video where Pavel uses his pepper-spray canister. Moreover, the OMON officer in question has accepted Pavel’s apology and was wearing a helmet and face shield when he was allegedly pepper-sprayed, meaning that he could not have suffered any harm.
Pavel’s lawyer has also pointed out that it was highly suspicious that officer Terletsky could not get a sick pass from a regular hospital and had to obtain one from his departmental polyclinic. The officer received his sick pass on February 2, but was registered as being on sick leave on February 1, 2021. Had the officer truly been injured, he would have received a sick pass from a regular hospital, the day that he came in. The judge reviewing Pavel’s case disregarded these arguments. He also chose not to wait for papers to come in from Ukraine, which attest to Pavel’s non-aggressive nature, to substantiate the assertion that Pavel showed no intent to aggressively assault officer Terletsky.
Pavel’s arrest is a politically-motivated punishment for his participation in the pro-Navalny protests which took place last year. There is undeniable evidence which points toward his innocence, and that he rendered no serious harm to the allegedly injured OMON officer. The unsubstantiated biased reporting in official Russian sources referring to Pavel as an aggressive individual, who was engaging in “unsanctioned activity” by simply attending the protest are highly suspicious.
Pavel’s arrest has received attention in both the U.S. and Russian media. Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty published an article about him on April 9, 2021—the day that Pavel received his sentence from the Moscow court. Several Russian news sources wrote about Pavel’s arrest including Memorial, OVD-Info, Delo212, MediaZona, and the Official Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation. Additionally, several twitter users have also posted about Pavel’s arrest, including users “nesteliza_”, “DaniilKonon,” and “leonidragozin.” Memorial recognizes Pavel Sergeevich Grin-Romanov as a political prisoner because it is clear that he was arrested simply for taking part in a pro-Navalny protest; and that his arrest, trial and sentence have been politically motivated. Memorial asserts that Pavel acted in self-defense and inflicted no injuries on the OMON officer.
By Yury Krylov , Contributing Author, FRF
The criminal case against Lakeyev was filed for “abuse of a car” belonging to the FSB, a secret service, the successor of the KGB, whose officers literally formed a caste of untouchables in modern Russia.
Who is Konstantin Lakeyev and Why is His Case Important
On January 28, 2022, the Memorial Human Rights Center issued a press release, adding Konstantin Lakeyev, convicted of kicking a car owned by an FSB officer, to the list of Russian political prisoners. The 20-year-old man received two years and eight months in prison for kicking a car three times at a rally in support of the politician Alexey Navalny in Moscow. Even with all the absurdity and phantasmagoric nature of the political trials of Alexei Navalny’s sympathizers in Russia, this sentence is utterly disproportionate to his actions and violates judicial practice.
Konstantin Lakeyev was born on February 1, 2002. He is a resident of Moscow, a TikTok blogger known under the nickname “Kostya Kievsky”, he had over 800,000 subscribers in the social network. At the time of his arrest, he was barely 18 years old and a second-year college student.
On January 23, 2021, Konstantin Lakeyev attended a demonstration in Moscow as part of the international action “Freedom to Navalny!” About two thousand people were detained during its crackdown that day in the capital of Russia, according to the Moscow Human Rights Ombudsman. The defense notes that Konstantin Lakeyev arrived at the protest to shoot video content for his popular blog on TikTok.
“The protesters blocked a car moving along the Tsvetnoy Boulevard and, committing acts of hooliganism, damaged it and sprayed tear gas in the driver’s face,” the Russian Investigative Committee (ICR) said in a statement released on the day of the action. “The passenger vehicle with special license plate number belongs to the FSB Headquarters.” On the same day, the Investigative Committee opened a criminal case.
Sources of the state news agency RIA Novosti assured at the time that the driver’s eye was “knocked out.” Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, repeated the same version. “Many people felt their [protesters’] direct impact, physical impact. Many of the law enforcement officers, felt it firsthand,” he said. “We all remember the driver who lost his eye thanks to these ‘peaceful’ protesters,” Putin’s representative said. However, the information about the driver’s eye was never confirmed.
On January 26, 2021, Konstantin Lakeyev was detained by riot police along with eleven other fellow bloggers in the territory of their rented house — a “TikTok House” in New Moscow district.
“You could have come and detained them quietly … God, they are children! I don’t think any of them would have resisted. But, apparently, this is the policy – be sure to drop in, drop them on the floor”, — says OVD-Info lawyer Tatiana Okushko, who represented the interests of Lakeyev. She was outraged by the ostentatious harshness of the detention.
The next day, January 27, the Investigative Committee published a video on YouTube with an apology from Tiktoker for the incident with the car. “I started throwing snow on it and kicked it several times, which I am very regretful and remorseful about. I apologize to everyone connected with it— to civil servants, to policemen —to everyone who is connected and not connected with it. And one hundred percent it won’t happen again,” said influencer in detention.
On January 28, the Presnensky District Court sentenced him to two months in jail. Konstantin Lakeyev was charged under the articles on hooliganism (Article 213 of the Criminal Code) and property damage (Article 167 of the Criminal Code); in a conversation with Mediazona outlet the lawyer noted then that her client hoped for a milder preventive measure and partially confessed.
On January 28, member of the Moscow PMC Marina Litvinovich, who visited him in the temporary detention facility on Petrovka Street, said that for two days after his arrest, Konstantin Lakeyev “slept on a chair” in the Investigative Committee, where he was questioned continuously. The human rights activist asserted: “They did not feed him for almost two days. He was beaten when detained, but there is no trace of the beating left. He was kept in a cell with a man who had previously served a prison sentence and is now charged with a serious crime under Article 161 of the Criminal Code. This violates Article 33 of the law ‘On detention’, and we demanded that they be seated and given slippers and a toothbrush.
On December 8, 2021 the Tverskoi Court in Moscow sentenced Konstantin to 2 years and 8 months in prison under part 2 of article 167 of the Criminal Code (“Intentional damage to property”). Also, the court issued a fine in the amount of 337, 000 rubles (about $4,000) for material damage to the FSB. The claim was filed by the military unit 44710 of the FSB, to which the damaged car was assigned. The court dismissed the case under the article on hooliganism.
“Although the court could have given a suspended sentence or confined the sentence to a fine for “defacement of property,” which in fact did not happen,” says Ivan Astashin, human rights activist of the Committee for Civil Rights. “The sentence has not yet come into effect, and Konstantin Lakyeyev was sent to Krasnoyarsk SIZO-1, notorious for regularly torturing prisoners. I am sure that this is revenge for the assault on the FSB property. And an attempt to intimidate other socially active people. I hope that the publicity and public support will prevent the cops from torturing Lakeyev, but I don’t exclude that right now he is being subjected to very hard conditions.”
According to Astashin, on December 16, 2021 Lakeyev’s defense filed an appeal against the sentence, but so far there has been no response.
Why does the Memorial Center recognize Konstantin Lakeyev as a political prisoner?
“Memorial”, an international historical and civil rights society, does not believe Lakeyev’s actions constitute a crime.
- The incident occurred during the unlawful dispersal of a protest rally. The authorities grossly violated the right of citizens to peaceful assembly, and each of the demonstrators risked being illegally detained and beaten. The leading Russian organization for monitoring freedom of assembly — OVD-info — stated at the time that it “considers the actions of the authorities in connection with the January 23 rallies to be the most massive and brutal violation of the right to freedom of assembly in the entire modern history of Russia.” Obviously, by hitting the FSB vehicle (accompanied by the crowd’s chanting of “Shame, shame”) with snowballs and feet, people expressed their indignation at the law enforcement officers’ illegal violence and the repressive policies of the authorities, which, from the human rights activists’ point of view, is a mitigating factor in their actions in the current situation.
- There is an obvious asymmetrical assessment by law enforcement agencies of the actions of demonstrators and law enforcement officers. OVD-info documented numerous incidents of violence by law enforcement agencies, and at least 64 demonstrators in Russian cities were injured that day. Detainees reported bruises, broken fingers, dislocations, and smashed heads and noses. People were beaten on the head with truncheons and tasers, thrown onto the floor of the police vans, and beaten with their feet. However, there are no known criminal cases of violence by law enforcement officers, including the widely publicized case of Margarita Yudina from St. Petersburg, who was put in intensive care unit after being hit by a member of the Rosgvardiya. All criminal cases, and as a rule on dubious grounds, are conducted exclusively against demonstrators.
- The video, studied by Memorial, shows that Lakeyev struck the headlight of the car three times, but it did not break and continued to run. The convict himself wrote in a post-conviction letter: “Everything I said on camera, they made me say… The car was going from north to south, and we were walking towards it along the boulevard (park) and then started going across the crosswalk. Accordingly other people were throwing snow on it… I hit 3 times (no more no less) the headlight of the car only because of my stupidity, because of which I was influenced by the crowd… Three years in prison for three strikes not against a person, but against a car…”.
- Differences in the enforcement of articles of the Criminal Code in “political” and other cases have been repeatedly noted. In “non-political” cases, courts usually impose considerably milder sentences, limiting them to fines or suspended sentences. The verdict against Konstantin Lakeyev belongs to the same category – usually under Part 2 of Article 167 of the Criminal Code courts hand down suspended sentences.
While not at all justifying the defacement of law enforcement property, human rights activists from Memorial consider the punishment imposed on Konstantin Lakeyev extremely disproportionate to the public danger of his actions, seeing in it a political motive to suppress freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, as well as to preserve the powers of authority by their subjects. “We are convinced that the young man’s cruel sentence is aimed at intimidating potential critics of the Russian authorities, primarily in the youth community,” reads a statement on Memorial’s website.
“Memorial”, in accordance with the International Guidelines on the Definition of a Political Prisoner, considers Konstantin Lakeyev to be a political prisoner and calls for his release and a review of his sentence with respect for the right to a fair trial.
Belarusian authorities demand Russia to extradite Yana Pinchuk arrested in St. Petersburg. She is charged with running “extremist” Telegram social media channels.
Who is Yana Pinchuk?
Yana Pinchuk was born on June 28, 1997 in Belarus. Until 2018, she lived in Vitebsk, then moved to the Russian Federation, where she has lived for the past 4 years.
On November 1, 2021 Yana was detained in St. Petersburg at the request of the Belarusian authorities. She was charged with inciting hatred against Belarusian police officers, which carries a sentence of up to 12 years in prison, and with organizing an extremist entity, which carries a sentence of up to seven years in prison.
According to Belarusian prosecutors, Pinchuk was one of the administrators of the Telegram channel Vitebsk 97%, declared extremist by the Belarus authorities in March 2021.
On November 3, 2021 the Vasileostrovsky district court in St. Petersburg remanded Pinchuk in custody.
Subsequently, the Belarus authorities asked Russia to extradite her. Pinchuk herself requested a refugee status.
Full Description of the Case
According to the Belarusian investigative authorities, Yana Pinchuk, the administrator of the Telegram channel “Vitebsk 97%”, through the account Princess Leia, “acting jointly and in coordination with other unidentified persons by prior agreement in a group, with the intent of each covered actions of another member of the group”, from September 23, 2020 to December 7, 2020, “in order to incite other social hatred and discord on the basis of another social identity”, posted in the channel “text messages that contain negative information about a group of persons united on the basis of affiliation with law enforcement officers, public authorities and other groups of persons united on other social grounds, as well as incitement in the form of a proposal to actions aimed at causing harm to a group of persons united on the basis of affiliation with police officers.”
These actions were qualified by the Belarusian investigative authorities under part 3 of article 130 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus, in connection with which a criminal case was brought on April 23, 2021.
Pinchuk is also charged for “posting texts relating to extremist materials on the same channel in order to carry out extremist activities” during the period from September 23, 2020 to May 3, 2021 and at the same time heading a Telegram channel “Vitebsk 97%”, which is an extremist formation” (the channel was declared extremist in March 2021 by a court decision). These actions were further qualified under part 1 of article 361.1 of the Criminal Code, in connection with which Vitebsk investigators opened another criminal case against Pinchuk on May 3, 2021.
On April 23, 2021 a joint criminal case under part 3 of article 130 and part 1 of article 361.1 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus was opened. On May 5, 2021, Lieutenant Colonel Dashkevich, Officer of the Vitebsk City Department of the Investigative Committee of the Republic of Belarus, ordered to bring Yana Pinchuk as an accused in the combined criminal case and put her on the wanted list.
On September 28, 2021, the investigating authorities of Belarus issued an arrest order for Pinchuk, which was approved by the prosecutor of Vitebsk A. Shklyarevskiy on October 6, 2021.
Following her detention on 1 November 2021, the Vasileostrovsky district prosecutor’s office petitioned the court for remand in custody as a preventive measure against her.
Judge E. Leonova of the Vasileostrovsky District Court of St. Petersburg granted the petition on November 3, 2021.
The court referred to the fact that the Belarusian legislation stipulated a punishment of more than a year’s imprisonment for the alleged crimes, while the corresponding article 280 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation— up to five years’ imprisonment, which, in accordance with Article 56 of the Convention on Legal Assistance and Legal Relations in Civil, Family and Criminal Cases and part 1 of Article 462 of the Criminal Procedure Code of the Russian Federation, gives grounds to consider possible the extradition of a foreign national to the country that requests his extradition.
In its ruling, the court agreed with the arguments of the prosecutor’s office that, being at large, Pinchuk could abscond from the law enforcement authorities, had no permanent residence on the territory of the Russian Federation, and the adoption of a non-custodial preventive measure would not ensure the implementation of the obligations assumed by the Russian Federation to enable the extradition of Pinchuk to the law enforcement authorities of Belarus.
The court rejected Pinchuk’s application for a preventive measure in the form of prohibition of certain actions in connection with the legality of her stay in Russia, her residence registration, stable social connections and chronic diseases, as well as the absence of an official request for her extradition to Belarus at that time.
Pinchuk herself testifed in court that she had not committed the alleged crimes, and that she had learned about the charges against her only after her detention. After her placement in the pre-trial detention facility, Yana Pinchuk applied for the status of refugee.
On December 8, 2021, the Investigative Committee of the Republic of Belarus officially requested the Russian authorities to extradite Pinchuk.
Yana Pinchuk herself does not deny that she was a moderator of the Telegram channel, but claims that she withdrew her authority prior to the channel being recognized as extremist in the Republic of Belarus and emphasizes that she only posted in the chat room reposts about the place and time of meetings and about helping the detainees.
On December 10, 2021, the Vasileostrovsky District Court of St. Petersburg extended the term of Pinchuk’s detention until April 30, 2022.
The ruling to keep Pinchuk in detention was made by Judge Elena Leonova of the Vasileostrovsky District Court at the request of Acting Prosecutor of the Vasileostrovsky District V. Derevyanko.
What Punishment is Yana Pinchuk Facing in Her Homeland?
- Part 3 of Article 130 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus – incitement of racial, national, religious or other social enmity or discord, committed by a group of persons, or resulting by negligence in human death or other severe consequences. The punishment is imprisonment for a term of 5 to 12 years.
- Article 188 of the Criminal Code – slander. is punished by a fine, correctional work for up to 2 years, arrest or restriction of freedom for up to 3 years, or imprisonment for the same term.
- Part 3 of Article 203-1 of the Criminal Code – unlawful acts in relation to personal data of another person. Punishable by restraint of liberty for up to 5 years or imprisonment for the same period with a fine.
- Part 3 of Article 361 of the Criminal Code – calls for seizure of state power, violent change of the constitutional system of the Republic of Belarus with the use of the Internet. Punishable by imprisonment for a term of two to seven years.
- Under article 361-1, paragraphs 1 and 2, of the Criminal Code, repeated establishment and leadership of an extremist group working to rehabilitate Nazism. Is punished by restriction of freedom for the term from 3 up to 5 years or imprisonment from 6 up to 10 years.
Why Does The Memorial Center Recognize Yana Pinchuk as a Political Prisoner?
In accordance with international guidelines, Memorial Human Rights Centre (MHRC) considers Yana Pinchuk, a Belarusian national who lives in Russia, a political prisoner. MHRC believes her prosecution is solely related to her political views and her exercise of the right to freedom of expression and consider the criminal case against her politically motivated.
«Having studied the available case materials, we have concluded that the prosecution of Yana Pinchuk is politically motivated and unlawful. After the presidential elections in Belarus in August 2020, the results of which were not recognized by most European countries, the United States and Canada, the Belarus authorities launched a massive crackdown on opposition in the country.
According to Belarus human rights activists, there are already more than 900 political prisoners in the country. Neither the known grounds for politically motivated charges nor the criminal prosecution procedures meet the minimum standards for fair trial or human rights in general.
We have no grounds to expect that the Belarus authorities will uphold the rights of Yana Pinchuk in the event of her extradition. Therefore, we believe that Russia should reject the request to extradite Pinchuk and should grant her refugee status.
We believe there are no grounds for holding Pinchuk in custody. The case materials available to us do not contain information about the specific reasons for the charges. They contain no evidence of incitement to illegal actions published on the Telegram channel. Pinchuk herself claims she stopped being an administrator of the channel before it was declared extremist.
We demand the immediate release of Yana Pinchuk. We demand that the Russian authorities comply with their international obligations under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. The Russian authorities must reject the request to extradite Pinchuk to Belarus and she must be granted temporary asylum.», — the statement published on the website of Memorial Human Rights Centre reads.
