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A crimean tatar faces 20 years in prison for his ethnicity and religious beliefs: the case of Vadim Bektemirov

Jun 18 2021

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.

Case Background

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.

Case proceedings

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.

Young journalists face three years in jail for supporting students during peaceful protests: the case of DOXA

Jun 10 2021

Case Background

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.

Case defendants

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 police bugged his house to monitor how he prays and what clothes he wears: the case of Anatoly Vilitkevich

Jun 03 2021

“Everyone is guaranteed freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, including the right to profess, individually or jointly with others, any religion or not to profess any religion at all, to freely choose, have and disseminate religious and other beliefs and to act in accordance with them.”

Article 28 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation

Case overview

On April 10, 2018, the police arrested Anatoly Vilitkevich, a member of Jehova’s Witnesses, recognized as an extremist religious group in Russia, for organizing the activities of the said organization (Art. 282.2, Section 2 of the Criminal Code of Russia). Vilitkevich now faces up to 10 years of deprivation of liberty. After spending two months in a detention facility and eight months under house arrest, Vilitkevich was asked to sign an undertaking not to leave town on February 28, 2019.

Court proceedings

The hearings on the case were resumed in February 2021, when Vilitkevich discovered that in 2017, a year before his arrest, the police secretly installed wiretapping and cameras in his rented apartment to monitor his and his wife’s daily activities. The apartment’s landlord permitted to install the surveillance and signed the acknowledgment that he had no complaints against the police. By infringing the Vilitkevichs privacy, the police collected the alleged evidence that Anatoly Vilitkevich ran a branch of Jehova’s Witnesses in Ufa. By evidence, the police consider Anatoly and his wife Alyona inviting other Jehovah’s Witnesses to their apartment, dining with them, singing religious songs, watching movies on religious topics, and discussing the spread of their faith among other people. During hearings, the prosecutor was reading out the verbatim transcript of the recorded conversations for over an hour, including the following remarks: “Anatoly and Alyona are in the common room,” “Alyona is cleaning, then the music starts playing loudly,” “Alyona laughs,” “Baby, when we sing songs, the door needs to be closed.” The transcripts were also accompanied by an explanation of what styles and colors of clothes the couple were wearing at the time of the recording.

Why does the Memorial Human Rights Center consider him a political prisoner?

In Memorial’s view, the charges against Vilitkevich are based solely on the fact that he is a Jehovah’s Witness. The government’s actions are discriminatory and violate international law, particularly the right to freedom of religion. Moreover, it contradicts Article 28 of the Russian Constitution, guaranteeing freedom of conscience and religion. The case of Anatoly Vilitkevich is part of an extensive campaign of persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses that started in 2017 and took on fresh vigor in 2018. Each year, the Russian government arrests and prosecutes hundreds of Jehova’s Witnesses. Among those who have spoken out against this campaign of persecution of a whole religious group are the Delegation of the European Union to the OSCE, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and Russian and foreign human rights defenders. Memorial Human Rights Center demands that charges against Anatoly Vilitkevich and other Jehovah’s Witnesses, prosecuted solely for their religious beliefs, are immediately dropped.

“We will make sure your family suffers if you don’t confess”: The case of Artyom Zagrebelny

May 28 2021

Case Overview

On 7 November 2019, 27-year-old Artyom Zagrebelny was detained by three Federal Security Service (FSB) officers in the entrance hall of this apartment building. The officers attempted to detain Zagrebelny using physical force to search his apartment, but he resisted and sprayed pepper spray in the officers’ direction. The spray got into the eyes of two of them, and after a brief struggle, the officers finally detained Zagrebelny.

According to the investigation, Artyom Zagrebelny knowingly used violence against the two FSB officers on duty and deliberately pepper-sprayed them, ‘being dissatisfied that he was being detained and wishing to flee.’ The two officers testified in court that they told Zagrebelny they were from the FSB, and one of them showed his official ID. Based on the conclusions of forensic expertise, the court charged Zagrebelny based on Article 318, Part 2 of the Criminal Code of Russia (“Use of violence dangerous to life or health of a government official”).

