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Konstantin Lakeyev, a 20-year-old TikTok-blogger from Moscow, “Threw a Snowball at the Car and Kicked it Several Times.” His Punishment is Three Years in Jail

Feb 01 2022

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.

Case Background

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.

The Sentence

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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…”.
  4. 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.

1

12 Years in Prison for Running a Telegram Channel: The Case of 24-Year-Old Belarusian Yana Pinchuk

Jan 24 2022

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.

Case Background

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.

The Kremlin’s Vicious Attack on Jehovah’s Witnesses: The Arrest of Dmitriy Yarchak

Jan 20 2022

By Leah Silinsky, FRF Fellow

Introduction

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. 

Case Background

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.

Reactions

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.

20

When Bumping into a Police Officer is Considered ‘Assault’: The Case of Olga Bendas

Jan 06 2022

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

Case Background

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. 

Reactions

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

  1. 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. 
  2. 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.
  3. 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. 
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Russia’s Greatest National Security Threat: a 70-year-old Grandmother

Dec 24 2021

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.

Case Background

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

Reaction

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.

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