By Leah Silinsky, FRF Fellow
Falling another victim of the Kremlin’s attack on religious freedom, 37 year-old Dmitriy Yarchak was arrested for his religious beliefs in 2020. His arrest was part of a raid carried out by the FSB against Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Republic of Tatarstan. The criminal case against him was initiated on November 12, 2020. On August 24, 2021, Dmitriy was placed under house arrest facing charges of up to 10 years in prison. He was charged alongside fellow believers, Denis Filatov and Stanislav Klyuchnikov. As with nearly all other cases of religious persecution in the Russian Federation, Dmitriy was accused of belonging to an extremist group and participating in extremist activity. The truth is, Dmitriy is being denied his freedom simply for being Jehovah’s Witness.
Dmitriy was born in February 1984, in the city of Nizhnekamsk, in the Republic of Tatarstan, and has lived there ever since. He has a younger sister. His mother is currently retired, and his father passed away before his arrest. Dmitriy Yarchak was not raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. Rather, he came to his religious beliefs on his own. Dmitriy explored the questions of religion, God and morality, since he was a child. From an early age, he showed an interest in the Bible, and at 18 decided to become a Jehovah’s Witness and commit himself to living a life of a believer.
Upon completing his studies, Dmitriy worked as an accountant at a rehabilitation facility for children with disabilities. Living with a physical disability himself since childhood, Dmitriy Yarchak is no stranger to adversity. After working in this capacity, Dmitriy worked at a telecommunications company.
In 2010, Dmitriy married his wife Svetlana who shares his religious views and has remained loyal and supportive to her husband during such trying times. Dmitriy’s arrest has been very hard for his family— they are anxious and terrified. Svetlana, her parents, Dmitiry’s mother and sister are all at a complete loss of words regarding his arrest. Dmitriy confessed that , “Any knock on the door is a cause for anxiety.” His family members cannot wrap their minds around how peaceful, religious individuals who do no harm to others can be treated as criminals who deserve to be in prison.
Those who know him describe Dmitriy as warm, sociable and friendly person. He has many friends and gets along well with his colleagues. He enjoys spending time with his wife and his friends.
In November 2020, OMON (the Russian Purpose Police Unit) and FSB agents raided 12 apartments belonging to Jehovah’s Witnesses in the city of Nizhnekamsk. Russian authorities made arrests on charges of extremist activity, which included praying and singing religious songs. It should be noted that OMON refers to a national guard which dates to the Soviet Era. Under the current leadership of Putin, and Putin’s former bodyguard, Victor Zolotov, OMON functions as a counter-terrorism police force. Apparently, there can be no greater terrorist threat than a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses singing songs and praying. The case against Dmitriy Yarchak was initiated by the FSB on November 12, 2020. The arrests and interrogations took place on November 18, 2020.
On November 18, 2020, when OMON and FSB raided apartments in Nizhnekamsk, they arrested 7 Jehovah’s Witnesses, ranging in age from 36 to 47 years old. Three women were interrogated, and one woman was arrested. The level of brutality and disregard for human dignity during these arrests truly lived up to the Kremlin’s standards. The squads invaded apartments of Jehovah’s Witnesses and their family members. Several children were present when the violent arrests were made. In one instance a woman was brutally thrown to the floor, while her husband was taken away by the authorities. Authorities took electronics and passports, among other personal belongings. Investigations were conducted by FSB agents from Naberezhnye Chelny and Kazan, including Oleg Zorin —an investigator who works for the center for counterterrorism and extremism in Tatarstan.
Approximately nine months after the arrests and interrogations, on August 24, 2021, the senior investigator in charge of the case regarding the apartment raids in Tatarstan, sentenced Yarchak to house arrest on charges of membership in an extremist group and plotting extremist activity. On October 07, 2021, investigator A. A. Giniatullin officially charged Dmitriy and the two other defendants in this case, with partaking in “extremist activity.” As with all other charges against peaceful Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, the “evidence” used in Dmitriy’s arrest, trial and sentence, are ludicrous.
When making the case against Dmitriy Yarchak, officials used zoom conversations between him and other Jehovah’s Witnesses as supposed proof of him being a part of an extremist group. These conversations centered around a shared belief in God and prayer.
Dmitriy and nearly all other Jehovah’s Witnesses who have been tried and arrested, have been charged with violating article 282.1 of the criminal code of the Russian Federation, banning individuals from participating in extremist organizations. While reasonable in theory, the Kremlin simply labels any groups and organizations which challenge the status quo as extremist, even if the group is completely peaceful. It is a method used by Putin and Russian authorities to limit freedom and civil society in Russia. The persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia is similar to the persecution of the Crimean Tatars, in which both groups are labeled as “extremist” despite posing no threat to others.
Aside from the official Jehovah’s Witness website of Russia, and Memorial, there have been no reactions to Dmitriy’s arrest. This is in large part because Dmitriy’s arrest was one of the many arrests carried out against Jehovah’s Witnesses. His name is completely absent from US news sources, or any Russian-dissident social media accounts.
OVD-Info, Memorial, Mediozona, Meduza, and the official Jehovah’s Website of Russia are among the few Russian sources which closely track and publicize the plight of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Various US news outlets have also covered this purge, though none have covered the arrest of Dmitriy Yarchak specifically.
Why Memorial Lists Dmitriy Yarchak as a Political Prisoner
Dmitriy Yarchak was charged with belonging to an extremist group and engaging in extremist activity, when, in fact, he was arrested for his religious beliefs. No evidence of his participation in extremist activity has been presented.
By Leah Silinsky, FRF Fellow
Who is Olga Bendas?
Olga Valerieyvna Bendas is a 35-year-old activist imprisoned for her participation in a pro-Navalny protest in 2021. Olga is a Russian citizen residing in Lyubertsy, a suburb of Moscow. Prior to her arrest, she worked as a furniture designer. Olga Bendas felt compelled to join the protest due to her dissatisfaction with the Kremlin’s pension reforms and vaccination policies. In a letter published by OVD-Info, she explained that she came out to protest because as a tax-paying citizen, she has every right to criticize the government’s policies as she sees fit. Olga is now imprisoned on exaggerated charges of assaulting a police officer, when in reality, she accidentally hit a police officer while defending herself from police assault.
On January 23, 2021, Olga Bendas attended the “Freedom to Navalny” protest at the Pushkin Square, one of the many pro-Navalny protests that took place throughout Russia last year. A video of Olga went viral, in which she was laying on the snow-covered ground, holding up a police baton and declaring that anyone who attacks citizens with the baton, will themselves be attacked by the baton.
The pro-Navalny protests of 2021 were marked by a massive police brutality unleashed on peaceful activists. On the day of Olga’s arrest, over 4,000 other people were taken into custody. In total, about 11,000 individuals have been arrested for participating in the protests. Despite reports showing that state authorities and national guards injured at least 64 protestors, there has yet to be any effective disciplinary action in response to police brutality. So far, none of the police officers involved in the abuse of 64 protestors have been tried or arrested.
On January 28, 2021, Olga was arrested and taken into police custody. She was charged with Part 1 of Article 318 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation.
Olga Bendas was taken into custody on January 23 and officially arrested on January 28, 2021, several days after her participation in a pro-Navalny protest. She was charged with Part 1 of Article 318 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation— “use of non-lethal violence against a representative of the power.”
On January 29, 2021, Olga was put in a two-month pre-trial detention by the Presensky District Court. During Olga’s investigation, police officer Boldin claimed that Olga hit him multiple times, causing him “severe pain.” Mr. Boldin is employed by the Main Directorate of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Russia for Moscow. At the protest, he wore full protective gear and was armed, but apparently, an unarmed, young woman was able to inflict enough pain on this officer to warrant her arrest.
During the court proceedings, the viral video featuring Olga was repeatedly referenced as evidence. The Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation has even posted the video of Olga on its official YouTube channel. In the video, however, Olga is not engaging in any forms of violence. Moreover, the allegedly injured officer Boldin does not even appear in the video at all.
The court sentenced Olga to two years in prison. According to Memorial, Olga’s investigation, trial, and arrest, are all politically motivated, and her charges are disproportionate to the alleged “crimes”. Though charged with assaulting a police officer, in reality, Olga Bendas accidentally hit a police officer in self-defense, after she was severely beaten.
Officer Boldin watched the video of Olga during the investigation, and identified her as the one who “assaulted” him at the protest. His colleagues—officers A.S. Starshinin and A.V. Smirnov— claimed that they saw Olga hit Boldin on the torso and identified her from the video as well.
On June 22, 2021, judge A.A. Belyakov of the Tverskoy District Court sentenced Olga to two years in prison.
Though she publicly apologized for hitting the officer in a video publicized during the investigation; Olga pled not-guilty during her trial, as she hit him accidently, while defending herself. It is possible that she posted the apology due to intimidation. The video of her apology was also posted and circulated by the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation.
At the trial, Olga Bendas was represented by lawyer Tatyana Okushko, who works for OVD-Info. OVD-Info is an online human rights hotline and advocacy group, which documents and supports arrested activists in Russia. This organization collects information about arrests conducted at protests, and provides legal aid and counsel to those unjustly arrested.
Olga conceded that she brushed against the police officer, though this was done accidentally. She was under extreme stress and abuse at the hands of police officers and in response, swung her hands, accidentally hitting police officer V.A. Boldin. This account is vastly different from the aggressive assault claimed by police officers.
Olga reported being hit by police officers on her head and stomach multiple times. Detention center exam documented numerous bruises over Olga’s body. While officials were conducting the investigation, Olga was kept in a colony 621 miles from her home. She reported having extreme back pain but was denied medical care. Originally, she was kept in SIZO-6, but on October 14, 2021, was moved to SIZO-5 in Perm.
Olga and her lawyer tried to get records of these bruises to present to court but were unable to do so. This is because after her arrest, Olga was immediately taken to a temporary detention facility before being sent to the pre-trial detention center. Olga speculates that this was done so that her bruises would fade before her trial, and that authorities could conceal the evidence of their brutality. Despite Olga’s complaints to the investigators on her beatings, there have been no investigations against the officers who attacked her. Olga’s lawyer, Tatyana Okushko, states that Olga told authorities at her trial that she was beaten. Okushko states that investigators are required to conduct a medical exam, and interview witnesses at the event, but refused to conduct the investigation.
At the trial, prosecution emphasized the fact that Olga, while a Russian citizen, was born in Ukraine— in an attempt to appeal to anti-Ukrainian sentiments in Russia, undermining her credibility and her claims of acting in self-defense. A malicious disinformation campaign has been conducted attacking Olga’s character. Government-controlled RIA news agency aired specials on Olga’s case depicting her as an “outsider” who cannot be a peaceful citizen due to her origin of birth. Other media outlets slandered her, falsely reporting that she was previously convicted for other offenses and was unemployed. This has been done to prevent ordinary Russian citizens from feeling sympathy for the young woman.
Aside from Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, Olga’s case has warranted no response from the Western media. In the Russian Federation, the reaction was different. Official news agencies ran smear campaigns defaming Olga’s character. They emphasized the fact that she was born in Odessa and exclusively referred to her as Ukrainian, despite her having a Moscow residency. All of this was done to play on anti-Ukrainian bigotry in Russia, to support her trial and arrest. She was portrayed as violent and hysterical. Government-associated news oulets purposely omitted the fact that she was badly beaten by police officers after defending an old man. Several pro-Kremlin twitter users cheered her arrest, referring to her as a violent, unhinged person.
Independent Russian news sources and social media influencers have voiced their support for Olga. Memorial, Radio Svoboda, and OVD-Info published information to shed truth on her case. Several twitter users with a large following posted statements showing their support and solidarity. User “XSoviet News” posted a video of Olga on the ground holding a baton, saying, “Olga Bendas and Alexander Glushkov, who fought back against riot police during the protest in Moscow on January 23, have been sentenced to two years in prison.” Another user, Kasablanka_03 quoted Olga, who said she was very hurt that she had received no letters of support from others. In response, this user expressed much sympathy for Olga. Other users, such as “Micr0ft” and “Ivan from Russia” expressed their support as well.
Why Memorial Recognizes Olga Bendas as a Political Prisoner
- Olga Bendas’s arrest and sentence are disproportionate to her actions. While she did hit a police officer, she did so accidentally, while defending herself from police brutality. She did not cause any physical damage to the police officer. Moreover, no legal actions were taken against the police officers who beat and physically attacked Olga.
- Olga Bendas’s lawyer stated that the video, which was used as evidence, does not sufficiently prove Olga’s guilt. Nowhere in the video does Olga even touch the lawyer. The police officer who was supposedly attacked could not provide any medical evidence to show that Olga harmed him in any way.
- There was police brutality at the pro-Navalny protests, yet none of the police officers have been held accountable. Olga’s arrest was done as a political statement by Russian authorities to discourage citizens from protesting, and from defending others against police violence.
Who is Valentina Ivanovna Baranovskaya?
Valentina Ivanovna Baranovskaya is a 70-year-old retiree,and a devout Jehovah’s Witness from the Russian city of Abakan. In the Spring of 2019, Valentina and her son Roman Baranovsky were arrested and charged under the Article 282.2, part two of Criminal Code of the Russian Federation—participating in an outlawed organization. In reality, they are persecuted simply for being Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their trial began on April 10, 2019, and they have been incarcerated since February 24, 2021.
The arrest and trial of Baranovskaya are outrageous in cruelty and senselessness. In the face of the Kremlin’s hostility toward the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baranovskaya has courageously remained an active member in her community and had not denounced her believes. Baranovskaya has maintained her innocence, and articulately defended her stance in court.
Though the Kremlin purports to support freedom of religion and expression, the arrest of Baranovskaya and her son, and the general attack on Russia’s Jehovah’s Witnesses prove otherwise. In 2017, the Kremlin labeled the Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremist, and banned them from organizing in the Russian Federation. Since then, hundreds of Jehovah’s Witnesses have been prosecuted and arrested for no other crime than professing their faith. Baranovskaya was 69 years-old at the time of her arrest, and was the first female Jehovah’s Witness to be arrested.
Valentina Baranovskaya was born in 1951, and was raised alongside her brother and sister in the village of Vannovka. She would become a Jehovah’s Witness only later in life, and as a child was raised in a communist home. By 1973, she graduated from university, and a year later, had her son, Roman Baranovsky. Before her retirement in 2006, Baranovskaya worked as an accountant.
Her religious transformation began in 1995, when she and her son started to read the Bible together. For her, the most important motif from her readings was the emphasis on eternal truth. These readings ultimately led the two to become Jehovah’s Witnesses. Valentina Baranovskaya is known for her creativity, warmth, and hospitality, making her trial and verdict even more difficult for her friends and family to comprehend.
On April 10, 2019, Investigator A. V. Pachuev opened a criminal case against Baranovskaya and her son. Armed authorities barged into Baranovskaya’s home to arrest her for being a member of a banned religious group. They demanded to search her home for “extremist” content. She obliged.
In February 2021, Judge Elena Scherbakova of the Abakan City Court, sentenced Baranovskaya to two years in prison for participating in religious activities as a Jehovah’s Witness, and sentenced her son, Roman, to six years in prison. He was charged for organizing group activities. Officially, she was found guilty of violating Article 282.2 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, which charges an individual for being part of a banned organization. According to a document published on February 24, 2019, by the official Investigation Department of the Republic of Khakassia, Valentina Baranovskaya and Roman Baranovsky were later both found guilty under Part 1 and Part 2 of Article 282.2 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation.
On February 20, 2020, Valentina Baranovskaya maintained her innocence, and refused to plead guilty to being a part of an extremist organization. Baranovskaya stated that she was simply practicing her religious beliefs without harming or imposing her beliefs on others, which is a protected right under the Russian Constitution. Moreover, she stated that the charges filed against her are themselves unlawful and invalid, as they deny the rights granted to her by the Russian Constitution.
Baranovskaya then made a public statement arguing that despite the Jehovah’s Witnesses of Abakan being a banned group, every individual has the right to practice their religion freely, as stipulated by Article 28 of the Russian Constitution. She added that there was nothing “extremist” about singing religious music, reading the Bible, and believing in God. In February, there were some efforts by prosecutors to increase her and her son’s sentences, by increasing Baranovskaya’s sentence to 5 years, and her son’s sentence to 8 years. In later court appearances, both Valentina and Roman argue that despite searching their home, authorities were unable to provide any evidence of the two owning prohibited literature or fundraising for the organization.
Valentina Baranovskaya and Roman Baranovsky tried to appeal their case. On May 24, 2021, the Supreme Court of Khakassia rejected their appeals, and maintained Baranovskaya’s two-year sentence, and Baranovsky’s six-year sentence. On September 9, 2021, Valentina’s lawyer visited her in prison. Despite her tragic situation, health problems, and fatigue, he noted her warm attitude and her attention to the other inmates. She helps them clean the facility and has a positive effect on the other inmates. He noted her intentions to apply for parole. Unfortunately, her application was denied this October.
The shock of the arrest and conditions of her incarceration have severely endangered Valentina Baranovskaya’s health. On July 8, 2020, Baranovskaya fell ill, and was examined by a medical team. An ER doctor ordered an ambulance to take Baranovskaya to the hospital for emergency care and prescribed medication. A few days later, on July 20, 2020, she had an ischemic stroke.
