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The Kremlin’s Political Prisoners: The Case of Sergei Mokhnatkin

May 29 2020

On May 28, 2020, Russian civil and human rights activist Sergei Mokhnatkin died at the age of 66. Mokhnatkin died in a hospital suffering from complications from a spinal injury received in prison.

Sergei Mokhnatkin first came to prominence in 2009. He was arrested on December 31, 2009 during a protest organized by Strategy 31, an organization that arose in defense of the rapidly disappearing right of freedom of peaceful assembly, enshrined in Article 31 of Russia’s Constitution. He was charged under the Part 2 of Article 318 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (‘The use of violence threatening a life and health of a government official’) and sentenced to 2 years and 6 months in prison. Later, Mokhnatkin was recognized as a political prisoner by the Memorial Human Rights Center. He was pardoned by then-President Dmitry Medvedev in April 2012, one month before Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency.

Sergei Mokhnatkin was arrested again on December 31, 2013 at another Strategy 31 protest in Moscow. In December 2014, he was charged under the Part 1 of Article 318 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (‘The use of violence against a representative of power that is not dangerous to life and health’) and sentenced to 4.5 years in a strict-regime prison.

While in prison, Mokhnatkin held several hunger strikes protesting conditions he faced in the penitentiary, including what he said were regular beatings by prison guards. In March 2016 prison guards’ beating led to a spine injury which he suffered the rest of his life.

During Mokhnatkin’s term in prison, the third sentence was added over supposedly insulting a representative of the authorities (Article 319 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation) in June 2016. An additional two months and three days’ prison term was added to his sentence. Although this was reduced at appeal level to one month, the conditions of his imprisonment were made even harsher.

The fourth criminal prosecution was brought in March 2017 over the episode during which Mokhnatkin received his severe spine injury. The prison administration claimed that Mokhnatkin had shown resistance and had hit a guard, although Sergei claimed that he himself had been beaten. Mokhnatkin was sentenced to additional two years’ imprisonment on a charge of ‘disorganizing of the work of correctional institutions: the use of violence against prison staff that is not dangerous to life and health.’

Sergei Mokhnatkin was released on December 14, 2018. By the time of his release, Mokhnatkin, who actively participated in opposition and human rights activities, headed a branch of the human rights movement For Human Rights in the city of Tver. In 2012 Sergei Mokhnatkin became a laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group Prize “For Courage in Protecting Human Rights”.

The Memorial Human Right Center has repeatedly condemned disproportionate measures against Mokhnatkin, pointing out that he was methodically and brutally punished for insignificant acts of violence against government officials, including some that probably did not happen.

In the end of November 2019 Mokhnatkin was hospitalized due to a complication from a spinal injury that he received in 2016 in a correctional colony in the Arkhangelsk region. By that time, Sergei had already undergone a spinal surgery. In December 2019, he underwent another spinal surgery and his condition worsened. Sergei Mokhnatkin died in the hospital’s ICU due to complications after the surgery.

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