The Description of the Events

However, according to Zagrebelny, he did not know they were FSB officers because they wore civilian clothes, did not introduce themselves, and did not show any ID. The officers simply forced Zagrebelny out of the elevator of his apartment building, after which he used pepper spray against them as self-defense. As soon as one of the officers shouted he was from the FSB, Zagrebelny immediately stopped resisting and using the pepper spray.

According to the human rights center Otkrytki, Zagrebelny shared that after he was detained, the officers put him in a car and beat him up: “They started asking questions like ‘you, pravosek [member of the Right Sector, a far-right Ukrainian nationalist party], came from Khokhlyandiya [a derogatory name for Ukraine], right?’ Then someone burst into the car and started kicking me in the back with their legs. Then they grabbed me by the neck and lifted me.”

After that, the officers interrogated Zagrebelny and demanded that he confess to trying to kill a government employee (Article 317, Part 2 of the Criminal Code), all while beating Zagrebelny up and threatening to rape his wife, Margarita. On November 10, 2019, Zagrebelny went to the doctor and was found to have multiple bruises all over his body and a broken rib.

Also, according to Zagrebelny, one of the FSB officers Aleksandr Akhmetov, came up to his wife and started forcing her to commit an administrative crime. “He told her to find the Third Reich’s symbolism on the Internet, post it in some group on social media and send it to the officer on WhatsApp so he could charge her for an administrative offense, fine her for 1,000 rubles, and let her free. She asked him why she would do that, and he said it was revenge for the pepper spray. Another officer told her earlier they would keep taking revenge on her in many different ways, including the “not-so-legal” ones. Later in the day, Akhmatov messaged her on WhatsApp, saying, ‘Margarita, are you forgetting something?’ I told her not to post anything.”

Current State of the Case

Zagrebelny is currently in prison. The Prosecutor’s Office was initially asking to give Zagrebelny nine years in prison. The court of the original jurisdiction gave him five years, and after the appeal on April 22, 2021, the sentence was reduced to three years and ten months.

Why has the Memorial Human Rights Center recognized Zagrebelny as a political prisoner?

Based on the case materials, Memorial has concluded that Artyom Zagrebelny did not exceed the limits of reasonable self-defense while using pepper spray on his attackers. It was not apparent to him that the men belonged to law enforcement agencies or that their actions were lawful.

CCTV footage from the entrance hall and the elevator in Zagrebelny’s apartment building confirm his version of the events. The footage clearly shows that none of the officers showed any ID or introduced themselves. It is also doubtful that the officers suffered any injuries. The examinations carried out the day after the incident found no evidence of any injury. However, they were established during subsequent tests carried out three weeks later. The context of Zagrebelny’s case is also essential. The day Zagrebelny was detained, the FSB officers went to his home on the minor matter of checking his correspondence on the VKontakte social media site for extremism. No criminal case was opened regarding the correspondence. As described above, once in detention, Zagrebelny and his wife were subjected to extreme intimidation (forcing to confess to a nonexistent crime arrest under threat of his wife getting raped). The Memorial Human Rights Center believes that this case is strictly politically motivated, and Artyom Zagrebelny is being held in prison illegally. The Memorial demands his immediate release.

The Kremlin’s Political Prisoners: the “Sanitary” Case Background

May 21 2021

In March 2020, under the pretense of battling the coronavirus epidemic, federal and regional authorities of Russia adopted repressive legal norms and vague, potentially dangerous criminal articles that attack constitutional rights and freedoms. Unsurprisingly, in January 2021, the adoption of these repressive norms led to a political case. 

Case overview 

On January 23, 2021, mass protests supporting Alexey Navalny, fueled by horrendous police brutality, were held in 198 Russian cities and 95 cities abroad. The next day, the Investigative Committee of Russia opened a criminal case against ten opposition activists and politicians for calling people to a peaceful protest on January 23. The criminal charge is based on Article 236 of Part 1 of the Criminal Code of Russia (envisaging a prison sentence of up to 2 years), indicatingthe incitement to violate sanitary and epidemiological rules which, by negligence, entailed a mass illness or poisoning of people, or created a threat of the onset of such consequences.” 

According to the Memorial Human Rights Center, this criminal case is politically motivated and is related to the defendants’ political beliefs violating their right to freedom of expression and the right to protest. The persecution is carried out in violation of the right to a fair trial and aims to forcibly end opposition activities and intimidate Alexey Navalny’s supporters.