Baranovskaya often relies on her son Roman for help and emotional support, but the two have been separated and assigned to different prisons. She is currently located in colony no. 28 in Ust-Abakan, while her son is in colony no. 3 in Chita—1,500 miles away. Her appeal filed in October 2021, citing her medical problems, was rejected by courts who refused to relocate her or to shorten her sentence. Separating Valentina Baranovskaya from her primary caretaker in her ill health is especially sadistic, and shows a complete disregard for compassion and human rights at the hands of the Russian authorities
Aside from Jehovah’s’ Witness news sources, alternative Russian media sources, and Memorial, little is said about the unjust arrest and detention of Valentina Baranovskaya. There have been, however, several western sources covering this case. In large part, this is because it would go against the Kremlin’s interests to publicize illegal arrests, and most news sources have little freedom in reporting about the Kremlin’s arrests. Those who speak openly are often subject to heavy fines and harassment due to the Foreign Agents Law. This was a law passed in 2012, essentially created to limit dissent and civil society in Russia by labeling those who disagree with, and question, the current political status quo, as “foreign agents”—a known euphemism for calling someone a spy.
Western news sources, however, do not face such limitations, and can, therefore, write about and criticize unjust arrests in the Russian Federation. The official Jehovah’s Witness website, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, The State Department, Reuters, Washington Post, and the United States Commission on International Freedom have all issued reports and statements surrounding the arrest. USCIF Commissioner, Gary Bauer, personally issued a statement on twitter, saying, “Today Valentina Baranovskaya, an elderly woman in poor health, became the first female #JehovahsWitness sentenced to prison in #Russia. This marks a new low in Russia’s brutal campaign against religious freedom.”
Why the Memorial Human Rights Center Recognizes Baranovskaya as a Political Prisoner
- Article 28 of the Russian Constitution claims to support the freedom of religion. Arresting Baranovskaya and her son simply for being Jehovah’s Witnesses, violates the Russian Constitution.
- Article 282.2 bans citizens from being a part of, and taking part in activities led by banned, extremist organizations. Russian authorities often use this article as an excuse to arbitrarily arrest religious minorities, claiming that they are part of an extremist group, when in fact, they are not.
Many political prisoners in Russia are arrested for their religious beliefs. Jehovah’s Witnesses are among the most persecuted religious minorities in the Russian Federation, jailed for their religious beliefs alone. They pose no security threat to the Russian Federation and are cruelly targeted simply for following a form of Christianity which differs from Kremlin-approved Eastern Orthodoxy.
Sayd-Muhammad Dzhumaev (aka Markhiev Mikail Mikhailovich) was born on January 15, 2000. On August 19, 2021 Sayd-Muhammad, a resident of Moscow and a student of Moscow State University, was sentenced to five years in prison for confronting riot police at a rally in support of opposition politician Alexey Navalny by the Tverskoi Court in Moscow.
Russian politician Alexey Navalny has been in prison since January 2021. He was detained at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow after returning from Germany, where he had been treated after being poisoned with the Novichok chemical warfare agent. According to the verdict, the politician will remain incarcerated until mid-2024.
Nationwide protests in Russia broke out on January 23, 2021 in support of Navalny. The protests were met with brutal police crackdowns, with thousands citizens detained. More than 100 criminal cases were opened against those who participated in protests under accusations of violence, blocking roads, involving minors in illegal activities, and violating sanitary and epidemiological rules.
On January 23, 2021, Sayd-Muhamad Jumayev joined a demonstration in Moscow as part of the all-Russian “Freedom to Navalny!” rally.
A short video from the rally, which captures the moment of Dzhumaev’s confrontation with riot police, has been widely circulated on the Internet. The footage shows Dzhumaev emerging from the crowd of protesters and walking quickly towards the riot police, who in full protective gear with batons at the ready are advancing on the crowd of protesters. Dzhumayev falls back under the blows of the police batons but hits the riot police with hands and feet. One of the OMON riot police fighters grabbed Jumayev by the arm, he breaks free, but falls on the asphalt. The protesters drag Dzhumaev back into the crowd, shielding him from police.
Following this incident, Dzhumaev was put on the federal wanted list on charges of committing a crime under Article 318 of the Russian Criminal Code (“Violence against a representative of authority, in connection with the performance of his duties”). On January 28, 2021 he was detained in the Pskov region, and on the same day Moscow Presnensky District Court put him in jail for two months for the period of preliminary investigation. His time in the pre-trial detention facility had then been extended until the final verdict.
According to the investigation, on January 23, the young man who participated in an unauthorized rally near Pushkin square “repeatedly attacked members of riot police and law enforcement with his hands and feet.”
During the investigation, Sayd-Muhammad Dzhumaev apologized to the officers. According to his lawyer, officers said that they had no personal claims. Initially the young man pleaded guilty, so his case was considered in a special order without the examination of evidence, but on the day of the announcement of the verdict, the court decided to reopen the investigation and consider the case in the general order.
On August 19, 2021 Sayd-Muhammad Dzhumaev was sentenced to five years in prison
The day after the rally, Adam Delimkhanov, a Russian State Duma deputy from the Chechen Republic, published a video in which he urged Dzhumaev to get in touch with him and then the regional authorities would help him.
The position of the Chechen authorities was first based on the fact that Dzhumayev did not support Navalny and, most likely, was at the rally by accident.
After the meeting with the young man’s relatives, the Chechen authorities announced that “the destruction of the institution of the family” was to blame for Dzhumayev’s actions. “If he had reached out to his father’s relatives, maintained kinship with everyone, he would have known how to behave,” Magomed Daudov, the speaker of the Chechen Parliament explained Dzhumayev’s behavior.
Arrest of this young student has caused a resonance with the Russian society. Poems had been dedicated to him, thousands of people signed a petition in his support, created animated videos and merchandise with his image. Thousands of posts have been published on Instagram with the hashtag #свободуджумаеву (#freedzhumaev).
Why does the Memorial Center recognize Sayd-Muhammad Dzhumaev as a political prisoner?
Memorial, an international historical and civil rights society, does not believe Dzhumaev’s actions constitute a crime.
- There was no damage or injury from the actions of Said-Muhammad Dzhumaev. The allegedly injured law enforcers wore full protective equipment with helmets and did not receive any injuries. Moreover, in court, they denied all claims of injury. The video recording from the protest shows that Dzhumaev’s actions had not caused any of them to fall, lose their balance or even stop hitting him with batons.
- An unreasonably harsh sentence was imposed in Dzhumaev’s case: it clearly does not correspond to the practice of such charges. Even taking into account that the Russian courts apply Article 318 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation in “political” and other cases, Dzhumaev’s sentence stands out for its severity even against the background of other cases.
- The law enforcement agencies’ assessment of the actions of the parties is asymmetrical. According to the “OVD-Info” media, on January 23, at least 64 protesters across Russia were injured by the actions of law enforcement officers. At the same time, not a single criminal case has been initiated against law enforcement officials. Only the demonstrators have been prosecuted.
- Dzhumaev clashed with riot police during the illegal dispersal of a protest rally. The Russian authorities grossly violated the right of citizens to peaceful assembly, each of the protesters risked being illegally detained and beaten. The atmosphere of police violence during those hours suggests an element of necessary defense in Dzhumaev’s actions.
Based on the above, Memorial considers Sayd-Mukhamad Dzhumaev to be a political prisoner and calls for his release and for a review of his sentence with respect for the right to a fair trial.
Pyotr Verzilov, 34, the publisher of the independent media website Mediazona, has been added to Russia’s wanted list.
According to the database, Pyotr is wanted “under an article of the Criminal Code.” Other details, including the article under which he faces charges are not provided.
His lawyer, Leonid Solovyov, has confirmed that his client’s name appeared on the wanted list on the Interior Ministry’s website over his alleged failure to report to authorities that he also holds Canadian citizenship.
“It didn’t happen today; Peter was put on the wanted list six months ago. This is connected to the criminal case of a second passport (Pyotr Verzilov is a citizen not only of Russia, but also of Canada), which was initiated against Verzilov in the summer of 2020. He himself is not in Russia at the moment,” Mediazona clarified.
Leonid Solovyov said that Pyotr Verzilov had never hidden his Canadian citizenship. Mediazona explained that Verzilov’s father lived in Canada, and he himself went to school there, after which he received his citizenship.
On September 29, 2021, Russian Ministry of Justice designated Mediazona as “foreign agent” along with over 20 individual journalists and rights activists. The Russian government uses the “foreign agents” designation to label what it perceives foreign-funded organizations engaged in political activity, as well as people linked to them.
On September 14, more than 150 Russian news agencies, NGOs, and charitable organizations launched a petition demanding the repeal of Russia’s “foreign agents” law.
Who is Pyotr Verzilov?
Pyotr Verzilov, 34, is a Russian-Canadian artist and activist, and the publisher of an independent news website Mediazona, which since 2014 has reported critically on the legal system and law enforcement practices in Russia.
Pyotr came to prominence as the unofficial spokesperson of the Russian feminist punk rock band Pussy Riot when he was arrested and jailed by the Russian state in 2012.Verzilov’s former wife Nadezhda Tolokonnikova is a member of Pussy Riot who staged a protest inside the Moscow Cathedral in February 2012. Later Tolokonnikova and two other members were sentenced to two years in prison for “hooliganism”.
On September 12, 2018, it was reported that Pyotr Verzilov was hospitalized in critical condition to a toxicological department of the Bakhrushin City Clinic in Moscow. On September 18, doctors at the German hospital said in a statement that it was “highly probable” that Pyotr had been poisoned.
Pyotr Verzilov has been sentenced to jail terms of between 10 and 20 days several times in recent years for taking part and organizing protest performances in Russia. Mediazona website focuses on news related to human rights, civil society, and the crackdown on dissent in Russia. Its editor-in-chief is Russian political journalist Sergey Smirnov.
In April 2021, Andrey Borovikov, former leader of Aleksei Navalny’s regional office in the northwestern city of Arkhangelsk, Russia, was sentenced to 2.4 years in prison for “distribution of pornography”. In 2014, Borovikov reposted the “Pussy” music video by the German band Rammstein on Vkontakte social media, and in 2020 he deleted it from his page. But it didn’t help — the court declared the video “pornography not containing artistic value”. Rammstein band members, meanwhile, continue visit Russia unrestricted and even perform at government-funded concerts.
Who is Andrey Borovikov?
Andrey Borovikov was born on May 15, 1988 and resided in Arkhangelsk, in North-Western Russia. He is an eco-activist, a member of the movement “Pomorie Is Not a Dump”, worked as coordinator of a regional office of the Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny. Borovikov has repeatedly participated in protest actions in his hometown and also took part in a large protest rally against a planned waste disposal project in the village of Shies in 2019. For his activism, Andrey Borovkov has become the target of government repressions.
In 2014, Andrey shared music video “Pussy” by German band Rammstein on the Russian social network Vkontakte. The song itself had been released with a controversial and sexually explicit music video back in 2009. However, there is no official ban on this music video in Russia.
Five years later, in 2019, the video was noticed by Alexander Durynin, a former volunteer and social media manager of Navalny’s Arkhangelsk regional office, who later “became disillusioned with Navalny and left the office,” according to reports by Russian independent outlet Mediazona. In December 2019, he reported Borovikov’s post to the police and claimed that he was distributing pornography.
The initiation of a criminal case against Andrey was announced in September 2020. At around the same time he left his position as coordinator of Navalny’s regional office.
As part of the investigation, a sexological and cultural examination of music video took place. The court experts found the video to be of “pornographic nature” and “not containing artistic value.” At the same time, no other criminal cases have been opened in Russia because of the clip, despite the version marked 18+ having been shared by more than 200 users in social media Vkontakte alone and more than 20,000 users shared the version with explicit scenes blurred.
The activist has pleaded not guilty, stressing that this clip in the social media Vkontakte had been published by hundreds of other people.
According to prosecutors, Borovikov violated Article 242 of the Russian criminal code —distribution, public display or announcement of pornographic materials with use of mass media—when he shared the video in 2014.
On April 29, 2021, a court in Arkhangelsk found Borovikov guilty of “distributing pornography” by sharing the video. The prosecution requested a three-year sentence in a high security penal colony. Borovikov has been sentenced to two and half years in prison.
On July 15, 2021, the court reduced the sentence to two years and three months in a medium-security prison.
Immediately after the announcement of the verdict, Rammstein guitarist Richard Kruspe criticized the decision of the Russian court. “I very much regret that Borovikov has been sentenced to imprisonment for this. The harshness of this sentence is shocking. Rammstein has always stood up for freedom as a guaranteed basic right of all people,” Kruspe’s Instagram statement said.
Rammstein leader, singer Till Lindemann, who is very popular in Russia, has never publicly condemned the arrest of Borovikov, nor is he prosecuted for producing the video. Moreover, on September 4, 2021 he performed on Red Square in Moscow — he was a special guest at the “Spasskaya Tower” Military Music Festival funded by the government. Lindemann sang Mark Bernes’ song “Beloved City” in Russian. He was accompanied by three bands: the Military Band of the 154th Separate Commandant Preobrazhensky Regiment, the Demonstration Band of the Ministry of Emergency Situations of Russia and the Band of the Separate Division of the Operational Division of the National Guard.
Amnesty International said Borovikov was being “punished solely for his activism, not his musical taste.” “The case against Andrei Borovikov is utterly absurd,” said Natalia Zviagina, Amnesty International’s Moscow Office Director.
In an address recorded few hours ahead of the arrest, Borovikov called on the residents of Arkhangelsk to keep up protests against the regime. “Dear brave people, real people, dear friends, we have long had to keep up with this regime, that has descended our country into Putin’s lawless abyss. We have been united by the spirit of protest, a spirit of protest for our home soil. And only during these protests it has become clear for us how hard it is for people to have one’s own opinion, to be proud, a proud citizen. Dear friends, whatever will happen to me, that must not affect your spirit of protest. Because loyalty and fear is exactly what Putin’s group of bandits desires. Don’t be afraid, and in all possible ways try to harm the regime of the dictator, even with the smallest of actions. Never, under no circumstances, vote for United Russia… We are risking our lives and freedom so that our motherland, our beloved Russia, can be free.”
Why does the Memorial Center recognize Andrey Borovikov as a political prisoner?
Memorial Center believes that criminal prosecution of Andrey Borovikov — a political, environmental and civic activist well-known in Arkhangelsk — has nothing to do with the declared aim of protecting public morals.
1. The investigation over many months of such a minor and even ridiculous criminal case seems absurd and can only be rationally explained by the political motives of the officers of the Russian Interior Ministry rather than any motivation related to the law.
2. Borovikov’s prosecution is clearly selective in nature.
3. It is difficult to classify the Rammstein music video for the song “Pussy” as purely pornographic in nature since this audiovisual work has artistic value and is a legitimate artefact of contemporary popular music culture. There are no grounds to suggest Borovikov perceived the video as some kind of prohibited ‘pornography’ or intended to distribute pornographic material. 4. Even if the investigative authority had concluded the video was pornographic, it should not have initiated criminal proceedings against Borovikov. Under Article 14, Part 2, of the Russian Criminal Code, “an act (or omission), even if it formally contains evidence of being an act that falls under this Code, does not constitute a crime if it presents a danger to the public of little significance.”
Who is Pavel Zelensky?
Pavel Zelensky was born on January 10, 1981. He was a camera operator for Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), which specializes in publishing high-impact investigations into what it says is official graft. Zelensky is married, with three minor children.
Case Background: Self-immolation of Journalist Irina Slavina’s
On October 2, 2020 “Koza.Press” editor-in-chief Irina Slavina self-immolated in front of the Interior Ministry’s regional offices in Nizhny Novgorod. Before she committed suicide, she posted on her Facebook page: “Please blame the Russian Federation for my death.” She was 47 years old.
The day before this tragedy, a law enforcement squad searched her home in connection with a criminal investigation into the activities of an “undesirable organization.” In 2019 and 2020, Slavina received several administrative sentences for her political position and journalistic activity.
Case Background: Pavel Zelensky
On the day of Slavina’s death, Pavel Zelensky, a cameraman who worked for the Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK, an organization the Russian authorities have unlawfully declared a foreign agent), published two posts on Twitter about the journalist’s self-immolation.
“Irina, forgive all of us, forgive that we have let this happen. It’s very hard for me to write this, it’s hard to think about it and feel, thank you for your life and deeds. With these words, I ask all of us to get up, wake up, stop tweeting and electronically worry. Let’s f*** with this unworthy government”.
These emotional tweets, expressing grief and rage toward Russian authorities (who he held responsible for the tragedy), were the reason for his criminal prosecution.
Zelensky was arrested on January 15, 2021. At the time of his arrest, he was beaten and forced to unlock his smartphone.
The state prosecution had reportedly requested a 2.5-year sentence for him.
Zelensky has pleaded guilty to the extremism charges in February 2021 and declined a lawyer offered by the human rights group Agora. FBK director Ivan Zhdanov suggested that Zelensky was subjected to intense pressure in pretrial detention. Zelensky’s wife has told the Russian outlet Mediazona that he had pleaded guilty in hopes of shortening his sentence after he learned his mother was sick with coronavirus.
On April 16, 2021 Moscow’s Tushinsky District Court found Zelensky guilty and sentenced him to two years in a penal colony. The activist was charged with the offence of inciting extremist activity (Article 280, Part 2, of the Russian Criminal Code).
On September 28, 2021, he was also accused under Part 2 of Article 282.1 of the Russian Criminal Code (“Participation in an extremist community”, up to 6 years in prison) in connection with participation in an allegedly extremist community created by Alexey Navalny.
The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) and the Russian Journalists and Media Worker’s Union (JMWU) have demanded Zelensky’s release.
