The Kremlin’s Political Prisoners: The Case of BARS
The Memorial Human Rights Centre has recognized four residents of Kaliningrad charged in the case of the Baltic Avant-garde of the Russian Resistance (BARS) as political prisoners. Originally, Aleksandr Orshulevich was charged under the Article 282.1, Section 1 of the Russian Criminal Code (‘Creation of an extremist group’), while Igor Ivanov, Aleksandr Mamaev, and Nikolai Sentsov have been charged under Section 2 of the same Article 282.1 (‘Participation in an extremist group’). The three defendants – Orshulevich, Ivanov, and Mamaev – have been in custody since May 27, 2017. Sentsov has been in custody since September 27, 2017.
On January 30, 2017, the Kaliningrad Oblast prosecutor’s office sent Alexander Orshulevich, a head of the Baltic Avant-garde of the Russian Resistance, an official warning about the inadmissibility of extremist activity, in which it proposed taking organizational and practical measures to prevent further violations of the Law on Counteraction of extremist activity in the next two months. After that, Orshulevich resigned as the head of the BARS and left the organization.
However, on May 27, 2017, the investigative department of the FSB in the Kaliningrad Region opened a criminal case under the Part 1 of Article 282.1 of the Criminal Code (‘Creation of an extremist community’ – up to 10 years in prison) against the local nationalist Alexander Orshulevich. He was accused of organizing activities of an extremist community, which the security service declared to be “BARS”. According to the investigation, as set out in the protocol opening the criminal case, “the purpose for creating extremist community, determined by A. Orshulevich, was a violent seizure of power in Kaliningrad region through series of extremist crimes, including a secession of Kaliningrad region from the Russian Federation and its independent existence as a member of the European Union.”
In addition to Orshulevich, Igor Ivanov, who was the chairman of BARS since February 18, 2017, and Alexander Mamaev (father Nikolai), a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church, were detained. They were charged under the Part 2 of Article 282.1 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (‘Participation in an extremist community’ – up to 6 years in prison).
On September 27, 2017, a resident of the city of Baltiysk, Kaliningrad Region, Nikoday Sentsov was detained. According to media, Sentsov was charged with participation in BARS and also alleged possession of military weapons.
On October 26, 2018, new information came out that the investigators re-qualified the charges to more serious crimes. Alexander Orshulevich is now charged under Part 1 of Article 205.4 (‘Organization of the terrorist community’, up to life imprisonment), Part 1 of Article 205.2 (‘Public calls for terrorist activities’, up to 5 years in prison), Part 1 of Article 280 (‘Public calls for extremist activities’, up to 3 years in prison), Part 3 of Article 222 (‘Illegal acquisition, transfer, sale, storage, transportation or carrying of firearms, their main parts, ammunition committed by an organized group’, up to 8 years in prison), Part 3 of Article 222.1 (‘Illegal acquisition, transfer, sale, storage, transportation or carrying of explosives or explosive devices committed by an organized group’, up to 12 years in prison) of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation. Igor Ivanov and Alexander Mamaev are charged with the same charges, with the exception of Part 1 of Article 205.4 – they are charged under Part 2 of Article 205.4 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (‘Participation in the activities of the terrorist community’, up to 10 years in prison), and Nikolai Sentsov is accused only under Part 2 of Article 205.4, Part 3 of Article 222, and Part 3 of Article 222.1 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation.
The criminal case was opened amid an ongoing anti-Ukrainian campaign in a state-owned media and in statements of high-ranking government officials since the spring of 2014. One of the components of this campaign is an initiation of criminal cases against citizens who publicly express a position on Ukraine different from official. Alleged members of the Kaliningrad nationalist monarchist organization BARS consistently held an anti-war position. In our view, the Russian authorities are especially intolerant of pro-Ukrainian sentiments among members of nationalist organizations. At the same time, the regional FSB and local authorities were irritated by oppositional nature of BARS, the organization’s cooperation with other opposition organizations, its participation in anti-Putin actions as well as demands for de-communization and renaming of the city of Kaliningrad to Königsberg.
In this criminal case, as in other similar cases, the accused are not charged with specific acts dangerous or harmful to a society, but with actions that have become crimes since they were carried out within a framework of a so-called “extremist association.” All participants and leaders of an association recognized as extremist, therefore, are collectively responsible for actions of all members of the community/organization, even if they themselves did not take any part in them.
The investigation of the case has been conducted with gross violations, and part of the evidence may have been falsified. According to relatives, in particular Orshulevich’s wife, Vanda, at the time of the searches and arrests law enforcement officers planted stencils with extremist slogans and cans of spray paint, and at the same time did not allow the accused to contact their lawyers. Orshulevich himself asserts that after his arrest a plastic bag was put over his head and he was tortured. The right to legal defense of the accused has been systematically violated.
So far as Aleksandr Mamaev (who, as a priest, is called Father Nikolai) is concerned, the defense asserts that he was not a member of BARS at all, despite the fact that he gave them spiritual guidance. As a monk and priest of the Russian Orthodox Church, he has been fiercely critical of the Russian Orthodox Church and Patriarch Kirill, something which, in the opinion of the Kaliningrad activists, could have been one of the reasons for his prosecution. Taking into account that the investigation has charged Mamaev with allegedly being the “spiritual leader of BARS,” it is possible to assert that he is being prosecuted in order to stop the lawful religious activity of a religious structure that represents an alternative to the Russian Orthodox Church. The investigation has not accused Mamaev and Ivanov of any illegal actions besides of taking part in BARS, which was a legal political organization, and allegedly preparing to draw extremist slogans on asphalt.
The Memorial Human Rights Center has studied the materials of the criminal case and has been convinced of the complete absurdity of the new qualification. The previous unsubstantiated accusations of organizing an extremist community were rewritten so that the investigation would have the opportunity to declare accused of terrorism.
The so-called “terrorist community” is charged with three episodes with allegedly prepared stencils, vandalism and five images posted on the VKontakte social network, as well as new charges that would perplex any person familiar with the concept of “terrorism”.
Note that the investigation did not discover any facts that the defendants planned to commit any real terrorist acts or use the above “arsenal” for committing violent crimes. According to the FSB, all this was necessary for training purposes. In other words, in this case, we see a continuation of a trend previously repeatedly reported by human rights defenders in 2014 and which intensified in 2017, when government critics s were regularly accused of creating terrorist and extremist associations without any serious proof. The fabrication of the case of another “terrorist community”, whose members are not accused of committing or preparing a single terrorist act, “but” accused of sticking leaflets and preparing extremist inscriptions on asphalt in our point of view is gross violence against the law and a sign of returning to repressive practices characterized the era of Stalin’s repressions.
The Memorial Human Rights Center, according to the International Guidelines for the Definition of a “Political Prisoner,” finds that this criminal case is politically motivated, aimed at retaining power by subjects of power and involuntarily terminating or changing the nature of the public activities of critics of power. The deprivation of liberty was applied solely in connection with the non-violent implementation of peaceful assemblies and associations, thought, conscience, and religion in the absence of corpus delicti, in violation of the right to a fair trial, other rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution of Russia, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Deprivation of liberty is clearly disproportionate (inadequate) to the actual actions of which they are charged.