Illegally prosecuted case defendants 

While awaiting trial, the case defendants are either banned from performing specific actions or are held under house arrest. House arrest implies the inability to leave the house, communicate with certain people (often, the communication is limited to the relatives living in the same house), send and receive letters, and use the phone and the Internet. 

Maria Alyokhina – activist and member of a feminist music band “Pussy Riot”. She was previously recognized by the Memorial Human Rights Center as a political prisoner and already spent two years in prison. Alyokhina is once again a victim of the repressive system and has been under strict house arrest since January 29, 2021, as part of the “Sanitary” case. 

Nikolai Lyaskin – an oppositionist who was also recognized as a political prisoner by the Memorial Human Rights Center before. Just like Maria Alyokhina, he is once again a victim of the repressive system and has been under house arrest since January 29, 2021, as part of the “Sanitary” case. On April 26, the court allowed him to leave the house for 12 hours instead of the 2 hours permitted initially. 

Oleg Navalny – Alexey Navalny’s brother, another previously recognized political prisoner who already served a sentence of almost 4 years. On April 7, 2021, as part of the “Sanitary” case, he was released from house arrest but is still banned from leaving the house at night, communicating with other case defendants, and using mail and the Internet. 

Lyubov Sobol – opposition politician and the Anti-corruption Foundation’s lawyer who was put under house arrest on January 29, 2021. She was not allowed to go to church on Sundays or take her daughter to school. 40 NGOs appealed to the United Nations to release Lyubov Sobol, stating in a joint appeal that “Sobol has been condemned to total isolation under house arrest awaiting trial on two fake criminal charges. Her only crime was peacefully calling for a more fair, free, and democratic Russia. The arbitrary arrest and detention of Sobol are a blatant violation of human rights. She must be released immediately.” On April 7, 2021, she was released from house arrest but just like Oleg Navalny Sobol is still not allowed to leave the house after 8 PM, communicate with other defendants, write letters and use the Internet. 

Konstantinas Yankauskas – municipal deputy of the Zyuzino district in Moscow. He has now been recognized by the Memorial Human Rights Center as a political prisoner twice. He has been under house arrest for two months and was released on April 7, 2021, with a ban on performing specific actions along with Lyubov Sobol. 

Dmitriy Baranovskiy – municipal deputy of the Northern Izmailovo district in Moscow, was arrested on February 1, 2021, and has been under house arrest ever since.

Anastasiya Vasilyeva – an ophthalmologist, leader of the independent labor union “Alliance of Doctors,” has spent a month under house arrest and was released on April 7, 2021, but is still banned from leaving the house at night. 

Lyudmila (Lyusya) Shtein – municipal deputy of the Basmanny district in Moscow. She has been under house arrest for two months and was released on April 7, 2021, but along with other case defendants, she is also not allowed to perform specific actions. 

Oleg Stepanov – the former coordinator of Alexey Navalny’s Headquarters in Moscow, was arrested on January 29, 2021, and has been under house arrest ever since. 

Kira Yarmysh – Alexey Navalny’s press secretary, has been under strict house arrest since January 29, 2021. As mentioned above, on April 7, 2021, the court released a few case defendants from house arrest but refused to release Kira Yarmysh. 

Six reasons why the Memorial Human Rights Center considers 10 case defendants political prisoners 

1. The restrictive measures taken to combat the spread of the coronavirus are not sufficient grounds to unconditionally ban public events and grossly violate the right to freedom of assembly, enshrined in Art. 31 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation. 

2. Almost all restrictions on cultural and entertainment events in Moscow were lifted before the protests. 

3. The case defendants did not know and could not know if people who were on self-isolation would respond to their calls to protest on social media. 

4. The defendants’ actions do not constitute corpus delicti as they should not be held responsible for the irresponsible behavior of others. 

5. There is no conclusive evidence that public events, carried out with the necessary precautions in the open air, can seriously increase the spread of coronavirus infection compared to attending cultural and recreational events or using public transport. 

6. Prosecuting thousands of peaceful protesters based on the violation of sanitary and epidemiological restrictions is especially cynical given that the protesters were being transported in cramped police vans, held in police departments and special detention centers in conditions that are much more conducive to the further spread of the disease.