“The Journalists’ Union is outraged by Zelenski’s arrest and by the allegations against him. We understand his shock, dismay, and indignation after the death of Irina Slavina. We are confident that there is no incitement to extremist actions in what Zelenski has written, but rather only emotion. No one should be put behind bars for their words.”
“Pavel Zelenski’s arrest is a totally disproportionate measure which is in fact intended to intimidate journalists covering Navalny’s news,” said EFJ General Secretary Ricardo Gutiérrez. “It is clearly an intimidation tactic.”
Why does the Memorial Center recognize Pavel Zelensky as a political prisoner?
Memorial, an international historical and civil rights society, does not believe Zelensky’s actions constitute a crime. Moreover, even if the content of his tweets would formally fall within the purview of the article of the Criminal Code concerning incitement of extremism, investigators should nonetheless not have initiated criminal proceedings given the evident lack of importance of his actions.
Zelensky’s expressive statements were a spontaneous reaction to the unlawful actions of the security forces that led to the death of Irina Slavina. They contain no calls for specific extremist actions and one of the two posts contains no call of any kind but is merely an emotional expression of an attitude towards individual public officials.
Zelensky is a supporter of the Russian democratic opposition and one of Aleksei Navalny’s associates who have consistently demonstrated their commitment to exclusively peaceful methods of protest.
The self-evidently unlawful imposition of pre-trial custody in relation to a charge for a minor offence on someone with no criminal record, who has several children and who did not seek to hide from the investigators and has a permanent job and place of residence should be noted. Remanding Zelensky in custody was disproportionate with regard to the actions with which he has been charged and the degree of danger to the public they represent.
It is clear to us that Pavel Zelensky has been subject to criminal prosecution solely on account of his political views and his work for the Anti-Corruption Foundation. His prosecution is part of an ongoing crackdown against Aleksei Navalny and his supporters. It is significant that the criminal case against Zelensky was opened on January 12, 2021, the day the Federal Penitentiary Service threatened to replace Navalny’s suspended sentence in the trumped-up ‘Postal Case’ with a real term in prison. Zelensky was arrested on January 15, two days after Navalny announced his return to Moscow and two days before his arrival in Russia and wrongful arrest.
Last week, an independent Russian TV channel Dozhd aired a documentary “Torture of Navalny: How His Surrounding Works to Compromise and Break Him Down”. The program featured interviews of former inmates from the Pokrov’s Correctional Facility Number 2 (where Alexei Navalny is now serving his sentence) describing the torture and abuse targeting him.
Dozhd reporters spoke with former inmates Nariman Osmanov and Yevgeny Burak, who previously served time in the same wing as Navalny. According to Osmanov, this unit of inmates had been deliberately put together before the arrival of the opposition leader to the prison, and each prisoner was pre-briefed privately. Osmanov said that all prisoners in the unit had been instructed not to communicate with the politician and document each of his steps on a daily basis.
“Naturally, we suffered with him. Mentally, I still haven’t recovered, to be honest,” Osmanov told reporters. According to him, Navalny tried to talk to him, but he stopped these attempts.
During the hunger strike, which Navalny kept from March 31 to April 23, some inmates brought a bag of sausages to the barrack and started roasting the sausages on the premises, which is not possible under normal circumstances.
On another occasion, an inmate, housed in the same small cell next to Navalny, was taken to the sanitary unit and then declared to have an infectious form of tuberculosis. Osmanov said he warned Navalny that the incident had been staged.
According to Osmanov, a film was also shown in the colony, which was intended to compromise Navalny in front of other prisoners. The film about the opposition leader’s alleged “non-traditional sexual orientation,” corroborated another prisoner, Yevgeny Burak, was shown on Navalny’s birthday—June 4.
After Navalny returned from the hospital to the prison, his sleep was deliberately disturbed for several days — a prisoner on the bed next to him “made different sounds,” and all this was done at the direction from the colony’s leadership, Osmanov claims.
TV Dozhd reached out to the regional office of the Federal Penitentiary Service for comment, but did not hear back from them by the time this report went to press.
Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny has been in prison since January 2021. He was detained at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow after returning from Germany, where he had been treated after being poisoned with the Novichok chemical warfare agent. According to the sentence, the politician will have to stay in the penal colony until mid-2024.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has previously stated that Navalny was convicted not for political activities, but for “criminal violations”
Navalny’s organizations were declared “extremist” organizations in June 2021.
Thousands of Russians were detained during nationwide protests calling for his release in early 2021.
Karina Tsurkan, a former executive at an energy holding company, remains in prison on dubious charges of espionage. Originally from Moldova, Tsurkan began working in the Chisinau office of the state-owned company Inter RAO in 2005. She later moved to Moscow to work in the main office in 2007, and obtained Russian citizenship in 2016. In 2018, she was arrested under article 276 of the penal code of the Russian Federation. She was subsequently sentenced to 15 years in prison. After being released for less than a month in 2020, she was forced to return to prison, and has remained there ever since. Tsurkan maintains her innocence. The human rights organization Memorial has recognized her as a political prisoner.
Personal and Professional Background
Karina Valierevna Tsurkan was born in Chisinau, Moldovan SSR, in 1974. Her mother, Irina Aganesova, an energy engineer, describes Tsurkan as a curious person who always enjoyed a challenge. She was keenly interested in energy, law, and foreign languages. As a child, she took an interest in her mother’s work and began learning about the energy sector. After high school, she enrolled in a degree program that was conducted primarily in Romanian, despite not being fluent in the language at that time. She graduated from the International University of Moldova with a law degree in 1995. She subsequently obtained an MBA from a university in Spain. Due to her diverse educational background, Tsurkan is fluent in Russian, Romanian, and Spanish.
After completing her education, Tsurkan founded a law firm with her then-husband, Alexander. The couple, who have one son, divorced in 2002. Around this time, Tsurkan changed careers and took a job at Gas Natural Fenosa, the largest energy company in Moldova. In 2005, she took a job at the Chisinau offices of Inter RAO, the Russian state-owned energy company and the country’s fourth-largest producer of power, which has offices in multiple countries throughout the former Soviet Union. In 2007, she was promoted and moved to Moscow to work in the main office. At Inter RAO, she was employed as the head of the company’s trading division. In that capacity, she oversaw electrical power trade between Ukraine, Romania, and Moldova. This included the breakaway regions of Transnistria, in Moldova, and the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, in Ukraine.
In 2016, Tsurkan became a Russian citizen. She maintains that she renounced her Moldovan citizenship at that time and holds no other passport.
Current Case: 2018—Present
In 2018, Tsurkan was arrested on ambiguous charges. Although the precise essence of these charges varies from source to source, she stands accused of having shared classified information with an unidentified business contact. This individual is said to be of either Moldovan or Romanian nationality, and to have ties to the intelligence community in one or both of those countries. Tsurkan is accused to have shared the classified information with this individual in 2015. Because she still had Moldovan citizenship at that time, she was charged under article 276 (espionage) of the penal code, where a Russian national would have been charged under article 275 (treason). The prosecution sought to have Tsurkan imprisoned for eighteen years; she was sentenced to fifteen.
In connection with this case, the Russian Embassy in Romania has asserted that Tsurkan took Romanian citizenship in 2014, a charge which she denies. There have also been unsubstantiated rumors about Tsurkan’s personal relationships and the relevance they might bear to the charges.
Tsurkan maintains her innocence. In a 2018 interview with Meduza, she stated that she “would comment on the charges, if [she] understood them.” She willingly surrendered her computer, phone, and passwords to investigators, saying that she had nothing to hide. She stated that no law enforcement official had told her the name of the individual to whom she supposedly supplied classified information. She believes that she may have become a target because she “oversaw the implementation of corporate assignments in several complicated regions.”
Boris Kovalchuk, the son of Yuri Kovalchuk, a friend of Vladimir Putin, and the chairman of the board of Inter RAO, testified in Tsurkan’s favor at her trial. He said that he believed she had been framed by associates of Evgeny Shevchuk, the former self-proclaimed president of Transnistria (he now lives in Russia), who had objected to the presence of an Inter RAO power plant in the breakaway republic, and who is believed to have ties to intelligence agencies.
Tsurkan has said that conditions in the prison are poor and that the rights of prisoners are not respected. For example, while prisoners are legally entitled to unlimited contact with their lawyers, there is not sufficient space in the prison to facilitate these meetings. During her initial stay in prison, Tsurkan filled her time by studying Latin, German, and iconography. She told Meduza that she was worried about her mother and son, who were present in her apartment on the morning that she was arrested, and whom she had not been able to see since.
On January 16, 2020, Tsurkan was briefly released from prison. Twenty-three days later, she was forced to return. She has remained there ever since.
Political Prisoner Status
The human rights organization Memorial has recognized Tsurkan as a political prisoner on the grounds that she was denied her constitutional right to a fair trial, and was subsequently convicted on dubious evidence.
Tsurkan is not a typical political prisoner: she worked for a state-owned company and was not involved with any opposition movement. Her case demonstrates that it can happen to someone who does not fit the usual profile.
“I am a devoted Muslim, and I profess traditional Islam. My mother was a victim of a terrorist attack. How could I ever support or promote terrorism? I only wanted to help Muslim African countries that have almost no drinking water. That was my only intention.”
-Georgy Guyev during his trial on Nov 20, 2020
Georgy Guyev, a Muslim native of North Ossetia, moved to Moscow when he was a teenager. After graduating from high school, Georgy was accepted to the Plekhanov University of Economics, one of Russia’s most prestigious universities. As he was finishing his degree, he started working for a major auditing company KPMG and then was recruited as lead economist in Promstroi construction company. Georgy is married and has two children.
Ever since Georgy was a student, he has been involved in charity work and devoted himself to helping people in struggling Muslim communities both in Russia and abroad. His family describes him as a man with a kind heart who always puts others first.
In May 2019, one of Georgy’s friends shared with him a donation link from the Living Hearts Charitable Fund website, that claimed it was collecting money to build schools, provide water, and food for vulnerable Muslim communities in Africa. Feeling moved to help the cause, Georgy transferred a small amount of money to the account provided on the website. Shortly thereafter, Guyev was arrested and charged with financing terrorism under Art. 205.1, Part 1, of the Russian Criminal Code. The police took Georgy to an unknown location and refused to disclose any information regarding his whereabouts or condition to his family.
Two days after the arrest Guyev’s family was able to find out that Georgy was held at detention center, charged with “[transferring] at least $680,000 to the ISIS terrorist organization, and specifically, to a convicted terrorist Abu Umar Sasitlinsky, to finance the preparation and commission of terrorist crimes as well as to support the armed struggle in Syria.”
As evidence, the state cited the testimony of Anna Papushina, who was an accountant in the foundation to which Georgy transferred money. Papushina claimed the foundation collected money to support the Jihad, and that Guyev knew about the foundation’s true intentions from Telegram chats of the fund of which he was a member. Guyev claimed he was never a member of such chats, and the investigation did not prove otherwise. Moreover, the Memorial Human Rights Center believes Papushina was coerced into providing this false testimony after being threatened by police to be jailed for decades if she refused to cooperate. Papushina was placed under house arrest, while Guyev, who has denied all accusations, has now been held in a detention center for over a year.
Guyev told the investigation that he looked into the background of the Living Heart Foundation, and that donations made by Ramzan Kadyrov (leader of Chechnya) and Yunus-Bek Yevkurov (former head of Ingushetia), instilled confidence into Georgy that he was donating his money to a good cause. Guyev added:
“The site indicated the number of accounts to which I could send the money, so I transferred a small amount. I have never supported terrorism, and I am very critical of violent forms of Islam. My mother was a victim of a terrorist attack. How could I possibly support it?”
Georgy’s wife Madina commented on the accusations in her interviews with journalists:
“There has never been any fundraising and financing of terrorism. Those are all far-fetched accusations that are easy to refute. At the beginning of Ramadan, my husband transferred a small amount to a publicly available bank account to help Muslim African countries. We know nothing about Abu Umar Sasitlinsky, especially that he is a convicted terrorist.”
Madina has also denied the police’s claim that they have confiscated extremist terrorist literature, a “large number” of bank cards, and phones with “instructions from ISIS”.
“This is all untrue. They only confiscated a laptop and our phones. We never had any literature of that kind in our home, or multiple bank cards, or terrorist instructions. This is ridiculous.”
After Guyev’s legal defense team submitted an appeal, which asserted that Georgy never was in possession nor had the means to donate the $680,000 USD the court accused him of donating, the prosecution changed the donation amount to just $94 USD.
Besides the testimony of Anna Papushina, the police used Guyev’s telegram chats as evidence of his supposed crimes. One such chat is Georgy’s conversation with a user named Alikhan Horanti, whom Georgy told about an acquaintance of his who converted to Islam. The chat with Horanti also discussed setting up financial assistance of $40-$70 to Imams, since “many of them are forced to work at gas stations and as taxi drivers to feed their families.” In the protocol of the examination of this correspondence, the leading police officer on the case claimed that this dialogue “was encrypted and talked about the recruitment of persons who converted to Islam for terrorist purposes and about financing terrorism.”
On November 20, 2020, the court sentenced Georgy to six years of prison.
Why does the Memorial Center recognize Georgy Guyev as a political prisoner?
The Center believes that Guyev’s guilt was not proven:
- Texting about providing financial assistance to Imams is not an indication of adherence to violent forms of Islam or support of terrorism.
- Guyev transferred money to the account of the Living Hearts Charitable Fund, an organization that seemed transparent regarding their activities and clearly stated that its purposes are to provide aid to vulnerable civilians. No proof was established as to whether the fund was using the donations to finance terrorism.
- The investigation could not prove that Guyev was part of Telegram chats that discussed donations being funneled to support terrorism.
- Anna Papushina, the fund’s accountant and pillar upon which the prosecution relied to convict Guyev, was forced to collaborate with the police to avoid cruel punishment and false imprisonment.
The Memorial Human Rights Center believes that Guyev’s imprisonment was politically motivated and carried out in order to artificially increase statistics in resolving terrorist crimes, as well as for the Russian police to demonstrate their success to their superiors. The Memorial Center Georgy Guyev to be released immediately, and all charges against him are dropped.
Everyone is guaranteed freedom of thought and speech; the right to freely seek, receive, produce and disseminate information in any legal way; freedom of the media is guaranteed; censorship is prohibited.
Article 29 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation
Darya Polyudova is a civic activist and a leader in the Left Resistance public movement.
Born in Uzbekistan, Darya moved with her family to Bashkiriya, Russia as a teenager.
Thinking back on their adjustment to Bashkiriya, Darya’s mother Tatyana recalls the city’s horrendous weather. “There were snowstorms in Bashkiriya in winter,” Tatyana remembers. “She [Darya] would come to the bus stop to go to her music classes, and I would say ‘Maybe you shouldn’t go, it’s freezing.’ She would say ‘No, I must go no matter what.’
She has been remarkably stubborn ever since she was a child. She always speaks her mind. Sometimes it is safer to remain silent, but she would spill everything out with no hesitation. She will fight for her truth until the end.”
After graduating from high school, Darya moved to the Krasnodar Krai in the south of Russia to attend the Ministry of Internal Affairs University. She wanted to become an investigator. During college, she joined the Communist Party of the Russian Federation during her third year of college, but soon realized how broken the system was, and that the party, in fact, did not care about the people, as it claimed.
Her strong sense of justice and urge to support those in need, especially in times of blatant injustice, brought Darya to the streets where she staged solitary pickets, holding home-made posters and voicing her criticism of Putin’s regime. These actions have resulted in numerous administrative arrests and even threats to expel her from the university.
Darya came out to the streets to support the Russian opposition during mass protests against falsified elections in 2011. In 2012, she came out to show solidarity with Pussy Riot activists imprisoned for their non-violent musical performance against Putin’s regime. Darya was vocal about her opposition to Putin’s aggression against Ukraine, most notably his illegal invasion of Crimea, and in her support for Crimean Tatars and other Ukrainian political prisoners. Her criticism of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and her public fight for human rights have made Darya a target of political persecution by government authorities.
In 2014, the police raided Darya’s house and arrested her on charges of inciting separatism and extremism. The official evidence cited for her arrest was her plan to organize a “March for the Federalization of Kuban” (a southern Russian region) and carrying of a poster at a protest shortly after Putin’s annexation of Crimea with words “Not a War in Ukraine but a Revolution in Russia!” Darya was sentenced to two years in prison. The Memorial Human Rights Center declared her a political prisoner in 2014. Tragically, six years later, she again was jailed by the Kremlin for her dissent, leading the Memorial Center to have to declare her a political prisoner again.
The Case of 2020
After her release from prison in 2017, Darya continued her peaceful civic activism, refusing to be bullied into silence by the Kremlin’s immoral and illegal repressions. In January 2019, Darya staged a one-person picket in Moscow holding a poster that read: ‘Hey, Kuril Islanders! Stop feeding Moscow! Long live the Far Eastern Republic!’ Her protests advanced the position that the residents of these islands should hold a legal referendum on withdrawing from the Russian Federation. On her page on the Vkontakte social network, she wrote that it could benefit Russia to be divided into several sovereign countries.
Based on her solitary pickets and online activity, the Russian government claimed that Polyudova was calling for armed separatism. However, the incident the government used as pretext for her arrest was a February 2017 repost of someone else’s’ publication on a Russian social media platform VKontakte. The content she reposted included a photo of the militant Shamil Basayev and the inscription ‘when we demanded a referendum, the Russians came and killed everyone who did not have time to hide.’ Darya did not accompany this repost with her own commentary, yet the authorities deemed this post enough to accuse Polyudova of publicly defending terrorism.
