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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. 
9

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.

32

Five Years in Prison for A 21-Year-Old Student: The Case of Sayd-Muhammad Dzhumaev

Dec 17 2021

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.

Case Background

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

Reaction

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.

“Utterly Absurd”. Prison Sentence For Sharing Rammstein’s Video: The Case of Andrey Borovikov

Nov 11 2021

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.

Case Background

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.

Reaction

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.”

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