In January 2020, the FSB once again raided Darya’s house and initiated criminal proceedings against her under Part 1 of Article 280.1 of the Russian Criminal Code for “public incitement of separatism,” and Part 2 of Article 205.2 of the Russian Criminal Code for “public justification of terrorism.” In mid-January, Darya was arrested, brought to a detention center, and denied her right to see her mother. After already having spent a year and a half in detention, Darya was sentenced to six years of increased security prison on May 31, 2021.
Why does Memorial consider Polyudova a political prisoner?
1. Polyudova’s imprisonment violates her constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of speech.
The Memorial Center believes that Article 280.1 of the Russian Criminal Code must be repealed. The Center asserts that the state only has the right to criminalize manifestations of separatism that are violent in nature or promote violent actions. It certainly does not have the right to arrest those who engage theoretical deliberations about the possibility of separation. Darya Polyudova did not in any way urge the residents of Kuril Islands to take part in an armed struggle for independence. In advocating a peaceful legal referendum, she merely expressed her point of view, which she has a lawful right to do according to the Russian Constitution—a document that guarantees freedom of speech. Additionally, the criminalization of calls for a public referendum, even one on a controversial question l, contradicts the basic principles of popular sovereignty, and Russian statehood enshrined in the Constitution.
2. Facebook repost is not adequate grounds for imprisonment
The charges that Darya faces under Part 2 of Article 205.2 (accusing her of justifying terrorism by reposting someone else’s publication) are far-fetched and unreasonable. Addendum 1 to Article 205.2 defines a public justification of terrorism as a ‘public statement recognizing the ideology and practice of terrorism as correct, and in need of support and emulation. Darya’s repost did not endorse terrorist practices or affirm the need to support terrorism. Indeed, to claim that it does necessitates an excessively broad misreading of the repost that is intentionally unfavorable to Darya. Polyudova’s defense lawyers stated: “These accusations are very convenient [for the government]. The investigation finds a linguist who will determine the hidden meaning of the message. That’s it. Now you can include the linguist’s conclusion in the case and cite their words. This is how the police artificially increases the statistics of the cases related to terrorism to prove their success to their bosses.”
Moreover, Darya’s actions pose no real danger to the public. In March 2020, her repost had 60 views, including views by the staff of Memorial Center and the FSB. Not a single like or comment was made on the post. The Center believes that despite the obvious ambiguity and controversy of the repost made by Polyudova, her actions are certainly not sufficient to accuse her of defending and promoting terrorism.
The Memorial Center concludes that Darya’s detention is politically motivated and directly connected to her social and political activities. Darya is a consistent critic of the Russian political leadership and actively opposes the war with Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea and political repression. Thus, the Center believes that these opposition beliefs and activities are the real reasons Darya is now serving her second sentence in prison. The Center demands that all charges against Polyudova are dropped immediately and she is released from prison without delay.
Emil Ziyadinov, a Muslim Crimean Tatar, led a modest life in his small hometown of Oktyabrskoye in Crimea. For years, he worked as a sports coach and just recently completed specialized education necessary to become a certified electrician. He is married and is a doting father to four little boys.
After Russia illegally invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014, the Kremlin unleashed a massive wave of political repressions targeting Muslim Crimean Tatars, many of whom are members of the non-violent religious and political organization Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT). The Kremlin views the Crimean Tatars as a threat due to their vocal opposition and criticism of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. Resultantly, they are continuously attacked by the Kremlin for their ethnicity and religious beliefs.
Emil Ziyadinov, like many Crimean Tatars and devout Muslims, was not willing to stand idly by while others were being unlawfully arrested, interrogated, and thrown in prison. He joined the Crimean Solidarity civic initiative and started attending political trials, providing care packages with basic necessities to the imprisoned, helping their families get crucial financial and psychological support, and staging solitary pickets to express his solidarity with those in prison.
Tragically, yet unsurprisingly, last year the Russian government came for Emil as well. On July 7, 2020, several masked men brandishing machine guns stormed Emil’s home and hauled him away as his four young children were watching.
Mr. Ziyadinov is accused of organizing and leading a cell of the Hizb ut-Tahrir, which has been unlawfully designated a terrorist organization in Russia, Under Article 205.5, Part 1, of the Russian Criminal Code. Additionally, under Article 30, Part 1, in association with Article 278, Emil was charged with preparing a seizure of power. The Investigative Committee justified this charge based on the goal of Hizb ut-Tahrir to create a worldwide Islamic Caliphate, uniting all Muslims around the world. Emil Ziyadinov remains in illegal captivity hundreds of miles away from home to this day.
The Memorial Human Rights Center believes that the Kremlin’s designation of Hizb ut-Tahrir as a terrorist organization is illegal and baseless. HT’s members in Russia have never promoted violence or organized a single terrorist act. Nevertheless, because of their connection to this organization, Muslim Crimean Tatars are interrogated, their houses are bugged by the police, they face terrifying house raids and are thrown in prison with no corpus delicti.
In 2013, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation ruled that its security officers were no longer required to prove that someone has participated in the organizing or plotting of terrorist acts to accuse them of committing a crime. Such a simplified investigation process allows the Russian police to artificially increase criminal case statistics to show their seemingly-efficient performance in preventing terrorism to the higher authorities.
In the case of Emil Ziyadinov, the police used secret audio recordings and the testimony of an anonymous witness to accuse Ziyadinov of terrorism. The Memorial Center has studied the ‘evidence’ in this case and found it seriously lacking in substance. The assessment of the audio recordings by the ‘experts,’ who remain unidentified by the investigation, claims that Ziyadinov was acting as ‘a mentor’ while someone in the recording, also unidentified, supposedly acted as ‘a student.’ The only supposed wrong doing that these tapes purport to demonstrate is that the two men read the “texts from the ideological sources of Hizb ut-Tahrir” and discussed them. Additionally, the investigation cites Emil’s solitary picket in 2018 as evidence of his ‘harmful activity.’ During this peaceful picket, Emil simply came out to the streets of his hometown holding a poster saying “Muslims are not terrorists.” According to investigators, everything mentioned above constitutes ‘terrorist activities.’
Why the Memorial Center recognizes Emil Ziyadinov as a political prisoner?
1. Emil Ziyadinov is being prosecuted with no corpus delicti.
The Investigative Committee accusing Emil tries to substantiate the accusations of terrorism, separatism, extremism, and the seizure of power by citing as evidence the meetings of believers, discussions of religious topics, and reading Islamic literature. Indeed, this is their sole evidence of ‘harmful’ actions. Such justifications include the description of dissemination of knowledge, the formation of “tendentious” thinking among believers, participation in meetings, reading relevant literature, and watching religion-themed films to prove terrorist intent. Yet, none of these actions are crimes. Moreover, every activity listed above, along with the right to freedom of religion, are declared in Article 28 of the Russian Constitution as basic human rights.
Thus, Emil’s non-violent activities, that demonstrate no signs of terrorism, must be perceived as completely legal under Russian law.
2. Given the conditions of annexed Crimea, any prosecution brought by the Russian State, let alone the unjustified persecution of the Crimean Tatars, is illegal.
According to Amnesty International, post-annexation Crimea is officially an occupied territory per international humanitarian law. In this case, Russia, as an occupier, has no right, under any circumstances, to eliminate the previously existing system of government and its criminal legislation. Under Ukrainian law, Hizb ut-Tahrir is a legal organization. Thus, the Russian government violates international law by illegally prosecuting Muslim Crimean Tatars.
The Memorial Human Rights Center demands that Emil Ziyadinov is released immediately, all charges against him are dropped, and the political persecution against Muslim Crimean Tatars is terminated once and for all.
On September 6, 2020, Salman Tepsurkaev, a 19-year-old Chechen native, was abducted from his workplace by two men who introduced themselves as Chechen law enforcement officers. When Salman’s family tried to report an abduction to the police, they were promised that their son would be back home in a week if they kept quiet. It’s been almost a year, and Salman is still being held hostage by the Chechen authorities.
Salman Tepsurkaev lived with his parents and brother in a small Chechen village before moving to Gelendzhik to work as a waiter at a resort hotel. Along with this, he was secretly moderating the 1ADAT Telegram channel. Created in March 2020 to connect Chechen immigrants abroad, the channel gained thousands of followers in just six months. 1ADAT positions itself as a “civil movement against Ramzan Kadyrov’s dictatorship”. 1ADAT exposes government torture and repressions, gross human rights violations, mass corruption, secret prisons, and other illegal actions of Chechen officials and sheds light on social inequality in Chechnya, documenting the incredible wealth and luxurious lifestyles of Chechen officials in contrast with the unemployment, corruption, and poverty that ordinary Chechens face daily.
In May of 2020, the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, appointed several journalists of the Grozny State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company to high level government jobs. Kadyrov was explicit about the mandate of these appointees— identifying and punishing his critics on the Internet. Seeing that the 1ADAT Telegram channel was one of the most influential outlets criticizing Kadyrov’s tyrant regime, the newly appointed officials immediately started the “hunt” on the channels’ activists. At their command, a few anonymous 1ADAT’s channel members sent $500 to Salman Tepsurkaev’s PayPal account under the pretext of donating. These transactions were made to identify Salman’s phone number and location. Obtaining such data would have been impossible without access to Tepsurkayev’s detailed phone billings, which are available only to law enforcement.
On September 6, 2020, two men dressed in black came to the Laguna resort hotel in Gelendzhik where Salman Tepsurkaev worked as a waiter. While one of the men guarded the front entrance, another went into the building and grabbed Salman. Salman tried to escape from the abductors, holding on to a column by the front desk and shouting “Call the police!” The hotel workers called security and tried to intervene, but one of the abductors showed them a law enforcement ID.
Salman was forced out of the hotel and his coworkers never saw him again.
For an entire day afterward, Salman’s phone was turned off and his location was unknown until it was turned back on briefly the next day. At that point, his family discovered that their son was kept at a police office in Grozny, Chechnya. That specific office is notorious for being the holding space for abducted Chechens and the location of many extrajudicial executions. Salman’s family quickly traveled to Grozny, but when they got to the location, they were told Salman was not there. The relatives tried to report the abduction to the police, but Grozny Investigative Department told the family to keep quiet and they would see their son in a week. A week later, Salman was not released.
Public Torture and Humiliation
On the day of the abduction, an anonymous member of the 1ADAT channel under the nickname “Hunter” published a video of a completely naked Chechen youth sitting on his knees with a glass bottle in front of him. In the video, a young man introduces himself as Salman Tepsurkayev, and states that he is 19 years old and is one of the administrators of 1ADAT. In a distraught and confused speech, he tries to explain what the channel is about, calling it a “dirty group”, in which the administrators “do disgusting things” that he is ashamed of. Salman also insults his mother and calls himself a bastard and a scum who was rejected by his father a long time ago. In the end, Tepsurkaev says he “punishes himself for a behavior inappropriate for a Chechen and passes the baton to other channel administrators and followers”. He then attempts to sit down on a glass bottle. His face contorts in pain and the video cuts off. In the next few days, more videos of Salman were released by anonymous users both on Telegram and Instagram. In the videos, Salman continues to criticize the Chechen opposition and keeps cursing himself. In addition, the Chechen state-controlled TV channel published a video message from Salman’s father. In which he states that he disowned his son years ago for “disobedience and terrible behavior”.
On September 8, 2020, the Memorial Human Rights Center (MHRC) filed a complaint with the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Russian Federation in the Chechen Republic, demanding an investigation of the abduction and torture of Salman Tepsurkaev.
The Chechen Republic refused to open the case citing the absence of a crime.
On September 11, 2020, lawyers of the Committee Against Torture filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on the violation of Salman’s rights under Articles 3 and 5 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms: “Prohibition of torture” and “The right to personal inviolability.” The ECHR lodged an inquiry with the Russian government on what measures to release Tepsurkaev are being implemented on the national level. The ECHR has not received any response from the Chechen officials.
On October 15, investigators from Gelendzhik, where Salman’s workplace is located, transferred the materials they had collected to the Chechen Investigation Department since the car of Tepsurkaev’s alleged abductors had crossed the Chechen border.
The Chechen police refused to initiate a criminal case, citing the absence of a crime.
At this time, it is unknown where Salman is located or whether he is alive.
Why the Memorial Human Rights Center Recognizes Salman Tepsurkaev as a Political Prisoner
Involvement of the Chechen Special Services
The MHRC believes there are serious grounds to believe that the Chechen Special Services were involved in the kidnapping of Salman Tepsurkaev. Discovering Salman’s location required access to information from telecommunication networks. This information is only available to law enforcement officials associated with the Chechen Special Services. Investigation has also revealed that at least one of the two vehicles involved in the abduction belonged to a current Chechen Interior Ministry employee.
Salman Tepsurkaev is a Victim of Kadyrov’s regime
As it has been documented by numerous sources, including Novaya Gazeta and Kavkaz Uzel, psychological pressure and torture are known methods of Chechen authorities. These methods are used to punish those who criticized Ramzan Kadyrov and whose political beliefs differ from the government’s. The facility in Grozny where Salman was kept has become a place of detention, torture, and extrajudicial executions of illegally arrested residents of Chechnya.
The open approval of torture by Chechen officials
Several representatives of the Chechen top leadership including Adam Delimkhanov and Salakh Mezhiev, indirectly confirmed that they knew the identities of those behind the abduction of Tepsurkaev and had approved such actions. At the same time, the investigative authorities of the Chechen Republic refuse to investigate the abduction.
Violation of the right of freedom of expression
The MHRC asserts that although the current location of Salam Tepsurkaev is unknown, and information is lacking on the circumstances of his abduction, the MHRC considers him alive and illegally detained by Chechen officials. The MHRC claims that the video recordings with Salman’s participation were made under extreme pressure and are the result of torture. Salman’s persecution seeks to silence all public criticism of the Chechen authorities and terrorize the opposition with cruelty and public humiliation. Salman’s persecution violates his right to freedom and security, as well as freedom of expression. The Memorial Human Rights Center along with the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights and the Representative for Foreign and Security Policy of the EU demand that the Russian government takes immediate action to ensure the safety of Salman Tepsurkaev and investigate the illegal actions committed against him.
“I came out to the street to express my solidarity with Alexei Navalny and support the Russian people. I just wanted to help an innocent kid when I saw he was brutally mishandled by the police. I never wanted to cause any harm or humiliate anyone, especially the security officers.”
Valeriy Yevsin during his court hearing on April 7, 2021
On January 23, 2021, mass protests broke out in almost 100 cities across Russia and internationally. Thousands of peaceful protesters came out to support Alexei Navalny, a prominent ant-corruption politician and Putin’s top political rival, who was illegally arrested by the Russian government on January 17. People who have participated in these protests are now facing the most brutal repression in the history of modern Russia. Hundreds of people were assaulted on the streets by the police, and in the months since, more still have faced interrogations, house raids, psychological abuse, and illegal incarcerations at the hands of law enforcement– all because they peacefully exercised their legal right to protest.
Though the intensity of these repressions has certainly increased since the spring of 2020, the approach and schemes used by law enforcement to crack down on protestors, are not new. Indeed, after an earlier wave of mass protests in Russia took place in July of 2019, dozens of people faced criminal charges for allegedly “causing harm to the health of the police officers.” This particular criminal charge has emerged a frequently-used government method for prosecuting protestors. The most notorious example is the “Moscow case,” opened on July 27, 2019, in which 13 protesters received anywhere from two to four years in prison for merely “pushing a government official,” “touching the arm of a government official,” or “slapping a government official’s helmet.” Beyond the disproportionate punishment for such actions even theoretically-speaking, these charges were made without any supporting evidence (read more on the “Moscow case” in our report). No matter their validity, these cases have established a new avenue for the government to silence opposition: prosecuting the innocent for supposedly endangering police officers and making it clear that anything that is ever said or done against the police will result in a prison sentence.
The 2021 protests in support of Alexei Navalny have deployed this mechanism en masse, with dozens charged with “causing grievous bodily harm to the police.”In reality, these brave Russians exercised their constitutionally-guaranteed rights and stood up to the government oppression.
Valeriy Yevsin came to Moscow from the Pskov Oblast to work as a taxi driver. He is married and is a doting father to two small boys. His social media pages used to consists mainly of family photos and reposts of content from opposition politicians and activists. But now his account has been flooded with “pro-Kremlin” trolls barraging him for his criticism of the government and divulging personal information about his life: “Pal, are you not satisfied with your life? You have kids, a car, you go on vacations. What else do you need?”
On April 7, after two months in detention without seeing his wife and kids, Mr. Yevsin was found guilty by the court and sent to prison for two years. The supposed crime he committed: “pushing a metal street closure barricade in the direction of a police officer” during the protest on January 23. These charges fall under Part 1, Art. 318 of the Criminal Code of Russia – “The use of violence, not dangerous to life or health, against a government official on duty”.
Events preceding Mr. Yevsin’s arrest
According to Mr. Yevsin, on January 23, he was walking down the Sretenskiy Boulevard in Moscow with a group of protesters when he heard someone from the crowd scream that the police was assaulting a teenage boy. Valeriy said that he saw the police grabbing a skinny-looking teenager and dragging him away. Mr. Yevsin felt he simply could not just walk away and he felt the responsibility to help the boy. He confornted the police and asked them to release the innocent kid. The crowd supported Mr. Yevsin and started screaming “Let him go! Let him go!,” a plea which the police ignored, continuing to drag the boy away . Furious, Mr. Yevsin and a few other protesters pushed a metal barrier toward one of the police officers, which lightly brushed one of the officer’s chest. The officer wielded his baton to hit Mr. Yevsin, but Valeriy managed to duck the hit.
Later, during his interrogation, Mr. Yevsin said: “I saw that the police had finally released the boy, and I shouted to the crowd that we could leave and that the conflict was resolved. Everyone started applauding and we left.”
A few days later, the police found Mr. Yevsin by tracking his car’s license plate number, arrested him, and brought him to the detention center. The police officer brushed by the metal barrier against claimed that Mr. Yevsin was aggressive, that he tried to grab his baton, and that he deliberately lifted the metal barrier with the intent of hitting the officer in the chest and the stomach. The officer maintained that the incident caused him great physical pain.
According to the Memorial Human Rights Center, this claim was intentionally exaggerated to make it seem like Valeriy Yevsin had caused damage to the health of the police officer which in reality did not happen.
Speaking in his own defense, Mr. Yevsin said he never wanted to cause harm or humiliate a police officer and that all he wanted was to help a child in danger. He said he was sorry that this situation took place and he later admitted his guilt hoping that the court would reduce his punishment. Nevertheless, on April 7, the court sentenced him to two years in prison.
Why does the Memorial Human Rights Center consider Valery Yevsin a political prisoner?
The Memorial Human Rights Center asserts that to understand the nature of a person’s detention it is important to consider the context of the event, as well as the reactions of the law enforcement and judicial systems to it.
In this case, the important elemnt of the context is that Valeriy Yevsin was taking part in a peaceful protest that constituted a legitimate expression of public outrage at the Putin government’s repressive actions. Yet, in spite of the legal nature of this protest,, law enforcement agents used extreme violence towards protesters trying to silence them and end their completely legitimate activity.
Mr. Yevsin’s arrest is political in that it seeks to scare activists and silence voices of dissent. Furthermore, Russian law enforcement have already violated people’s right to protest, by brutally and illegally beating up protestors each time they take to the streets. The police officer identified as the victim in Yevsin’s case declared that he ‘experienced great pain’ from the push. Yet, at the time of the incident, he was wearing full body armor and could not have possibly suffered any physical injuries from such an insignificant push. In contrast, on the same day of the incident with Mr. Yevsin, the police seriously injured dozens of protesters and have gone unpunished for their violence. This is in spite of the fact that their actions were recorded in photos and videos and that the protesters’ injuries have been confirmed by medical records. The Memorial Center claims that such a selective use of criminal prosecution is evidence of a clear bias of the Russian authorities on who deserves punishment and who does not. Thus, Mr. Yevsin must be considered a political prisoner.
Common punishments based on Article 318.1 (the statute under which Mr. Yevsin was charged) imposed on people in non-political cases are far less severe than those imposed on protesters. For example, outside of the context of a protest, for punching a police officer in the jaw, one could get fined for 50 thousand rubles (approximately $680), and for swinging at a police officer with an ax one could get six months in a penal colony. Yet, while at a political protest, if one touches the helmet of a police officer, a person could receive a three-year prison sentence.
The Memorial Center believes that such blatant disparities prove the unjust selectivity of persecution of this particular law. Through prosecutions like that of Mr. Yevsin, the police and the National Guard are transmitting a clear message to the public: the police are allowed to commit any act of violence with impunity, while ordinary citizens who dare to disagree with the government will be punished as severely as possible.
The Memorial Human Rights Center considers Valeriy Yevsin a political prisoner and demands that he and other victims of the regime arrested and jailed during peaceful protests are released and the persecution against them is stopped immediately.
The Kremlin propaganda machine has used the global spread of COVID-19 to open a new “front” in the information war. Its main goal was to instigate suspicion and animosity toward the West in the minds of the Russian people, discredit liberal values and democratic forms of governance. However, its targets were not limited to the domestic audiences in Russia, as it purposefully planted conspiracy theories into the media space of other countries, primarily of those with large Russian-speaking populations. This report documents and analyses such instances of media manipulation by the Kremlin, coordinated and controlled insertion of destructive misinformation and campaigning within the context of the pandemic.
“Wow, what a situation. I did not expect that at all. I wanted to go on vacation, and then this happens: the police enter the plane and tell me: “You are on the federal wanted list.” What a crazy special operation, I was escorted from the plane minutes from take-off and arrested. What was the reason? I planned to run in the State Duma elections. That’s all. The case was fabricated in two days. Except for the immense desire of the Russian government to restrict political activity and silence the opposition, I see no other reasons.”
-Andrei Pivovarov in court on June 2, 2021
In 2015, the Russian government created a new law on “undesirable organizations”. According to this law, any organization that, in the view of the Kremlin, “undermines the safety, security, and the constitutional order” of the country can be declared undesirable. The law, however, is unconstitutional, as it encroaches on the right to freedom of expression guaranteed by the Russian constitution.
Organizations that have so far been targeted by this regulation, work in international education and cultural exchange, or advance political and economic development of Russia. All of them do so by peaceful, non-violent and legal means. Currently, there are 35 undesirable organizations both in Russia and abroad, and the list will likely keep growing. The law has unleashed a new wave of oppression against these groups, with their employees and even volunteers facing home raids, interrogation, and incarcerations.
Since 2018, Andrei Pivovarov, one of the most prominent leaders of the democratic opposition in Russia, has served as the Executive Director of the Open Russia.
The goals of this organization included “strengthening relations between the state and society in Russia, promoting free and fair elections, and ensuring rights and freedoms of the Russian citizens.” Such activities are lawful and common in any democratic society. Open Russia activities and methods have always been peaceful and never supported destructive methods of building democracy in the country. Nevertheless, for the past 5-6 years, Open Russia’s staff members, such as like Yana Antonova, Anastasia Shevchenko, and Mikhail Iosilevich, have been harassed by the officials, interrogated, and prosecuted on false charges.
Since 2015, Andrei Pivovarov has faced four administrative and criminal charges ostensibly due to his affiliation with Open Russia. The Memorial Human Rights Center has concluded that all of the charges against Mr. Pivovarov c are baseless, have no constructive evidence, and were imposed on him solely because Putin’s regime feels threatened by him. Charges against Mr. Pivovarov are nothing but the Kremlin’s attempt to silence this activist and stop his legal political and social activities. Pivovarov has already been recognized as a political prisoner by the Memorial Center in 2015, when he was falsely accused of bribery and abuse of authority. A few weeks ago, he was granted this status again.
On May 27, 2021, Andrei Pivovarov publicly announced the dissolution of Open Russia. He did so preemptively— as the organization had not yet been declared undesirable. However, Mr. Pivovarov anticipated that, in light of increased political repressions, it was forthcoming. He did not want to put his people at risk of being thrown in prison at Putin’s command for trying to restore democracy in Russia. In his video address publicized on May 27, as well as in his media interviews that followed the announcement, he explained the rationale behind this decision.
On May 31, Mr. Pivovarov was getting ready to fly to Poland for vacation. Minutes before his plane’s take off, the police stormed the plane, arrested Andrei and hauled him away. He was taken to the Investigation Committee where he learned he was being charged for cooperation with an undesirable organization (under Article 284.1 of the Criminal Code of Russia).
A few days later, the police raided Pivovarov’s house in St. Petersburg. Mr. Pivovarov was transported to Krasnodar for trial. This was when he was informed that he was facing six years of prison for a repost on Facebook from the “United Democrats” page made a year ago about supporting candidates on municipal elections.
According to Andrei Pivovarov’s lawyer, the post in question was not even published by him. Anna Kuznetsova, one of Mr. Pivovarov’s page administrators, admitted to publishing the post which was also certified by a notarized technical expertise. Andrei’s lawyer filed an appeal citing Ms. Kuznetsova and the conclusion of the expertise demanding the immediate release of Andrei Pivovarov, but the court ignored his petition. On June 2, after a court hearing, Mr. Pivovarov’s detention was extended to two months.
The Memorial Center believes the persecution of Andrei Pivovarov is directly related to Mr. Pivovarov’s announcement to run for the State Duma as an independent opposition candidate in September of this year. His arrest is a part of the Kremlin’s efforts to clear the political field before the elections, eliminating all independent candidates and viable competitors.
Why the Memorial Human Rights Center recognizes Andrei Pivovarov as a political prisoner?
- The law on undesirable organizations is unconstitutional — it contradicts the right to freedom of expression enshrined in the constitution of the Russian Federation. The definition of an “undesirable” organization is vague and allows for arbitrary interpretation, and the fact that the organizations are recognized as undesirable without any trial and behind closed doors is outrageous. It assumes the absolute subjectivity and groundlessness of such decisions with the complete absence of evidence-based argumentation and transparency of the procedure. In the case of Open Russia, the organization does not in any way fall under these vague criteria, and there is no reason to assert that it poses a threat to the country.
- The law on undesirable organizations is unconstitutional — it contradicts the right to freedom of expression enshrined in the constitution of the Russian Federation. The definition of an “undesirable” organization is vague and allows for arbitrary interpretation, and the fact that the organizations are recognized as undesirable without any trial and behind closed doors is outrageous. It assumes the absolute subjectivity and groundlessness of such decisions with the complete absence of evidence-based argumentation and transparency of the procedure. In the case of Open Russia, the organization does not in any way fall under these vague criteria, and there is no reason to assert that it poses a threat to the country.
Consequently, when the case against Pivovarov was opened, the charges against him included leading the undesirable organization registered in the UK rather than the one in Russia. Unsurprisingly, no objective evidence was presented to support this claim. Moreover, a study of public registry indicates that British organizations that were declared undesirable in 2017 never, in fact, existed. Therefore, it allows one to assume that all these manipulations were done to target Open Russia led by Pivovarov at some point in time.
- Andrei Pivovarov’s prosecution even contradicts the undesirable organizations law itself. Mr. Pivovarov was detained three days after he announced the dissolution of Open Russia. The law states that “a person who voluntarily stopped participating in the activities of an undesirable organization is exempt from criminal liability.”
- Andrei Pivovarov’s prosecution even contradicts the undesirable organizations law itself. Mr. Pivovarov was detained three days after he announced the dissolution of Open Russia. The law states that “a person who voluntarily stopped participating in the activities of an undesirable organization is exempt from criminal liability.”
The Memorial Center asserts that the criminal charges against Andrei Pivovarov are part of the massive campaign of political repressions, and demands that they are dropped immediately, and the persecution and pressuring of the independent candidates and their lawful activities are stopped at once.
Until 2020, Vadim Bektemirov led a quiet life in his native Crimea. He was a family man, a father of two young daughters, and a loving husband to his wife who was expecting their third child. He made his living as a translator, though his dream was to become an Imam.
In July of 2020, his life was brutally turned upside down when Russian security officials raided his house. He was arrested and charged under Part 2, Art. 205.5 of the Criminal Code of Russia —participating in a terrorist organization. He remains in illegal captivity to this day. Following the sudden arrest of his son, Vadim’s father suffered a heart attack and died. Vadim was not allowed to attend his father’s funeral and was denied the opportunity to say goodbye. Vadim has not been allowed to welcome his new baby boy or support his wife through her pregnancy and postpartum recovery. Rather, he is languishing in prison, and his family deprived of its breadwinner.
What was the crime committed by Vadim? At his first court hearing on May 26, 2021, Vadim Bektemirov stated: “I just followed my religion. This is a continuation of the genocide that began under Stalin. These are repressions against my people. I am facing charges only because I am a Muslim and a Crimean Tatar.” The Memorial Center which documents political prosecutions in Russia agrees with his assessment.
In 2014, Russia invaded and illegally annexed Crimea. Crimean Tatars, an ethnic group indigenous to the region were vocal in their opposition to the peninsula’s annexation and as a result, have faced Kremlin repression. Putin’s government views Crimean Tatars as a political threat because of their opposition to his aggressions in Ukraine, as well as their tightly-knit and well-organized communities. In fact, Putin has been so threatened by this group that the Russian government targeted their executive-representative body, the Mejlis, declaring it an extremist organization and banning it in 2016.
Recent Russian criminal cases against the Crimean Tatars are mainly based on their affiliation with Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), an international Islamist party which the Kremlin designated a terrorist organization in 2003. Yet, HT’s members in Russia have never promoted violence or organized terrorist acts. Nevertheless, Russian security forces regularly raid the Crimean Tatars’ homes, interrogate and torture them, and place them in detention, claiming to be defending against the supposed threat of HT. Furthermore, those community members who dare to come out and support neighbors during a raid are frequently detained by the police.
In 2013, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation ruled that the government was no longer required to prove that someone accused of terrorism was plotting or committing terrorist acts for that person to be found guilty of the crime. As a result, the mere joining HT or participating in its activities is now sufficient for convicting a person of terrorism. The simplification of the investigation process has allowed Russian security forces to falsify the statistics, claiming an artificially inflated rate of terrorist plot prevention and misleadingly demonstrating high performance to their superiors.
According to the Memorial Center, as of June 15, 2021, 326 people have faced persecution for their affiliation with Hizb ut-Tahrir. Over 210 of them have been incarcerated, serving sentences of at least ten years.
The evidence of Bektemirov’s participation in terrorist activities is based on the testimony of two anonymous witnesses who claim that from 2015 to 2018 Bektemirov took them to secret HT meetings in Simferopol. According to their testimony, Bektemirov discussed the need to follow the HT’s ideas, attract new supporters to the organization, and publicize the facts of oppression of Muslims in Crimea. The case file also mentions a video recording in which Bektemirov allegedly defended the activities of HT “in front of other people present in the room.” Another piece of supposed evidence of Bektemirov’s guilt, according to the investigation, is the Islamist literature seized from his house during the raid. Finally, they cite as evidence the fact that Bektemirov constantly supported his coreligionists, attended their trials, helped those imprisoned, and advocated for the Crimean Tatars’ rights.
Why does the Memorial Human Right Center consider Vadim Bektemirov a political prisoner?
1. Bektemirov is facing charges without corpus delicti.
The “evidence” of his crime includes meetings of other HT followers, discussion of religious topics, and reading Islamic literature. These actions are absolutely legal in Russia. Indeed, Freedom of expression, conscience, and assembly are guaranteed by the Russian Constitution.
2. Bektemirov’s charges violate international law.
According to Amnesty International, post-annexation Crimea constitutes an occupied territory in international humanitarian law. In this situation, therefore, Russia has no right, under any circumstances, to eliminate the previously existing system of government and its criminal legislation. Under Ukrainian law, Hizb ut-Tahrir is a legal organization. Therefore, the persecution of HT’s members in Crimea is inherently illegal. The Memorial Human Rights Center demands Vadim Bektemirov’s immediate release and the complete termination of all criminal prosecution against Crimean Tatars and members of Hizb ut-Tahrir.
On January 22, 2021, the day before mass protests in support of Alexei Navalny took place across hundreds of cities in Russia and around the world, young journalists from a student-run magazine DOXA published a short video. Entitled “They will not defeat youth – appeal of the DOXA editors to students and schoolkids,” the video featured four editors of the magazine expressing solidarity with students who had joined the opposition and demanding that the authorities stop threatening them with school expulsion for their political views.
On January 26, the authorities demanded that the editors delete the video. On April 14, all four were detained and put under strict house arrest. The journalists are facing three years in jail under Art. 152.2, Part 2 of the Criminal Code of Russia – “involvement of two or more minors in committing actions that pose a danger to the life of minors in information networks (including the Internet).” The Memorial Human Rights Center recognized the journalists as political prisoners.
Armen Aramyan, 23
Alla Gutnikova, 23
Vladimir Metyolkin, 26
Natalia Tyshkevich, 27
All four have been under house arrest since April 14, 2021 awaiting trial. They are not allowed to use the Internet or any other means of communication except when they need to contact their lawyers. The defendants are also not allowed to communicate with each other or leave the house except for 2 hours each day from 8 AM to 10 AM, without departing their immediate neighborhoods. In the first two weeks of their house arrest, the defendants were not allowed to leave the house at all.
Why the Memorial Human Rights Center recognizes them as political prisoners
The protests supporting Alexei Navalny and demanding the restoration of democracy and civil society in Russia prompted a wave of repression unprecedented since the collapse of the USSR. The DOXA Magazine case is just one of them. The Memorial Center holds that the accused are completely innocent, and believes they are being persecuted solely because of their political beliefs. After studying the video released by DOXA, the Memorial Center concluded that the DOXA editors did not call for the commission of any criminal act or potentially dangerous actions for minors. On the contrary, the editors simply encouraged them to be stalwart in the face of illegal pressure owing to their political views, to create student associations and student media, and to work on behalf of the universally recognized human rights, those which in fact are enshrined in the Constitution of the Russian Federation. In this video, there are no calls to participate in mass public events.
In support of its charge that the editors called upon minors to protest, the Investigative Committee cited the following quotations from the video:
“We appeal to the authorities and administrations of educational institutions: stop intimidating students and schoolchildren”;
“Do not be afraid and do not stand aside”;
“The authorities have declared war on youth, but youth is us and we will definitely win!”
“Do not resist the demands of the police”;
“Do not resist or insult the authorities, try not to touch them.”
The Memorial Center believes that these four young people have been subjected to an unnecessary and humiliating degree of legal restraint that only allows them a daily two-hour walk. They are victims of a propaganda campaign falsely accusing them of calling upon teenagers to take part in allegedly dangerous rallies. Having witnessed such opposition rallies, which are entirely peaceful and law-abiding, we can categorically state that any supposed danger arises only from unspeakable police brutality. Official suppression of opposition organizations is aimed at blocking any public activities of journalists and activists not controlled by the state. In so doing, the authorities aim to underline to the public that they will not tolerate any unapproved social and political activity and to bring home that participation carries grave risks. Therefore, relying on international guidelines defining “political prisoners,” the Memorial Center affirms that Armen Aramyan, Alla Gutnikova, Vladimir Metelkin and Natalia Tyshkevich are without question political prisoners. They are undergoing persecution solely for political reasons involving their beliefs. But their non-violent exercise of freedom of expression is guaranteed by the Constitution of the Russian Federation, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The Memorial Center demands their immediate release and dropping of all charges.
The Kremlin’s Social Media Influence inside the United States: A Moving Target is a report co-authored by Maria Snegovaya and Kohei Watanabe summarizing key insights of their analysis of social media behavior on Twitter during the 2020 US Presidential elections.
The study scopes out the Kremlin’s malign social media operations in the United States, their key purveyors, platforms and enablers. It analyzes how the Russian approach to conducting social media campaigns targeting domestic audiences in the US has evolved since 2016 and whether its efforts can be deemed successful or effective.
Snegovaya and Watanabe attempt to determine what demographic characteristics make specific members and segments of the US audience more susceptible to the Russian disinformation campaigns and how that impacts their voting behavior. The report articulates a list of policy recommendations for improving the US society’s resilience to the Russian malign influence campaigns.
On February 11, 2021, the DFR Lab at the Atlantic Council hosted a discussion of the report. You may view the recording of the event here: https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/event/foreign-interference-us-politics-kremlin/
How the Kremlin Undermines Western Solidarity with the Russian Opposition Using the Left.
Imagine a scenario where two policemen catch a known rapist-killer. As they are about to handcuff him, he says: “I just saw a guy around the corner who jaywalked two days ago putting three cars at risk of crashing. Perhaps you could arrest him”. The policemen forget the task at hand and start discussing whether they should go after the jaywalker. As the discussion heats up, they forget about the rapist-killer, who simply walks away.
In political warfare, the trick used by the rapist-killer in this scenario is called “reflexive control”. It involves conveying particular information to an adversary in order to induce that adversary to voluntarily make a specific decision to their own detriment. Most often, reflexive control is about confusing an adversary, clouding his thinking and making a wrong decision.
The two policemen in our story lose track of a critical and time-sensitive priority—arresting and neutralizing a grave offender. Not veering off into a discussion about whether the jaywalker was real or imagined, whether he deserved to be arrested or not.
The current attacks against Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny alleging his nationalistic leanings bear all the traditional markings of a reflexive control operation initiated by the Kremlin. Their goal is to undermine the legitimacy of Navalny in the eyes of the West and paralyze action in his support.
I am unable to shake off a strong feeling of a déjà vu with tragic events that took place seven years ago. As the Kremlin unleashed its invasion of Ukraine, it has successfully crowded the Western media space with anti-Ukrainian narratives in order to undermine Western support for Ukraine. The leitmotif of this campaign portrayed the Maidan revolution as an ultranationalist putsch that resulted in the rise of an ultranationalist government.
In February-March 2014, as the Russian green men establish a blockade of Ukrainian military bases in Crimea and occupy administrative buildings; and as Russia annexes Crimea, in gross violation of a number of international treaties,—a significant bulk of the Western media discourse is evaluating whether the Maidan revolution was instigated by ultranationalists.
The Kremlin’s ultimate goal was not to convince the West that Kyiv was run by a fascist junta. Rather, it sought to distract Western attention from Moscow’s criminal actions and to shift the focus of Western decision-makers to an entirely different issue, whose importance and time-sensitivity was disproportionately low compared to the Kremlin’s gross violation of international norms and post-war order. Putin has successfully executed a reflexive control operation as part of a 4D approach to managing the aggression against Ukraine internationally: dismiss, distort, distract, dismay. Dismiss the fact of occupation of Crimea by Russian troops, distort the general picture of the situation in Ukraine with the use of disinformation, distract Western attention from the Kremlin’s activities by launching accusations elsewhere, and dismay Western audiences by scaring them with Russia’s unpredictable behaviour.
In the case of Alexey Navalny, the Kremlin’s method is similar.
Over the years, Navalny has published a series of shocking investigations into the mind-boggling corruption of Russian kleptocratic elites. The investigations were highly damaging to Putin’s reputation. Navalny continued his investigative work despite the intimidation by criminal cases fabricated by the Kremlin against him.
Switching its approach, the Kremlin decided to kill Navalny with a Novichok nerve agent, in violation of the national law, all democratic norms, and the international Chemical Weapons Convention.
Miraculously, Navalny survived the assassination attempt and returned home from Germany, where doctors treated him after the poisoning. Upon his arrival to Russia, he was immediately arrested and jailed.
The European Parliament has responded by adopting two resolutions related to Navalny, one strongly condemning his attempted assassination, the other calling for his immediate and unconditional release. In October 2020, while Navalny was still recovering from the poisoning in Germany, the EU introduced sanctions against top Russian officials and a number of entities involved in his assassination attempt.
Moscow’s 4D approach to eroding the European solidarity on the Navalny case has been the following: dismiss accusations of poisoning the leading opposition figure, distort the circumstances surrounding Navalny’s poisoning by suggesting multiple theories of his sickness, distract European attention from Navalny’s attempted assassination sanctioned by the Kremlin, and dismay European politicians by expelling diplomats for supporting the jailed opposition activist.
The “mechanics” of the “distract” element consist of a reflexive control operation involving three phases. First, the Kremlin conveys the narrative (“Navalny is a nationalist”) privately to its agents of influence and publicly via state-controlled media (such as RT) setting up the agenda. Second, Russian “leftists” reproduce the sanctioned narrative in Western national and international left-wing media. Third, the narrative “travels” to more moderate, centrist media space and becomes part of the mainstream discussion, which is Moscow’s main goal of the “distract” element. By “laundering” this reflexive control operation through Russian “leftists”, the Kremlin partially removes traces of its influence in “Navalny’s nationalism” debates among Western left-wing commentators and activists.
Unsurprisingly, Russian mediators between the Kremlin and the Western left feature the very same personalities who advanced Moscow’s anti-Ukrainian campaign.
One egregious specimen is Alexey Sakhnin, a member of the Russian organisation “Left Front”. Introduced to Western left-wing audiences as an opponent to Putin, Sakhnin has been continuously involved in the Kremlin’s information war against Ukraine since 2014, as well as in several operations aimed at smearing and discrediting European experts and politicians critical of Putin’s regime. While living “in exile” in Sweden in 2012-2019, Sakhnin was busy packing Sweden’s Left Party and Green Party with pro-Kremlin narratives packaged as genuine left-wing analysis of international relations. Upon his return to Russia, he became a regular commentator for the Russian once leading financial newspaper Vedomosti: shortly before Sakhnin started writing for it, Vedomosti had been sold to businessmen loyal to the Kremlin who needed new authors after the newspaper’s senior staff departed in protest to the loss of editorial independence. Today, as part of the Kremlin’s reflexive control operation against Navalny, Sakhnin is targeting left-wing circles not only in Sweden, but also in Norway and internationally. While it may be Sakhnin’s and other Russian “left-wing” contacts’ objective to convince Western left-wing activists and commentators of Navalny’s nationalist political sentiments, it is only an intermediate and not even necessary objective for the Kremlin. With its reflexive control operation against Navalny, Moscow’s ultimate goal is to elevate an irrelevant debate into prominence, undermine Western solidarity with the Russian opposition and let the murderous kleptocratic regime get away with the very real crimes infinitely worse than Navalny’s presumed nationalism.
Continued detention of Navalny is illegal and he must be freed immediately. Suppression of peaceful protests and mass arrests of Russian citizens must stop, and the Kremlin must release all those illegally detained and imprisoned on political motives. Free Russia Foundation calls on the international community, the US and European leadership, to move beyond expressions of concern and articulate a set of meaningful instruments to compel the Kremlin to stop its atrocities.
In this exclusive and groundbreaking report, Free Russia Foundation has translated and published five documents from the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency.
The documents, obtained and analyzed by Free Russia Foundation’s Director of Special Investigations Michael Weiss, details the GRU’s modern psychological warfare program and are dated from within the last decade. The documents include the memoir of a former colonel in the Soviet Unions’s Special Propaganda Directorate who explains how psychological and information operations were conducted at the tail-end of the Cold War, and then adapted for the post-Soviet era. The documents also include the organization of psychological warfare, down to the military unit, as well as the theory and practice of working over targets in the West.
We are deeply concerned with information recently distributed by the well-respected authoritative source Center “Dossier.” According to “Dossier,” the Kremlin is using Russian political expert Sergey Mikheev and consulting company “Politsecrets” to manipulate Georgian society, distribute disinformation and anti-democratic narratives, undermine Georgia’s Western aspirations, and interfere in free and fair elections in Georgia scheduled for October 2020.(more…)
Free Russia Foundation is gravely concerned about the life and safety of Alexey Navalny. (more…)
Free Russia Foundation stands in staunch solidarity with the People of Belarus. (more…)
On June 2, 2020, Free Russia Foundation hosted a congressional discussion on the Fate of Crimean Tatars in the Aftermath of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine. (more…)
On Monday, April 20, 2020, numerous virtual protests took place throughout Russia, including several cities with populations of over a million of inhabitants.
The PR Campaign:
April 2020 has witnessed a conspicuous uptick of publications in Western and Russian media in support of the Nord Stream 2 project:
- Germans want closer contacts with their eastern neighbors – survey
- Great understanding of Corona travel restrictions
- Forsa survey: great understanding of travel restrictions due to Corona
- Support for Nord Stream 2 Pipeline Strengthens in Germany
- Germany stands for closer cooperation with Russia
- OST EUROPA In cooperation with the business magazine OstContact | 3/4 – 2020
Who Paid for the PR Campaign?
The poll was commissioned by the German Eastern Business Association (Ostausschuss – Osteuropaverein der Deutschen Wirtschaft, OAOEV)
OAOEV is a fairly new NGO that promotes German business in “Eastern” countries – from Russian to China. It was founded in 2018 through the partnership of the German Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations (Eastern Committee) and the Eastern Europe Business Association of Germany.
In December 2019, several OAOEV members met with Vladimir Putin. Following the meeting, OAOEV published a press release.
The press contact for the Nord Strom 2 Survey listed on the OAOEV website is Andreas Metz. Metz is described by Politico Europe as “member of Berlin-based lobbying group Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations, which supports the pipeline Nord Stream 2.”
This OAOEV survey coincided with the November 1, 2019 appointment of Mario Mehren as the new spokesperson of its Russia working group. Mehren is a member of the shareholders committee of Nord Stream 2.
Mr. Mehren is also the Chairman and CEO of the natural gas and crude oil company Wintershall Dea – one of the two German companies involved in the Nord Stream 2 project (the second is E.On). It is a joint venture of a German concern BASF (67%) and LetterOne (33%) co-owned by Russian oligarchs with strong ties to the Kremlin, – Mikhail Fridman, Petr Aven and German Khan.
There is overwhelming evidence suggesting that these oligarchs have close ties with the Putin’s regime and its intelligence services.
Wintershall Dea owns stakes of gas reserves in Russia and chemical factories in Germany that rely on the export of that gas.
In this role as the head of Wintershall Dea, Mario Mehren met with the CEO of Gazprom Alexei Miller numerous times:
- Gazprom and Wintershall Dea discuss current issues of cooperation
- Gazprom and BASF Discuss Cooperation On gas Production and Nord Stream 2 project
- Gazprom supplies to Germany climb 20.4pct in October 2016
Mr. Mehren has been on the record lobbying for Nord Stream 2 for a few years now. For example, he is a co-author of a 2018 disinformation piece about Nord Stream 2 in a US outlet.
Given the above connections of the oligarchs to the Kremlin and conflicted interests of the Wintershall Dea shareholders and top leadership, it is reasonable not to be believe in the independent nature or objectivity of this research poll.
Who Executed the Polls?
The Nord Stream 2 survey was executed by an infamous commercial polling agency Forsa Politik- und Sozialforschung AG, which had been accused of data manipulations in several of its past projects. In 2009, for example, the firm was involved in a scandal concerning a methodologically flawed survey whose cooked results claimed disapproval of the 2007 railroad operators’ strike and approval of privatization of the railway. It was uncovered that the biased study had been secretly funded by Deutsche Bahn.
Forsa’s Nord Stream 2 poll is based on a phone interview of 1,006 Germans and purports them to reflect the attitudes of the entire German population.
While neither the full Nord Stream 2 survey data nor its methodology have been made public, the Wintershall Dea website features the most extensive write-up of the Forsa Nord Stream 2 survey.
The Wintershall Dea website highlights the interpretation of data according to which the majority of German people do not see the U.S. as a reliable partner and juxtapose it to Putin’s Russia. Its title is “Forsa: less and less confidence in the U.S.”
The survey’s other published findings also reinforce the anti-US and pro-Russian narrative through claims such as:
- Only 10% of Germans regard the United States as a reliable energy supplier. That puts the U.S. behind the Middle East (with 14% of German citizens having confidence in the Middle East as a reliable energy supplier);
- Over half (55%) of German citizens want closer economic ties with Russia;
- More than three quarters (77%) of respondents say that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline construction should continue despite US opposition.
What Are the Prospects for Nord Stream 2?
With just a hundred miles of seabed pipeline construction remaining, the work on the Nord Stream 2 project was abruptly halted by US sanctions introduced in December 2019. The sanctions threaten to blacklist any foreign companies collaborating on the construction of the pipeline. This caused all foreign partners to pull-out from the construction and left Russia with no foreign vessels willing to complete the pipe-laying, according to analysis by Benjamin L. Schmitt published by the Jamestown Foundation.
Neither the sanctions, the Coronavirus Pandemic nor the perturbations on the global energy market seem to have any affect, as Putin vowed to finish the pipeline no later than the first quarter of 2021. Such a timeline, however, seems overly optimistic, for two reasons.
Firstly, Russia needs to receive a permit from Denmark to deploy in its territorial waters. Such a permit (given Denmark’s appreciation for the true nature and purpose of Nord Stream 2) is far from certain, and even if granted, may be issued with a significant delay. The Danish Energy Agency (DEA) had spent two and a half years evaluating Gazprom proposals before finally granting permission to build the pipeline in its waters in October 2019.
In February 2020, the Danish Energy Agency said it began negotiations with Nord Stream 2 AG regarding the unfinished Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, but the involvement of any specific new vessels has not yet been discussed.
Secondly, Russia currently has no vessels equipped to carry on the construction. According to a European energy expert and Jamestown Foundation Senior Fellow Margarita Assenova, Russia has two ships it may potentially use to complete the project: Akademik Chersky and Fortuna.
Akademik Chersky, a vessel owned by a Moscow-based construction firm with a loan from Gazprombank, set sail from Russia’s Far East toward the Suez Port in Egypt in March 2020 and after several peculiar route diversions headed to Las Palmas in early April. It possesses dynamic positioning stipulated by Danish authorities. Chersky, however, requires a technology upgrade to be able to lay pipes. An upgrade can potentially be performed in two to three months. It would then take additional time for Akademik Chersky to reach the Baltic, said Assenova.
Fortuna, located in the Baltic Sea, does not have dynamic positioning. As explained by a CEPA report, “dynamic positioning is a computer-controlled system that automatically maintains the vessel’s position and heading, without the need to use anchors to maintain its course in deep waters. Avoiding anchors in the Baltic Sea is a key environmental and security requirement of Danish authorities for drilling platforms, research ships, and cable-laying and pipe-laying vessels.” Gazprom has floated an idea of attaching a tugboat with dynamic positioning to Fortuna, as reported in the Russian media.
Even if either of these schemes is successful, the vessels would still have to be insured, and its insurers would fall under the US sanctions. Russia has been developing its own instruments for insuring vessels under the new sanctions regime, according to Mikhail Korchemkin from East European Gas Analysis group.
What are the Objectives of this PR Campaign?
With its publicity campaign, Wintershall Dea has attempted to improve the political and social dynamics in Europe to facilitate the quickest completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline so badly wanted by the Kremlin.
While revenues from gas exports are not essential for the Russian federal budget, the sector has become the primary instrument of expropriating state resources and channeling them into the accounts of Putin’s’ cronies. As such it is one of the key factors to the ability of Putin to remain in power.
Putin’s regime simply cannot afford to lose its market share to a highly competitive US LNG. Gas price manipulation has proved an effective strategy for Gazprom in the past decade. By completing Nord Stream 2, Gazprom is hoping to brainwash European consumers in its ability to sustain high volumes of affordable gas supply for the long term while in reality Russian gas has always come with the political strings attached, bringing corruption and subversion of democratic institutions.
With this PR campaign, the Kremlin attempts to shift the focus away from its track-record of price manipulation and to the commercial aspects of this partnership with the EU, as well as convince the society that the Nord Stream 2 is a purely commercial project and not a political weapon of the Kremlin.
At the present time, the political life of Russia’s regions is all but destroyed. There are no organizational or financial resources for it and such a state of affairs is the result of a deliberate strategy to destroy democracy in Russia which has been implemented throughout the last 20 years.
Despite the fact that various regions of Russia have their own nuances and special features, on the whole, the situation is the same everywhere: the head of the region and the heads of the major municipalities are approved, and de facto appointed by the presidential administration, and all the rest of the regional leadership is appointed and approved by the governor. Those who disagree with this state of affairs are forced out of official politics.
On the whole, it should be acknowledged that after the presidential elections of 2018, political life in the regions was completely sterilized; so in that sense, there is only a point in discussing the reasons which led to this state of affairs and to think about the prospects for Russia to get back on track to democracy and federalism. Obviously, without radical changes in the leadership of Russia, the situation will not change, and as long as the laws, and most importantly, the president of Russia remains unchanged, any sort of revival of regional politics cannot be expected.
Democracy and Federalism in Russia
Democracy and federalism in Russia turned out to be powerless before the onslaught of autocracy in the early 2000s, because they had no real support either in the government itself or among citizens – and such a state of affairs had been programmed by the creators of the political system of Yeltsin’s Russia.
Even those government agencies which were formed directly by citizens had no real autonomy from the higher levels of government, primarily at the federal level, because the president was able to rid himself of inconvenient regional leaders and the regional leaders were able to oppress the municipalities. Naturally, in such circumstances the level of citizens’ trust in municipal and regional government was rather low, so the Kremlin was not afraid that some mayor or governor would be bold enough to argue with it, that they relied on the real support of the people, rather than on fixed elections. The local elites wasted so much effort on fighting among themselves that they were gladly ready to agree to the federal center’s terms, just to get rid of their rivals. In the end, a tactical alliance with the federal center became a trap; once they fell into it, local elites lost their political agency. This is what Putin exploited when he set about sterilizing regional politics completely.
The current state of affairs and its incorporation into the renewed text of the Russian constitution is the result of a constant and consistent attack on democracy and federalism. This has been under way for the entire 20 years of Putin’s rule, but as has been noted, it began much earlier. Essentially, the system created by Yeltsin in 1993-1996 had to guarantee the president that even if he had a minority in parliament and his personal rating was low, and if members of the opposition come to power in a number of regions and major cities, he could still remain in power and successfully block all the efforts of his critics.
Precisely within the framework of this concept, the prospects for local and regional self-government were in fact destroyed. Since all real powers were concentrated in the president, and all the other branches of government (parliament, the courts, the regions, and local self-government) were intentionally weakened, the deliberate course of the new President Putin enabled him to destroy both federalism and democracy in several years, without encountering any real resistance.
The Attack on Self-Government
Thus, as has already been said, the constitution of 1993 was written not so much to create a firm foundation for democracy and federalism in Russia, but rather to serve the interests of Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Its authors were motivated by fear of a communist revanche, which they expected “from below.”
Obviously, local elites fully shared that fear of Yeltsin’s entourage, or rather exploited it for solving their own tactical problems. The presence in Russia in the 1990s of the so-called “red belt,” that is, the regions where the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) traditionally garnered many votes, forced the Yeltsin team to search for any allies for themselves who were prepared not to allow a victory of the CPRF and in exchange for that, forgive them any abuses.
Thus, emerged the phenomenon of “electoral reservoirs,” that is, regions guaranteed to show a high turn-out at all elections with high indicators for the party of power and its candidates. Essentially, a number of local leaders simply changed their loyalty for financial bonuses and impunity. This is exactly what defined the nature of interrelations between the federal center and the regions. Therefore, when Putin took the line of restricting the real powers of local bodies of government, the elites of the regions were already rather isolated from the citizens and did not have high authority among them which would have enabled them to rely on the support of voters in opposition to the Kremlin’s policy – if they even had such a wish at all.
Nevertheless, under Yeltsin, political life in the regions was preserved – among other reasons because the Kremlin played on the contradictions of the local elites, in each case wishing to find a counterweight to an ambitious governor through the head of a regional center or in some other way. Taking into account that Yeltsin’s ratings were extremely low all through the second half of the 1990s, the Kremlin was forced to reconcile itself to a certain level of political freedom in the regions, in the wealthiest of which quite interesting political systems had been formed and operated relatively successfully. For example, in Sverdlovsk Region there was a bicameral regional parliament where the upper house was elected every two years through elections in the districts, and the lower house by party lists; in fact the main fight was usually among the regional parties, whereas the federal party did not have significant influence. But all of this was possible because Sverdlovsk Region was relatively wealthy, which enabled numerous regional industrial groups to exist, which were interested in political representation among other things.
This is why we must not forget that Alexei Kudrin’s tax reform finally put to death the prospects for political life in the regions, the result of which led to the total financial dependency of the regions on the center and made struggling for power in their regions pointless; if the center distributes cash and everything comes from the center, then it is quite logical that a person appointed from the center is at the head of the region.
The local elites accepted the rules of the game and instead of resistance to the changing viceroys, tried to cooperate with each new governor because any other strategy is fraught with serious problems and losses.
We cannot overlook the quality of the local elites as well; in the absolute majority of cases, already by the mid-1990s, power in the regions had wound up in the hands of the Soviet nomenklatura. On the one hand, it preferred the administrative-command methods of leadership and leaned toward the necessity of taking part in honest and competitive elections, but that is why it was prepared to obtain powers from the leadership and not the public. On the other hand, it turned out to be involved in corrupt schemes which enabled the federal government to control any local leader by the kompromat [compromising material] compiled on him. In many cases, it was these people who kept power in their hands all through the 1990s and 2000s, until the Putin administration gradually, but methodically, got rid of them.
The situation in Sverdlovsk Region was illustrative, where Arkady Chernetsky, mayor of the regional center, remained in his post from 1992-2010, but Eduard Rossel, governor of Sverdlovsk Region, had in one way or another headed the region from 1991-2009 (with a break from 1993-1995). Both of them came out of the Soviet nomenklatura, and despite the undoubted political talents and readiness for participation in competitive politics, both were drawn to authoritarian methods and were not ashamed of using manipulative techniques in the elections.
All the years they were in their posts, these politicians and their teams waged an unceasing war, but in the end both of them gave up their power, not by losing elections, but by subordinating themselves to order. Now both of these rivals represent Sverdlovsk Region in the Federation Council without any real weight in regional politics.
It is noteworthy that even after the departure of Chernetsky from the post of head of Ekaterinburg, his team resisted pressure from the regional government for several years, which created a certain space of political struggle and even enabled the non-system politician Evgeny Royzman to win the elections to head of Ekaterinburg (by that time, this position had already become symbolic). But this resistance had purely economic reasons and in no way presupposed criticism of the federal government and its policy. On the eve of the 2018 presidential elections, the city team finally capitulated, and with that, politics in the region ended. In May 2018, Evgeny Royzman was forced to give up his powers as head of Ekaterinburg prematurely, and the city charter no longer stipulated new direct elections. Despite the specific nature of the situation in Ekaterinburg and Sverdlovsk Region, in the end even there, the Kremlin achieved its aims – as in all other regions of Russia, rich and poor, national republics and ordinary regions and territories.
What Is to Be Done?
What can and should be done, so that democracy is returned to Russia and cannot be so simply overthrown? As was said at the very outset, without changes at the federal level, we should not expect a flourishing of politics in the regions. But it is important not to repeat the mistakes of the past and not create the prerequisites so that democracy and federalism in Russia could be overthrown some time again.
First, it is necessary to have the constitutional transfer of the maximum number of political, legal, and financial powers to the level of local self-government. Even the regional level of government must be not be as influential as the municipalities. Essentially, the regional administrations must be involved only in the creation and maintenance of the general infrastructure and coordination of the efforts of local communities. It is much harder to take control of thousands of municipalities with great powers, elected by direct elections, than several dozen regional governments. This is exactly why the municipalities must become the foundation of democracy and the guarantor of the separation of powers in Russia, or otherwise everything will rapidly return to the current state of affairs.
Secondly, the restrictions on the creation of regional parties must be removed. Taking into account the dimensions of Russia, it is more logical to prohibit federal parties as such, motivating regional parties to form blocs at the federal level around common program lines and interests. Federal politics must be made in the regions and municipalities and not the opposite.
Third, the incorporation of a parliamentary system of governance at all levels of government – from the federal to the municipal – seems correct, that is, in both the regions and in the major cities, executive power must be in the hands of the head of government elected by the parliament. This will enable the destruction of the prerequisites for a revanche of Putinism several years after the departure of Vladimir Putin from politics, because it will destroy even the theoretical possibility of subordinating one level of government to another through personal agreements or blackmail. On the whole, all of Russia’s history teaches us that any opportunity to concentrate power in the hands of one person rather quickly leads to authoritarianism and a lack of change in government – and not only at the level of the head of state.
Fourth, any attempts to return Russia to the path of democracy and federalism are unthinkable without lustration not only at the federal but also at the regional and even municipal level. The main reason why the democratic endeavors of the 1990s were so easily overthrown was the fact that in the early 1990s, real power in Russia was left in the hands of descendants of the Soviet nomenklatura. Taking into account by whom and how the regional and municipal bodies of governments were formed in recent years, keeping these people in politics will inevitably lead to a revanche in a very short time. There are quite enough new people for politics at all levels in Russia, but for them to get involved and not lose at the very first elections to the re-painted Putin nomenklatura, the latter must be lawfully excluded from the process. Otherwise, everything will come full circle in this new, reimagined future.
Translated by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Pro-democracy Russians appeal to the world leaders and international community to condemn Kremlin’s repressions and the recent attack on civil liberties. (more…)
This publication is the product of an initial effort undertaken by Free Russia Foundation in 2018 to stimulate public discussion of Russian scenarios, mitigate the likelihood of a bad surprise or missed opportunities, and support the country’s transition to a more positive future. (more…)
On November 25, the Ukrainian ships “Berdyansk,” “Nikopol” and “Yany Kapu,” en route from Odessa to Mariupol through the Kerch Strait, were detained by officers of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation. During the detention, Russian border guards used life-threatening violence. As a result, the coast guard boat of the Russian Federation rammed a Ukrainian tug. According to the Ukrainian Navy, six Ukrainian seamen were wounded, all three Ukrainian vessels were seized together with a crew of 23 people and taken to the port of Kerch, located on the territory of the occupied Crimea on the Crimean Peninsula. Later, a Spokesman for the President of the Russian Federation announced the opening of criminal proceedings against detained sailors on charges of illegally crossing the border.
This incident became a turning point in the Azov conflict, which has been mounting over the past few months between the two countries. After the opening of the Kerch bridge, which established the road transport connection between Russia and the occupied Crimea, the Russian side strengthened its military presence in the waters of the Sea of Azov and complicated the passage of Ukrainian ships, despite the existing international treaties ensuring unhindered access of the two countries to their ports. Arbitrary detentions of Ukrainian ships, as well as the emergence of new military equipment, were regarded by many Ukrainian and international experts as a deliberate escalation of the conflict, culminating in the events of November 25.
It is important to note that the collision in the waters of the Azov Sea was the first case of open aggression of Russia against Ukraine. Despite the fact that the armed conflict between the parties began in 2014 with the illegal annexation of Crimea, and then developed in the form of military actions in the territory of Donbass, earlier Russia did not commit acts of military aggression against Ukraine under its own flag.
Andreas Umland, a German political analyst, an expert of the Euro-Atlantic Cooperation Institute specializing in Russian ultra-nationalism and authoritarianism identifies three possible reasons why such an escalation could occur right now. The first and most common version is a decrease in Putin’s rating and the need to divert attention from socio-economic problems with yet another demonstration of power. The second possible reason is the probability of the existence of the project on turning the Sea of Azov into the inner Russian sea and the desire to negatively affect the Ukrainian economy by the blockade of ports in Berdyansk and Mariupol. And the third possible reason concerns the news that the construction of the brand-new Kerch Bridge is allegedly shifted. Accordingly, a new attack could have been undertaken in order to divert attention from the news damaging the reputation of the Russian authorities.
Mikhail Gonchar, director of the Centre for Global Studies “Strategy XXI”, adds that the situation should be looked at much wider than just the conflict between the two neighboring countries. Russia claims the leading world position and in every way demonstrates to the west its strength, checking the limits of what is permitted. In addition to the Ukraine and Syria cases, as well as the case of Skripals, Mikhail also cites a recent example of failures in the GPS navigation system in Norway and Finland, which resulted in that the Norwegian frigate rammed the Finnish tanker during NATO exercises in Norway. According to the Presidents of both countries, the reason was the deliberate creation of GPS-interference from the Russian side. Mikhail Gonchar claims that Ukraine in this chain of events is just an element of a more global policy of Russia’s aggression against the West.
Further Russia goes, the more cynically and shamelessly it lies. Despite the open attack on the sea vessels of Ukraine, the ram of one of them, the opening of fire against members of the Ukrainian vessels crews, and the detention of these crews, Russia accused Ukraine of provocation and violation of the state borders of the Russian Federation and initiated an emergency session of the UN Security Council, which indeed took place on November 26. However, the members of the UN Security Council rejected the wording proposed by Russia and the session was held in accordance with the agenda proposed by the Ambassador of Ukraine to the UN.
The member states of the UN Security Council expressed their deepest concern about the events and called on Russia to immediately release the detained Ukrainian sailors and return the vessels to Ukraine. The NATO Secretary General, as well as the President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, expressed their full support for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. The International Monetary Fund, in turn, said that it would not stop cooperating with Ukraine even if martial law was introduced.
There is no doubt that the actions of Russia fall under the definition of aggression, stipulated in Art. 3 of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3314 (XXIX) adopted on December 14, 1974 (paragraphs “a” “c” and “d”).
By its actions, the Russian side violated the basic principles of the United Nations concerning the non-use of force or the threat of force in international relations. The provisions of Section 2 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, as well as Art. 2 of the Treaty between Russia and Ukraine on cooperation in the use of the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait in 2003 were also violated.
However, since the Russian Federation is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and has the right to veto its decisions, bringing Russia to justice becomes a rather difficult task. Nonetheless, other UN member states have the legal tools for a peaceful resolution of the current situation in the framework of existing international law. However, this would require extraordinary efforts and the development of new approaches that have not yet been applied in international practice. It is entirely possible, under rule 9, to convene an emergency session of the UN General Assembly. In that case, if the GA recognizes the fact of a material violation of the basic UN principles and the fact that Russia is a party to the conflict, then guided by paragraph 3 of Art. 27 of the UN Charter and the principle “in propria causa nemo judex” the Russian side would be obliged to abstain from voting in the Security Council on the issue of resolving this dispute.
It is worth noting that according to the definition of the Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War, 23 detained Ukrainian sailors fall under the status of prisoners of war and should be subject to the rule that “no physical or moral torture or any other coercive measures” can be applied to them. At the same time, at the moment the detainees are in the status of suspects who have allegedly committed a criminal offense and, most likely, are subjected to cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment.
Even though there are still unused international legal means in the arsenal of Ukraine, many experts question their effectiveness in comparison with economic tools. Mikhail Gonchar believes that the so-called collective West has to take decisive consolidated actions necessary in order to break the chain of illegal actions of Russia both in regard to Ukraine and in relation to the entire Western world. Both Gonchar and Umland see the most realistic response to the current situation in the suspension of the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline being built from Russia to Germany, as well as the second thread of the Turkish Stream.
As for the actions of Ukraine itself, in addition to international legal instruments, it has taken unprecedented measures to ensure internal security. On November 25, 2018, the President of Ukraine convened the National Security and Defense Council, which took the initiative of imposing martial law throughout Ukraine. On November 26, a presidential decree on imposing martial law was approved by the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine.
On November 25, 2018, the President of Ukraine convened the National Security and Defense Council, which took the initiative of imposing martial law throughout Ukraine. For the presidential decree on the introduction of martial law to enter into force, its approval by the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine is necessary.
The legal framework of the martial law is settled by International Humanitarian Law and the Law of Ukraine On the Legal Regime of Martial Law.
Martial law implies a significant expansion of the powers of state bodies, simultaneously with a significant restriction of civil rights. The restriction of the rights of persons present on the territory of Ukraine may concern almost all spheres of public life (property rights, freedom of movement, political rights, etc.). However, the text of the presidential decree introduces only a small part of the measures on martial law, whether this list will expand we will see in the future. The validity of such emergency measures throughout the territory raises serious doubts.
Special attention should be paid to the clause on a direct prohibition of elections for the period of martial law, which, given the first version of the presidential decree, meant that presidential elections already scheduled for March 31, 2019 could be delayed by at least one month. However, after a decisive protest of the deputies of the Verkhovna Rada, Petro Poroshenko changed his decision and shortened the period of martial law to one month, as well as narrowed the geography of its application to several regions.
Thus, the decree approved by the Verkhovna Rada introduces martial law in 10 regions of Ukraine from 9:00 on November 28, 2018 for 30 days to 9:00 on December 27, 2018 (the final version of the document as of November 27, 2018 has not yet been published). The President also instructed the Administration of the State Border Service of Ukraine to strengthen the protection of the state border with the Russian Federation and the administrative border with the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, and the Security Service of Ukraine to take measures to strengthen the counter-intelligence, counter-terrorism and counter-sabotage regime. The essence and limits of these measures are not yet clear; it is the responsibility of the authorities to determine this. Apart from that, the Decree contains a secret part (paragraph 12) closed for the public.
As of November 27, 2108, there were no additional restrictions imposed on persons present on the territory of Ukraine regarding their movement and stay inside the country, as well as the border crossing regime. The administration of the Boryspil airport has officially stated that the adoption of martial law will not affect the mobility of the population, and the airport will operate in a normal regime.